The Next Generation Of Artistic Leaders And Audiences

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Speeches and Opinions
Dec 07, 2007
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Ben Strout, the Australia Council’s executive director, arts development, addresses the Canadian public arts funders’ forum.

In Australia we would begin a meeting like by this acknowledging the traditional owners of the land where we meet.  I do that now.

I also thank you for the invitation to speak to your forum today:  it’s a great privilege.

It was clear to me from the background reading that the issues raised in your consultations, by the artists and by the government agencies, are extraordinarily similar to the ones we face, half way round the world in another culture.  It also seems there is a great deal already happening throughout your jurisdictions to support what we call “young and emerging” artists – an impressive amount really.

Your forums and consultations with young artists spotlighted several issues that were surely not a surprise:  more funding, more involvement in setting the directions of the process and making decisions, easier access to support.

Even if some of those ideas are a bit ‘predictable’, to keep our cultures and societies vibrant we do need to let the arts adapt and move on.  We need to keep the ‘underlying forces’ of young and emerging artists at a simmer at least; continually ready to boil over and replace the very things we’ve invested in so much over the previous years.  That regeneration may happen only in bits and pieces, or once every three years, but having our systems allow the ongoing potential for regeneration is essential.  And very difficult for us all to manage.

What I want to provide you through this talk — plus a few visual presentations and (I hope) some time for questions and answers – is an understanding of where we have found success in our engagement with emerging artists.  But also some things that we’ve learned, some areas of concern that could be of interest to you.

This is how I understand the three lines of activity identified in your “Next Generation of Artistic Leaders and Audiences” research.  Put into our words, they are:

what we refer to as young and emerging artists (though for us, not all emerging artists are young);

emerging organisations which are comprised mostly of emerging artists…(though we don’t use that term in that way); and

young audiences.

All of these focusing on the target age range of 18-30 years old.

What’s not included in that list, something that the Australia Council handles fairly successfully, is what we call youth participation – where professional artists (often quite young themselves) work with non-professionally oriented young people.  It’s really a form of community practice rather than training, encouraging young people’s artistic creativity even if they never really intend to be professional artists.  Fundamentally it’s about artists working with young people to encourage social development through the arts, to develop creativity and to raise widespread interest in the arts.

I’m not opening up an “excellence versus access” debate here.  Youth participation can also lead to innovative new forms of artistic practice.

I’ll spend a bit more time looking at that practice towards the end of this presentation.

Background

We have a long history of supporting professional arts for young audiences, as well as youth participation (such as youth theatre workshops, youth orchestras, youth circus like the well known Flying Fruit Fly Circus, etc) — but through the 1980s and early 1990s only a few of the artform areas included funding categories for emerging artists.

To draw together the various streams of funding activity involving young people, we established a special Youth Arts Committee of young peers in 2001, and (among other things) they helped develop our Young People and the Arts (YPATA) policy of 2003, with eight policy objectives:

In essence, the policy codified what had been going on for some years.  It pools together arts by professionals for young people, arts by young professionals, arts by young non-professionals and arts in education.  The latter – policy objective number 8 – I won’t cover in this talk today, but I am happy to pick it up separately or in questions and answers.  (In fact, there was just this week in Australia a joint announcement by the Commonwealth and State/Territory Ministers for Education and Ministers for the Arts, recognising the role creativity and innovation play in learning and jointly pledging to build creativity in the schools.)

We published our Young People and the Arts policy in an accessible format and it was well received.

Other than a small budget to help young peers participate in assessment meetings, however, there were no new funding budgets because of the policy, it didn’t require any area to do much different than they were already doing and (in my view) having eight objectives, with multiple strategies under each, makes it a complex policy to come to grips with.

Nevertheless, it is a formal and published policy.  It clarifies that there is an organisational focus on young people, encouraging all parts of the organisation to develop new initiatives.  We shouldn’t underestimate the value, publicly and internally, of having a formal, published policy.

Also, a few internal practices were formalised through the policy:

Each artform Board (by which we mean our groups of peer assessors) and other funding areas of Council now participates in the Youth Arts Group (YAG), a staff group that meets regularly to advance the objectives of the YPATA Policy and report on matters pertaining to the policy.  The YAG also affords the staff opportunities to forge cross-artform funding programs, initiatives and events;

For a while there were additional peer assessors brought into each artform Board meeting.  We also subsequently had an interesting discussion about whether or not young people should be on our Council itself, our board of governance, as a matter of course.  Interestingly, the most recent resolution was “not in a formal representative way” – meaning, it really should be about the appropriate skills of the individual, not a reserved representative position.

