Fiona Winning, The Performance Space

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Speeches and Opinions
Oct 31, 2007
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I’m going to link the broad areas of arts policy development and the Australia Council’s role in administering arts funding in a somewhat free ranging and associative presentation.

I speak as an artsworker who’s been an artist, an artistic director of theatre and writing organisations and a director of a centre for interdisciplinary practice – all as part of the small to medium performing arts sector. (I’m thrilled, to take this opportunity to personally thank the Council and staff for their recent breakthrough in the last budget for the increase to the small to medium performing arts companies.)

In my current job at Performance Space, I work with about 10 peer research and development, producing and presenting organizations nationally and internationally, 15 artist-run companies and spaces generating new work and 300 independent artists working project to project in various clusters, ensembles or casual collaborations creating new work. I think if all of these organisations and their affiliated artists and workers were to stand in the same room and examine our work collectively, we would see an enormous output of new work, innovation, new ways of seeing and doing. We would see a diverse array of artists, technicians, producers, project managers, volunteer board members and other volunteers driven by passion, belief, vision and skill (albeit in varying percentages). We would see an adventurous, ambitious mob consistently pushing for the new. A group that is savvy… and completely overstretched.

Always pushing for more and better results… more innovation, more great works, more integrated technologies, more critical debate, more audiences… and in recent years we’ve added… more private money, more strategic partners, better business plans, more deeper better everything.

Now I’m absolutely not arguing that the arts sector shouldn’t be as strategic about audience and business development as it is about the creation of good art. But often – with the extra compliance now expected from small businesses, coupled with our own ambition, and perhaps an inherent lack of confidence or capacity to communicate loudly and proudly what we do well and how well we do it…. It often feels like we are in the business of busy-ness.

And to some extent, this is what I see at the Australia Council as well – who, like the sector, have accumulated a set of policies, functions, initiatives and expectations that may need to be let go of as new priorities come into play.

The business of busy-ness is exciting for a while, but in the long term it stunts our capacity for fresh thinking, for reflection, for imagining and for having calm and respectful debate. Which I believe, sits at the heart of a healthy arts sector.

If we acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between artists, artsworkers, the companies they collaborate with and the Australia Council, we recognise our health and well being as mutually dependent. Then by extension, we must agree to engage in an ongoing, open and robust set of relationships.

We also share a real sense of responsibility to be simultaneously pro-active and responsive. To be leading whilst listening. I’m sure we all agree that this is where good policy comes from. And whether we’re in the field or at the Australia Council, we all need to be simultaneously leading and listening. This is a shared responsibility.

Because arts policy is not developed in a straight line (cause and effect) even when it appears to be. The Australia Council (staff, committees and Council) has a huge responsibility and obligation to develop policy because of its national overview and its interface with both the arts sector(s) and government(s). It’s well placed to lead because it/its staff and peers have extraordinary access to information, opportunity to observe, join up the dots, and analyse to make sense of the information and to make intelligent and timely interventions.

But how do those interventions get imagined, prioritized and made into policy. We assume as a result of someone looking, listening, consulting, analysing, spotting trends and identifying needs and issues. Often, understandably, that’s a quiet and private process, with at most a focus group to throw around some ideas with a few external stakeholders. But this leaves a chasm between the policy makers and the sector.

A great example of positive policy development that’s emerging from that important mix of the pro-active and the responsive, the leading and the listening, is I think, the current Theatre Board Make It New process. And in particular the externalising of its staged process of publishing the thinking, inviting response and debate online and in person. Then publishing some more thinking and inviting more response.

This process inherently exposes that policy development is an iterative process. It’s smart because at the very least it reveals the thinking behind the proposal, invites debate and importantly prepares the field for change. If we in the field choose not to participate, or not to think through how the changes will affect us and ours, that is our choice and we have to take responsibility for that.

Make It New also raises some issues of devolution (presenter grants). I have to declare I’m a great believer in peer assessment and have enjoyed and learned a lot from participating in that process at different times over the years. But it’s also true that not everything needs that formal a process. Its fair AND its slow AND expensive. And to the applicants it can appear distant and bloodless. There are nimbler ways to distribute some of the resources. Mobile States, Touring Contemporary Performance Australia has been a really good example of that. Devolving funds to a consortium that in turn have to make it work. And have real incentive to on every level.

I’d also argue that with some programs for devolved money, it’s healthy to place the decision-makers and recipients face to face. It makes both parties state their position and live with it in closer proximity. And I think we need more of that.

In this discussion of devolution, it’s also important to note that the sector has evolved incredibly over the last five to eight years. An example is the national proliferation of new Contemporary Arts and Performance Centres established in Cairns, Brisbane, Campbelltown, Blacktown, Redfern, North Melbourne to name a few. And there’ve been increased resources committed to the ‘new’ by large Festivals, Festival Centres and Performing Arts Centres around the country.  Again Make It New grasps these changes, articulates them, and proposes how they might play a role in the way funds are distributed. It simultaneously builds knowledge and tests the idea with the people who are affected by the policy. Often the very people who do not have the benefit of national overview. In other words it simultaneously offers the ideas, the context from which they emerge and the information with which to interpret them.

This kind of policy development is healthy. The outcome is scary, not everyone will be happy. But no-one can say they didn’t see it coming or that they didn’t have the chance to point out the gaps in thinking or the inherent risk associated with its implementation.

And now we all, in the field and at the Australia Council, have to rise above the business of busy-ness to make sure we engage in these processes and give each other permission to change. To leave behind some of the accumulateds so that we might look to the fresh opportunities.