ACT a crucible of the arts

Image courtesy of The Canberra Times

Throughout much of the past twelve months, across the suburbs of the National Capital and beyond, there has been a conversation.  It began in a lounge-room and was progressed in cafes and bars and restaurants and foyers, even spreading out to a pub in Goulburn.  At the core of this conversation was a question: does the ACT region warrant a voice for the arts?  The answer was yes, it sure does.  And so the Childers Group – an independent arts forum – was born.

Like any sector that matters, the arts aren’t immune to passion and opinion.  However, the Childers Group approach is to bring cool, calm, considered thinking to the arts and to always base its advocacy on fact.  And the fact is the ACT region is rich in arts activity and rich in arts participation.  In the global context, the population is well remunerated, highly educated, and actively engaged in arts and cultural activities.  But how can the arts and cultural life of the ACT region progress to the point where creativity is at the very centre of daily life, and we can be proud of it?

The arts investigate, illuminate, challenge and connect; they tell the story of what it means to be Australian in all its layers and guises.  Participation in the arts fosters a sense of community, promotes health and well-being, encourages cooperation, and helps to reduce the pressures of a competitive, materialistic society.

The arts aren’t afraid.

These are easy words to say, but the aspirations are difficult to advocate.

Another fact: in our country, as soon as our cultural, business and political leaders begin talking about the importance of the arts, they run the risk of being seen to be out of touch, of being elitist, of somehow forgetting that their real job is to know the cost of a loaf of bread.  But how can the arts even be considered as ‘elitist’ when, according to the Australia Council, an artist earns on average $35,900 per annum, of which only $10,300 comes from their creative practice if they are male, and a mere $5,000 if they are female?

It’s also a fact that we live in society, not an economy.  It would be a rare Australian – no matter where they live, city or country, coast or inland – who gets to the end of their day and hasn’t been touched by some kind of creative endeavour: extraordinary music, or artfully crafted words, or skilful design of home-ware, machine and technology.

Despite everything, creativity surrounds us; it’s part of who we are.

In April this year, the Childers Group hosted a public forum titled “Burning Issues and Radical Ideas”.  To the Group’s surprise and delight, almost 150 people turned up, proving that our community is bursting to explore the importance of the arts and life’s cultural experiences.

Issues raised at the Forum represent opportunities.

Portrait of Rosalie Gascoigne (Greg Weight 1993)

There was a surprising emphasis on the potential of cross-sector, cross-   disciplinary, cross-regional cooperation: between groups and individuals; between universities, colleges, and school communities; between professional and amateur; between the public and the private sectors; between government jurisdictions and government departments; between city and town and village.

The installation of the National Broadband Network presents a new digital environment for Australia, offering endless possibilities for cooperation and the exchange of ideas and information.  Artists and all those engaged in creative practice can already see that the NBN will open up a new digital future, one that will invigorate Australia.  The challenge is to use this opportunity to meet the expectations of our artists and facilitate innovative thinking more generally.

A frustration expressed at the Forum concerned the lack of a vision for our arts and creative future, including a clearly articulated and practicable strategic plan at all levels of government.  Short-term, ad hoc decisions in funding and planning delay or impede the development of arts infrastructure.

Forum attendees asked how can we amend our urban planning systems so that the organic growth of arts precincts can be facilitated, especially the sort of precincts that pulse with life and invite extensive participation?

Attendees highlighted the impressive range of arts practices, exhibitions and performances scheduled in the ACT region, but asked how can the arts and cultural sector better connect with tourism promotion and publicity?

Canberra’s national cultural institutions, museums and galleries, universities, colleges and schools employ many visual artists, musicians, composers, and writers, and their presence and their work is integral to the vitality of our region’s cultural life. They offer a high level of professionalism as a benchmark for the community.  The inter-connection between institution-based artists and cultural infrastructure – arts organisations, arts centres, and community groups – is central to the quality of arts experiences available.  The wide-spread outpouring of concern about proposals to reduce specialist music tuition at the ANU School of Music exemplifies the importance of the link between the School’s professional musicians and the region’s music community, which relies on specialist expertise at a high artistic standing.

The ACT region is home to a wide range of professional artists, many of whom straddle the institution-community divide.  These practitioners form the back-bone of our cultural life, contributing to the vitality and energy in our communities. Without an institutional employment base, they would be lost to us.  Without these artists, we lose their ideas, expertise and inspirational practice premised on research, innovation, technical risk, and the acquisition of new knowledge.  Without these artists, we are all less inspired to think in new and exciting ways.

In 2013 there are two significant birthdays in our region: the Centenary of Canberra and Goulburn’s 150th as a city.  Now is the time to capitalise on the depth of creative talent and the quality of cultural life around us.  Now is the time to tackle big issues, support radical thinking, to be brave.  Now is the time to highlight the national and international achievements of our artists and arts organisations and the significance of our educational and cultural institutions.  Now is the time to celebrate with confidence and generosity the inspired creative crucible that is the ACT region – there is no doubt that it can be a place that lifts us all above life’s utilitarian dimension.  The Childers Group is serious about that word crucible, because we have at our core Canberra, the nation’s capital city.

In the year of significant milestones, let’s honour the quality of cultural life and the creative crucible that is the ACT region.  The spirit of that idea makes us a very special place indeed.

This piece, which was first published in The Canberra Times on 28 May 2012, was written by Professor David Williams AM and Nigel Featherstone, who are foundation members of the Childers Group.


Post-forum opportunities

Two key issued that were raised at the ‘Burning Issues and Radical Ideas’ forum on 18 April were artist incomes/employment and diversifying funding opportunities through philanthropy.  All of us here at Childers Group HQ love good news, so here’s some good news on these two issues.

New artist-in-residence funding program for the ACT region:

First up, the ACT Government through artsACT has established Arts Residencies ACT, which is providing funding to help organisations establish an artist-in-residency program.  This could mean ACT-region artists get to work with a particular organisation – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be an arts organisation, which provides cross-over opportunities and career expansion for the artists involved – or it could involve bringing in national artists to work in the ACT region and engage with local communities.  Applications open today and close on Friday 8 June.  For more information, go here.

Arts philanthropy seminar to be held in Canberra:

In terms diversifying funding opportunities, at 4pm on Thursday 31 May at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, the Australia Council’s Artsupport team is holding a seminar on best-practice in private support for the arts.  According to Artsupport, the unit recently organised and led a philanthropy leadership study tour to New York for the Chairs and Chief Executive Officers of Australia’s major performing arts companies – Melbourne Theatre Company, Belvoir, Bell Shakespeare, Black Swan State Theatre Company, Sydney Dance Company, Queensland Ballet, Bangarra Dance Company, Tasmania Symphony Orchestra, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and State Opera of South Australia. The study tour met with the CEOs, Development Directors and key Board Members of New York companies – Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, American Ballet Theatre, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Public Theatre, Signature Theatre, Orchestra of St Luke’s and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. The intention for the study tour was to witness best practice in private support for the arts, to be inspired, benchmark and refresh ideas.  Participants will share their insights.  The seminar is free.  Go here for more information and to register.

See why we love good news so much?