Jennifer Bott Speaks At The World Summit On Arts And Culture, Newcastle, Uk

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Speeches and Opinions
Nov 12, 2007
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Australia Council CEO Jennifer Bott addresses the World Summit on Arts and Culture held in Newcastle, UK on the role of government agencies in regeneration, 15 July 2006.

You may have read that recently Australian writer Geraldine Brooks landed America’s highest literary accolade, the Pulitzer Prize, for her novel March – and that, here in the UK, Australian actor Cate Blanchett is reprising her film role as Queen Elizabeth the First, while also – in a massive role reversal – preparing to play Bob Dylan in another film…

As fascinating and important to Australia’s image as the high achievers are, they constitute just a small part of our arts landscape. Creativity at the community level is crucial to the arts in Australia, and there’s no doubt it impacts more strongly on many more lives.

One of our most distinguished writers, Frank Moorhouse, noted that: “The public life or civic life is where we go about working out how we should live together as neighbours, as citizens, as members of the global community – it is where the great dramas of our shared existence are played out.” It’s also where the arts can have their greatest impact. It’s where the arts can reflect, celebrate, communicate and give meaning.  New voices can be heard… important stories told.

Thinking of Australia in terms of ‘community’, you probably have in your head a particular landscape – a country town with gum trees, or perhaps Sydney’s beaches. These, in fact, do exist – not just in our tourist brochures, but as the backdrop to many lives. Yet most Australians, about 80 per cent, contrary to popular myth, live in a far more urban, globalised world.

You might also think of Australia as a stable and successful nation; its economy is strong, unemployment is low, our political system healthy, our press free. Yet there are problems; anxieties continue to frame many issues. Our population ages, our families get smaller, people are living increasingly isolated lives, our working hours grow each year, our cities become more crowded and polluted, our continent is drier with every passing year. Anxiety rules many lives, and blurs the future as we navigate precariously between the global and the local, between embracing the world and retreating from it.

Our great middle class society is increasingly a society with a widening gap between rich and poor and a shrinking middle class. Australia is a wealthy nation with disadvantaged groups and areas, but as we also know, wealth and anxiety often exist in the same room.

What is the role of government agencies in turning around problems and anxieties? Rejuvenation usually brings to mind physical surroundings – the need to breathe life into rundown centres; or new social structures – how to generate new hope for youth through training and work opportunities; and even filling time – giving people with nothing to do something to do, to bring them out of their homes, away from the television – or alternatively, to keep them off the streets, away from trouble.

Most schemes like this in disadvantaged areas will initially produce results, and in some cases, sustainable results – but just as often, after an initial flurry of interest and enthusiasm, and a visit or two from a local politician with a TV crew trailing behind, many schemes lapse into disrepair or disillusionment.

We like to flaunt our success stories; less so our failures.

The whole world knows what happened to the Spanish port of Bilbao, which went from having a recession-plagued economy to the job-creating dynamics that resulted from the construction of Frank Gehry’s visionary Guggenheim Museum. But stories like that can overshadow many harsher realities. We know equally – often from bitter experience – that some problems don’t respond to the usual treatment: be it visionary architecture, injection of professional expertise, carefully targeted application of public funds, or infrastructure programs to attract people or jobs.

Arts agencies do see a role for themselves in the rejuvenation process. With good reason. The impact of the arts can be far-reaching – where governments tend to focus on infrastructure issues, the arts are more concerned about how people in communities connect – or, in some cases – why they fail to connect. We aim to do something about that, by promoting social cohesion and reconciliation; as a window onto deep-seated problems and how communities can start to resolve them; in boosting economies; and especially, and critically, in helping sustain local and regional identity.

For us, the key words here are ‘local’ and ‘regional’.

In many ways, Australia suffers from its size. We have only 20 million people in a land mass as big as the continental United States. It’s as if you took the population, a little less than California’s, and spread it across an empty America. On a relatively small tax base, that creates major headaches in terms of providing services. Many local and regional communities in Australia are suffering, while watching their traditional economies shrink as the young drift to the cities and cheaper imports eat away at local production.

As a result, much of what we at the Australia Council do is focused on the local and regional – we’ve found that the more local the experience, the more likely people will get involved and authentic local stories appeal nationally and globally. We also know from research and experience, people want to participate not just consume. Yet much of our arts industry is designed for small numbers of creations and a large number of consumers.

Australia’s size poses another problem. Because we have an abundance of space, our major cities tend to spread sideways rather than up; and at the distant fringes of these cities, where outer suburbs meet the bush, are many groups which are not only disadvantaged, but disconnected. Immigrants, refugees, those who can’t afford to live close-in to the major cities and those who can’t survive economically in the bush – not only are these ‘fringe dwellers’ short of money, training and resources, but in many cases they also lack a strong identity. In a cultural sense, many are dispossessed. And it’s at this local level that the arts can have substantial impact. As an aside, the communities I’ve just described are often marginal seats with great leverage for the arts with politicians.

For the past decade, the Australia Council has worked closely with the Australian Local Government Association, promoting community arts and cultural development as a core function of local government. That dialogue is critical in determining the issues we are dealing with, in getting the disenfranchised involved, animating democracy, helping to create new identities from people and cultures who have come in from elsewhere – often from the other side of the planet. That dialogue is critical. What’s making the people in communities do the things they do? What motivates them to stay, or leave? How can we draw more people to these communities? What do we want to preserve and what are we prepared to give up? What needs saving and what needs changing? Equipped with some answers to these critical issues, we can pose the question: ‘Where do the arts fit into this landscape?’