We started collecting statistical reports of supported activities benefiting young people, delivering the statistics and the Youth Arts Group’s comments to the whole Executive team several times a year.

The most recent reporting found that we spend about $7m in specific grants that meet the YPATA policy, plus $1.25m in special Young and Emerging Artists Government funding.  A lot of this $7m calculation includes arts for very young people – the component just dealing with emerging artists would be less – around $3-4m per year.

This total doesn’t include any of the over $80 million we give under special government instructions to 29 Major Performing Arts companies.  They are evaluated mainly on their business plans as arts companies rather than their artistic programming.  It’s a special deal and they are treated differently:  we don’t code and record their work in the same way and we can’t really change the funding commitment to those companies.

Still, many of the MPA companies provide work or training for emerging artists as a part of their regular programs.  Here are a few examples, just for a quick overview.  These are things they willingly build into their business plans as a part of how they fulfil their role.  This doesn’t include the education programs for young audiences, etc, that most of the Major companies pursue.

My focus today, though, will be on the artform initiatives working in other areas of the Australia Council outside the Major Performing Arts companies.

(Young and) emerging artists initiative

Our focus on funding emerging artists began with a special budget brought in by the newly elected government in 1996.  It was a three-year program that has been renewed four times now (we hope at least one more coming next year).  It was a surprise when we got the funding as we hadn’t put it forward as a new policy proposal, but it’s been a terrific program that has provided over $14 m to emerging artists since it began.

Government statements outlined two objectives for the Emerging Artists’ Initiative – career development and public exposure of artists’ work.  We had to use the funds through special initiatives, not lump them into existing grant category budgets.  We defined “emerging artists” as those in the first five years of professional practice.  For us emerging artists could be of any age:  some artists in some artforms “emerged” into their area of practice late in life – for example, when an experienced dancer moves to become a choreographer… that is still “emerging” into a new arts practice,

Government changed the program title to Young and Emerging Artists in 2001 to focus the program more.  So we do now focus more on the artists being both emerging and young, but still not exclusively.  Oddly, we have no single definition of ‘young’ in relation to the program  – sometimes its under the age of 26, sometimes its under the age of 30, depending on the structure and needs of the particular artform.

The special government funding for young and emerging artists has allowed our arts funding Boards and divisions to design specific programs of support, spawning a plethora of new programs with hip new titles:  Buzz, Get Connected, Start Me Up, Flying Start, Take Your Partner, Foot in the Door, noise, Write in Your Face, RUN WAY, SPARK and others.

I’d like to give details on a just few of these:

SPARK

SPARK is a national mentoring program open to young and emerging artists aged 18 to 26 from all over Australia.  It provides young artists with the opportunity to develop their experience in the industry within a professional mentoring relationship, partnering with an established artist of their choice.

The inaugural SPARK program in 2003 was funded solely by the Theatre Board.  It provided 10 mentorships to young and emerging theatre practitioners.  Since then, SPARK has received contributions from a number of other Australia Council Boards, with mentorships provided in two-dozen different types of artistic practice.

We don’t get involved in the detail of each mentorship:  Youth Arts Queensland won the tender to deliver the program for us and they devise it, direct it and manage it.

The components of the SPARK program are quite logical and thorough.  Of particular interest is that several of the steps are timed to coincide with festivals or other events, to give young artists opportunities to see others’ work and to meet other artists.

The Professional Development component looks at the business or ‘survival’ aspects of being an artist, covering areas such as taxation; insurance and legal issues; media, publicity and ‘branding’; how to pitch works to venues and festivals, etc.

There is allowance for up to $4,000 of the budget to be available for the initiation of a new project or the development of an existing project.

And participants in SPARK are profiled online via the Youth Arts Qld website; through various articles, editorials and interviews with national and state-based newspapers, radio stations, magazines; profiling cards, publication of DVD/show reel, flights to festivals, forums, conferences to discuss / exhibit work and other marketing materials.

