The Australia Council: A CEO’s Reflections

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Speeches and Opinions
Nov 12, 2007
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CEO Jennifer Bott addresses the Pacific Edge Regional Arts Australia National Conference in Mackay, Queensland on 15 September 2006.

The Hon Tim Mulherin MP, Queensland Minister for Primary Industries and Fisheries; James Strong; Meg Larkin; Councillor Julie Boyd, colleagues and delegates – good morning.

To begin, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where we are – the Yuiberra people – and I pay respect to their elders. I’d also like to welcome delegates to a highlight of the Australian arts calendar – the RAA national conference – and also to say how pleased I am that the Council last night announced its renewed commitment to supporting regional arts through an enhanced partnership with Regional Arts Australia.

As it happens, this is my last public speech as CEO of the Australia Council. There’s a powerful symmetry for me in this, since I began my career in the arts in 1977 – at the age of five – as the Federal Administrator of Regional Arts Australia, then called the Arts Council of Australia. Next week I leave the organisation which I’ve led since 1999, so today I’d like to reflect on what’s characterised this vibrant period in the arts, and what might lie ahead.

Of course the Australia Council has had its ups and downs, and quite properly comes under regular public, political and media scrutiny. That’s a healthy thing, not only in terms of keeping us on our toes – but also because it shows there’s continuing interest in what we do. To paraphrase The Godfather, I’m still not sure if it’s better to be loved or to be respected, but either is preferable to being ignored!

Which leads to the obvious end-of-term question – is the Australia Council spending its $162 million-a-year budget to the best advantage? Despite criticisms, despite our own frustrations at not always getting it right, I think we can say that taxpayers’ money spent on the Australia Council, the money in turn spent by the Council, is worth it. I make no apologies for being an avid, card-carrying supporter of public funding for the arts, which I regard as the mark of any civilised society. And I reject the term ‘subsidised arts’ – we don’t talk about ‘subsidised military defence’. It’s really ‘investment’ – and our ‘investment in the arts’ is starting to pay off handsomely. Australia’s global standing in the arts is high, way beyond our size. Investment in Australian works has helped shape the view we now have of ourselves, and that the world has of us.

I’ve been immensely fortunate to lead the Australia Council in a period when a robust but respectful sharing of many and diverse perspectives has played out. We learned not to fear big ideas – not just about ‘the arts’, but also about Australia as it heads into the 21st century, about the world we inhabit and how could use cultural imagination as a catalyst to improve our society. We certainly found that, in 2006, sitting on the margins is not an option.

To position the arts at the heart of society is a bold enterprise, not for the faint-hearted. It requires us to leave the comfort zone of what we know, of where we’ve been, and create a new dialogue with others. It acknowledges the importance of the public value of the arts, and the importance of streaming the arts through a whole-of-government strategy into all sectors and all walks of Australian life. Over the past year especially we’ve developed a Creative Communities Strategy to enable us to do this – owned and valued at every level of the Council.

This is a defining stamp of the era, that we want to connect with others who, at first glance, may not be thought of initially as obvious partners: education with crime, arts with health and regional development, youth affairs, Indigenous affairs, aged care and so on. And the push towards whole-of-government policies has been crucial in this, positioning the arts as integral to the fabric of society, being as much about social engagement as creative achievement, and linking the arts to reconciliation, social cohesion and economic prosperity.

To that end, we’ve streamlined and focused the Council’s internal operations and, in what some saw as a controversial move, reorganised the Australia Council to meet the needs and challenges of the new century. We moved away from its 40-year-old role as primarily a funding mechanism – or as one colleague put it, an ‘arts ATM with a complicated PIN’ – and aggressively became a catalyst for change and for innovation, for creative adventures at the personal, social and economic levels.

That’s not meant to be a criticism of what went before. But societies evolve, and the organisations that serve them must evolve too: we’ve all seen how our cultural growth as a nation has been underlined by the rise in diversity that has become the contemporary trademark of this country, both in our own eyes and in the eyes of the world. Australia’s contemporary arts are as unique and diverse as the society and continent they come from. They reflect an ancient landscape that is home to both the world’s oldest continuous cultural traditions and also to a rich mix of our migrant cultures over the last 200 years. Just as the stifling conformity of the post-war years gave us ‘safe art’ – so diversity is now the powerplant of bold ideas in our creative life.