Often – and increasingly – an automatic assumption is that insertion of the arts into any situation will generate creative talent for the so-called New Economies, which have little to do with raw materials and physical labour – the key components of Old Economies – and more to do with people and ideas, with continuous change and continuous innovation. Not that New Economies are a myth – we see evidence everywhere that they are strikingly real, and are transforming whole nations, often for the better, sometimes less so. The danger from our perspective as arts agencies is that this will become the principal focus of our activity: fuelling the worldwide demand for creative talent that will, ipso facto, rejuvenate whole economies and nations. While a worthy ambition in itself, I would argue it is not the principal reason for our existence.

In 2005, the Australia Council reshaped itself to enable it to respond better to the challenges of the early 21st century, and to engage more fully in partnerships with non-arts, and often non-government, sectors. We needed sharper focus, more flexibility and greater impact.

Our focus is: distinctive, excellent Australian art; healthy arts organisations; and Australians and their communities engaged with the arts. We also created Strategic Initiative pools to fund great ideas – let’s have a vision not only on the basis of new money from government! And we’re focusing on philanthropy, corporate social responsibility and whole of government strategies.

The practice of community arts has, in Australia, a long and illustrious history, and has given voice and strong sense of identity and community to many. In 2005 we decided to disband the Community Cultural Development Board and to absorb its activities into a new Community Partnerships Section.

This was a highly controversial decision. Why did we do it? We wanted to move to the front foot – 1. To invest more in models we know work. 2. Tackle the big issues – mental health, boys at risk in rural Australia; social cohesion – and 3. To make a difference. While grants programs will of course continue, we can do more by proactively investing.

Our Art and Wellbeing project tackles seven areas where the Council can have a significant impact. These are: health, public housing and place, ecologically sustainable development, rural revitalisation, community strengthening, active citizenship, and – critically – social inclusion and cultural diversity. One side effect is access to new resources such as philanthropy and CSR – corporate social responsibility. This is about dollar resources and people resources. It is about transforming the transaction. Both sides give and both partners receive. Local communities are especially well placed to take advantage of this, and part of the Australia Council’s role is to create bridges across what were once barriers, to bring these forces together.

Secondly, the Australia Council has just announced funding for a three-year, arts-led initiative called Generations, to improve community wellbeing in five local government areas around the country. It’s an initiative of the Victorian Cultural Development Network, which promotes sustainable community and civic engagement through the arts and cultural activities.

To give you a taste of what Generations is about – in outback Queensland, where there are complex Indigenous issues, arts and cultural activities will be used to bring together landholders and non-landholders from local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities – to address pressing social and economic issues. Another program, Refill, is a mentoring project targeting at-risk and disadvantaged youth in an outer Sydney suburb that will guide participants toward careers in the music industry and create other work/life opportunities. In the rural Victorian city of Wangaratta, a series of performance artworks will challenge the perception that the city’s ageing population impacts negatively on the community’s profile and, as a result, on its social and economic growth.

All this begs a critical question. How far should ‘the arts’, as driven by a government agency like ours, move into the realm of social welfare? A study by America’s Rand Institute in 2004 – exploring the arts’ role in social transformation – found ‘many of the people who authorize public spending on the arts – and often private funding as well – will only respond if the arguments are cast in terms of the broad social problems that sit at the top of their agendas.’ In other words, if you’re after funding, don’t wax on about personal agendas, art for art’s sake, or the intrinsic benefits of the arts. Just focus on society with a capital ‘S’.

This, I think, represents a real challenge to all of us as arts administrators, particularly those of us handling taxpayers’ funds. The danger that arts administrators become social workers, or pseudo-economists, or are at least cast in that role. At our IFACCA CEO meeting, I have spoken about some of the complications that whole-of-government strategies can produce around the arts funding model. Here I would say simply that we must always be aware not only of our strengths – what the arts can bring to disadvantaged communities – but also of our limitations. Talk of an ‘arts-led economic recovery’ in societies suffering high-level unemployment and major infrastructure issues can sound na�ve; worse, it raises expectations that can’t be fulfilled, which in turn can damage irrevocably the image of the arts in society. Where the arts works best, in my experience, is less in helping to build job opportunities than in creating stronger personal and community-building skills, relationships, identity and a sense of potency. As Lord Puttnam quoted yesterday, ‘We just stopped feeling sorry for ourselves.’

We should never forget also the arts are about enjoyment, connecting and fun, about extending our lives beyond the purely practical. The value of that can’t be overstated in hard-pressed communities where economic pressures and isolation can wear people down. Art can bring people together in joyful and stimulating ways. A terrific example in Australia is the Queensland Biennial Festival of Music, which has an extraordinary community reach. In a dry river bed in Mount Isa, a major mining centre, the Festival staged an outdoor musical called Bobcat Dancing. Bobcats, those tiny tractors with scoops on the front, play a major role in underground mining, and when they were choreographed to perform modern dance, supported by a live band playing country, pop, rock and gospel music, the entire community could relate to it. 18,000 people come from all round the region to see it. Such an event has less to do with economic revival than with collective joy and a rejuvenation of local identity.

We know from such examples that the arts can help bring communities back to life. And they can impact positively on public welfare. But we shouldn’t forget that the real strength of the arts is their ability to inspire and transform us as individuals. Only when that happens, and happens to enough people in one place at one time, can the arts have a positive spillover effect on the wider society. That’s when the arts can become a catalyst of change, for people and communities.

Finally, our Creative Communities Strategy is now owned by the Australia Council at the highest level – by the governance and leadership of the Council. It is not about audience or market development, as valuable as those things are – it is not about a newly designed grants program. It is not about brownie points from government – it is a commitment from the Australia Council for the Arts of intellectual, human, time and dollar resources to building and nurturing creative communities in Australia as a priority with the same commitment to excellence and rigour as we bring to our other central goals.

Thank you.