From the 25 mentorships supported over 2005 and 2006, 10 exhibitions were held and 18 new works were created, 13 of which went on to have a successful showing or production season elsewhere. 4 participants are now employed full-time in their chosen field of work and 8 of the 25 have been successful applicants to the Australia Council grant programs, as well as other funding bodies.

Microgrant: Write in your face and Buzz

With advice from the Youth Arts Committee in 2001, the Australia Council made a push to offer small, quick response “microgrants” in each artform.

The Literature Board initiative Write in Your Face supports writers under the age of 30 who are using language in innovative ways – writing for ‘zines, comics, multimedia, cross-media, website publishing, spoken text, etc.  The Board’s commitment to the program has recently doubled ($90,000), representing 2% of their total budget..

The objectives include:

To encourage applicants to create their own artistic development program;

To encourage young writers to contribute to, and experiment with, a diversity of artistic form and content;

To demonstrate the Board’s responsiveness to the expressed needs of young writers.

A key aspect of the program is that all proposals (and there are only some 40 or so a year) must have “a literary focus”.  I think that focus has helped dissuade some people from applying and has kept the application numbers manageable.

On the other hand, the Music Board’s initiative, Buzz, which provides very small amounts of money to emerging musicians, up to the age of 26, has been almost “too popular”.

Support is provided for young musicians, sound artists and arts workers across all styles of music: contemporary rock/pop, jazz, classical, world music and music theatre.  Examples of successful past projects include:

� Xavier Rudd: A multi-instrumentalist and a fixture at roots music festivals in Australia, Canada and the US, Rudd has now released 7 albums and will be opening for the Dave Matthews Band on their Summer 2007 tour.  Received $2,500 in 2002 to record a full-length CD titled “Nine times a day”.

� Macromantics: A Melbourne-based hip hop artist. She has supported a range of well known artists and has played acclaimed festivals such as Ladyfest San Francisco.  Received $2,500 in 2005 towards the production of a CD.

There have been about 250 Buzz grants in the past six years and some 1,000 applications.  But the small grant size, the ease of application process and the ‘inclusive approach’ of the Music Board created some difficulties that I’d like to talk more about later.

Publications

As a strategy, publications about emerging arts activity are a key part of how we support emerging artists – that is, indirectly as well as directly.  I have some copies of several of these here and I’ll talk about just one.

The Program (www.theprogram.net.au) was developed in 2001 as a key youth initiative growing out of research that identified disengaged audiences for the arts and highlighted young people as a priority.

theprogram.net.au is a web based publication with features, news, jobs and opportunities, creative industry profiles, resources, links, an events calendar, reviews and giveaways in addition to a weekly e-newsletter which is sent out to over 5,000 subscribers nationally.  theprogram.net.au attracts over 65,000 unique visitors each month and over 1.2 million hits.

One of the projects coming out of The Program is the J Arts Crew, a media mentorship program established in partnership with Triple J, the national youth radio broadcaster.  The J Arts Crew endeavour to demystify the arts, break down traditional stereotypes and inspire young people to experience more arts and culture.

From almost 200 applications, eight reporters were appointed, one based in each State and Territory around the nation.  The Crew are centrally coordinated and mentored by a Producer at Triple J and they undertook intensive broadcast and online training before being sent out to research and sample the arts from their State.

The reporters produce one segment each fortnight, based at their local ABC radio studios, which are broadcast across the Triple J national network – and are available to local ABC radio stations.  Broadcasts began in August 2005.

NOISE

One of our most widely known special initiatives supporting young and emerging artists is noise.  With funding for a youth arts festival originally committed by a Labor government, the incoming Coalition government maintained the special funding commitment – and like the Emerging Artists Initiative funding, they’ve renewed it a number of times since.

The original NOISE model was called LOUD.  It was a month-long media festival with over 80 outcomes across high profile radio, and television stations as well as in print and online. These showcased young artists and their work to an audience of well over ten million. The aim was to ensure young people, aged 25 and under, could have a chance to showcase the diversity of young people and the innovation of their arts and culture practices.

In its current iteration, NOISE has migrated to an online space at <www.noise.net> with a global outlook and an enhanced emphasis on professional development. While there is no specific age limit for NOISE now, it is designed for young emerging artists.