It’s a clich� to ‘think globally, act locally’, but over the past seven years, the Australian arts have been increasingly doing that – in a period when global concerns seemed to be swamping us all. This was indeed a strange time to be running a major arts organisation, since the prevailing winds were increasingly about security, containment and national protection – in some ways the opposite of what the arts are about, with their emphasis on fresh and risky ideas, open borders and lack of restrictions.

Many pressures are driving change, reshaping our world, and forcing a major rethink of what it means to be human – so these are complex times. Yet when we’re talking about culture, they’re certainly not dark times – it’s hard to think of another era when so many people had so much access to so much culture, on a planet brimming with new ideas, concepts and technologies so adventurous that we can barely get our heads around them.

So what might the role of the arts be in future? What are the forces that will reshape our notions of creativity, of expression and entertainment, of who we are? Globalism is big and growing, but so too is a sense of our identity: we’re becoming both less Australian, and more Australian, and our culture reflects this apparent contradiction.

Where do we resolve these issues? With due respect to the national context, the reality is that most Australians connect primarily at the local level, but with new definitions of what community means. We’re all Australians – but reality tells us that first and foremost we’re part of that Australia we experience on a regular basis. The Council’s Creative Communities Strategy is built on that reality: if the arts are to impact on all Australians, it needs to enter communities of interest – and draw government, media and corporate support. For that to happen, we need to put culture not at the end of the value chain, tacked on ‘if and when’ funds are available, but right at the start – and the heart – of community building and engagement, where it belongs.

If anything, regional arts feels this more than urban arts, for beyond our major cities there’s a battle going on between local pride and some fairly harsh economic realities, be they drought, or the drift of young people to the cities, or structural economic changes that spell the end of one era and uncertainty about the next. These impacts are felt, doubly felt, in Australia’s regional Indigenous communities, where we see social upheaval – and in some cases, disintegration – on the one hand, and the enormous surge of interest nationally and internationally in Indigenous art forms on the other. To work our way through the contradictions, to come up with answers, nothing is more valuable than creative collaborations, where diversity, adaptability, an outward-looking mentality, risk-taking and teaming-up can promote dialogue on the very tough questions – and offer creative solutions.

All this was driven home to me on two occasions during my tenure as Council CEO – both events took place far from these shores, yet were quintessentially Australian. In 2001, just three weeks after September 11, we sent over 110 Australian artists to the USA for the month-long New Wave festival. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the festival opened with Cloudstreet, the play based on Tim Winton’s novel in which two large and ill-matched families, the Lambs and the Pickles, find themselves sharing a house in Perth – as far from New York as it’s possible to get. As one leading US newspaper put it, a play about ‘human mutts shoved together in a harsh, haunted place, slowly figuring out how to coexist and even thrive’. What was most remarkable was how closely this corresponded with the very experience that New Yorkers were then going through. In the audience that night you could feel how powerfully they were relating to, and drawing strength from, this distinctly Australian play. Big world, global world, small world…

More recently, in June this year, I was privileged to be in Paris for the opening of the largest-ever international commission of Australian Indigenous art, with the work of eight artists built into the spectacular new Mus�e du quai Branly – again, far removed from Australia where these works were conceived, yet again too, the sense that this was also where our Australian art belonged, powerfully, in one of the world’s great art capitals. The hundreds of us who witnessed the Indigenous smoking ceremony directed by today’s keynote speaker Rhoda Roberts were moved, many to tears, by the intimacy, the generosity of the ceremony and by the realisation that culture transcends social and political barriers – that it can, as President Chirac said on that day, ‘promote the importance of breaking down barriers, of openness and mutual understanding against the clash of identities and the mentality of closure and segregation.’

The future, like the past, is a story. A story waiting to happen, but its roots are here and now. We are part of that story. The arts are not about living in a rarefied comfort zone, but about coming to terms with issues and events that confront and challenge us, and about stimulating the debate with imagination and courage, showing how, as Australians, we might live in future.

To conclude, let me offer my best wishes for a wonderful conference – full of new thoughts, good conversations and special experiences – and leave you with what I think is perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned during these seven years at the Council. Simply this: that the most important decisions we make in the arts are about people – not money. Nurturing and investing in people, offering them the freedom to develop and explore challenging ideas, empowering and inspiring our artists and audiences. People are our ultimate resource. For me it’s the people in the Australian arts sector – all of you – that have made it such a wonderful, richly rewarding, life-changing time.

Thank you so much.