NOISE’s online medium allows for an enormous reach in terms of its audiences and participants.  It exhibits pictures, words, music, film, animation, photography, fashion, jewellery, object and industrial design, e-works, magazines… in short, anything creative.

In August 2007, the site had over 38,500 artworks displayed mainly by young people, with 10% of the works from outside Australia.  It had engaged over 7,000 artists of which nearly 1000 were from outside Australia, reaching a total of 65 countries. The total unique website hits for August 2007 alone stands at close to 3 million.

The Australian Government provided funding of $2 million for NOISE in 2001.  A further $4 million was raised from the private sector and other government sources, $2 million in cash and $2 million in kind.  Since it’s inception, NOISE has partnered with over 95 organisations including the News Limited, Apple, Kodak, Microsoft, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Triple J, Rolling Stone magazine, International Design Network (IDN),  National Gallery of Australia and the National Museum of Australia.

NOISE 2.0 is being built as an online social media platform, offering the community of users a sophisticated online portfolio so they can share their wares in the global market. The vocational component of NOISE 2.0 will also include a space where organisations can promote paid and unpaid work, as well as educational opportunities targeting creative professionals.

It’s a space created by entrepreneurially minded young people (or fairly young people), for young people.

I want to finish my background by quickly touching on these two issues.

Emerging ‘Subcategories’

In several artforms we have created a “sub category” of the New Work grant category, just for emerging artists.  In Literature, in fact, we have three tiers of New Work support – Emerging, Developed and Established.  These are different to microgrants – emerging arts applicants have to follow the same basic rules and guidelines as others, though they have less stringent eligibility criteria and the set grant amounts are smaller than the usual New Work grant.  The main benefit of doing this is that it means ‘apples are assessed alongside apples, not comparing apples and oranges”.

Emerging Organisations

I mention Emerging Organisations here because it was a feature in your Next Generation research.

We don’t focus on organisations comprised mainly of emerging artists except through our Visual Arts Board and their Artists Run Initiatives funding.  These are small grants allowing non-established organisations the chance to keep their doors open and let artists run their exhibitions.  The grants tend to be about $10,000 — $15,000 and are provided only through special initiative funding.  The network of these ARIs, however, is growing each year and some are gaining prominence.  Unfortunately, currently there is no operational funding category for them to move to in Visual Arts, not for three or four years.

What we call – or are starting to call – “emerging organisations” don’t need to be comprised of emerging artists.  They are just organisations growing in strength and profile.  This is a new category in Dance, Music and Theatre.  There is part of the budget set aside to support emerging companies for up to three years.  If the companies get through that test period they are put in the funding competition with the established, triennially funded Key Organisations.  As our budgets are finite, to bring a new company into triennial funding will almost certainly mean some other organisation will drop out.  Whether it’s the Emerging Organisation or the established one that in the end does not get funded, is up to the peers in the assessment meeting.  But this regular ‘comparative review of companies’ is a critical way of welcoming new organisations into the funding portfolio without continually locking up too much of each year’s budget.

Issues

I mentioned at the beginning that there are some issues here worth highlighting, which we can expand on in our open discussion.

1. Our experience with microgrants – smaller, quick response grants for young and emerging artists to break down the ‘barrier of bureaucracy’ – is mixed.  Some of our previous attempts have been dropped and replaced by funding devolved to a particular host organisation or through a more focused initiative.  Microgrants created significant new workload on our existing systems.

In Music, while the program has clearly supported great young artists who continue on to achieve wider acclaim, there was a flood of applications.  We were increasing the Music application numbers by 20% for about one in four (or less) being supported with very small grants.  The “report back on use of the grant” rate has been very low.  The staff and assessors’ workload was unsustainable.  So we moved the Buzz microgrants initiative offshore, to the Foundation for Young Australians:  they have contacts, they have the chance to raise funds to increase the budget… It’s helped us, but it too soon to know if it’s been a successful transition.

2. While choice of “peer assessors” is not completely in our control – our assessing Boards are appointed by the Minister for the Arts – even bringing in additional experts didn’t necessarily address the workload appropriately and make sure we had the right people around the table.  It does make me ask, as a national level agency, are we best placed to know and understand grass roots developments in emerging arts practice?

3. The most significant issue is that we have special government funds for the Young and Emerging Artists Initiative and for Noise.  While each has been renewed several times since 1996, it is possible that the current government – or a new one, if there is a change on the weekend – will stop the special funding, for any number of reasons.

The challenge, if that happens, will be to cope with the impact on all our other types of funding.  It’s not just the financial impact — this, arguably, might be bearable in some areas.  The Emerging subcategory in Literature New Works now has higher standards of eligibility criteria, in part because Write in Your Face supports entry level emerging artists quite well.  It’s uncertain whether the SPARK and Buzz and Artists Run Initiative programs would continue without special funds, given the impact on other budgets.  Noise is based on a major investment from the Commonwealth Government:  I’m not sure what its business model would be without that support.

The special government funding allowed us to support real ground level activity.  It has also allowed our other programs to focus elsewhere.  In setting the other grant programs we have in a sense “lifted our skirts” above the flow of the special Emerging Artists funding.  If that funding dries up, the absence of funding at that entry level will leave us badly exposed.

Participation and leadership

My belief is that, as a national agency, we have a different role to a state or territorial agency.  That’s a political reality for us right now, but increasingly a logical one, too.  What determines who the major funding partner is for this or that activity?  Would it help the artists and the funders if we are clearer about who supports what – and if we end up sharing funding, why?

We also have structures and aims that, no matter how we try, will resist really quick and fluid change.  We need to keep trying but we all struggle to ensure our artform definitions deal with today’s artforms, then tomorrow’s artforms and the day after tomorrow’s…..

So, representing a national agency, I believe we should be looking to support leadership.  In my view, what makes our version of Noise work is not just the idea itself – many might generate a web-based space for young artists only to find that young people avoided it assiduously.  What makes Noise work is the approach of the project leader and his team.  The producer of Noise, Brandon Saul, was at the time of appointment a still-young producer of the Byron Bay Arts and Music Festival and Homebake rock festival.  He is an entrepreneur with a strong understanding of popular youth culture.  It’s his leadership, his team, the team’s connection to young people, which has made the project a success.  We don’t try to devise it or manage it ourselves, we get a young leader to do it.

The same leadership principle applies for art in the community.

I want to show a few minutes of a DVD from a young artist we supported through our Emerging Producer in the Community initiative, also supported by our special Government funds.

While we awarded a grant to the young project leader, Ali Khadim, the project’s success is grounded in his connection to a leading, community-based organisation, ICE (Information and Cultural Exchange). ICE engages leading artists, admired by young people, to run programs, inspire participants and build community capacity through training and mentoring, for example working with one of Australia’s leading hip-hop Artists MC Trey on an urban music program.

This project is about Le Parkour — it challenges notions of professional arts practice, yet is clearly a discipline with a philosophy and skill set. And as it happens, it offers a significant opportunity for personal development of teenagers, mostly from non English Speaking backgrounds, in Western Sydney.

Greater Western Sydney has a population of 1.56 million people.  It is home to the largest migrant, refugee and urban Indigenous communities in the country. Although it has pockets of severe economic disadvantage, Western Sydney remains the third largest economy in Australia (after the central business districts of Sydney and Melbourne).

The reason I wanted to show this is that I struggle to imagine whether the proposal could have been successful in one of the usual artform grant categories.  It sits outside the existing arts disciplines — but would we create a new funding board to deal with such “not yet defined” work?  Or create a category called “other”?  In fact maybe it’s too much to expect that an arts practice like this – or anything else that’s developed one year / two years / five years from now – should have to become fully integrated into our mainstream systems.

What our system can do well, though, is support a leading, successful organisation, even a small one, well connected to the community it works with.  And we leave the definitions to them.

As a national agency, we need to take responsibility for supporting artistic leadership, encouraging the highest stands of excellence on a national scale, promoting innovation in arts practice and maintaining a network of important arts organisations.  That’s already a broad brief.

Our experience is that opening our doors to all new activity doesn’t always achieve the desired end and can end up a frustrating experience for all.  We should keep trying, but we need to be ready to change new programs quickly and move to different solutions.

We often succeed, or at least fare better, when we don’t just open our doors with a sometimes false hope, but instead identify and work with leading organisations and leading young minds that can develop, with our support, young people’s artistic practice.  We can set what outcomes we want to achieve and ask experienced individuals or organisations to shape programs to deliver these outcomes.

Thank you