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Performing arts & relevance

It was inspiring to hear Wesley Enoch, resident thinker, start the Performing Arts Centre conference REAP last week with provocations on relevance. A quiet audience of centre managers, council managers, artists, funders and consultants from around the country listened. The community is way ahead of its leaders and policy frameworks, Wesley contended, considering the handling of same sex marriage, cultural diversity, and immigration. First Nations make up just 2% of Australian performing arts presented (see the research ) The growth in tribalism means we are working in an echo chamber of agreement. How are we addressing this as a sector? You could hear a pin drop...

Relevance should be the litmus test for investment in arts and culture and the small to medium sector is being seriously undervalued, Wesley said, and then he introduced a range of speakers from far flung places with something important to share.

Relevance is about how the arts contribute to wellbeing for Michelle Adams, Yindjibarndi woman and cultural advisor to Big hART. Talking about their Tjaabi project in the Pilbura, which teaches songlines to children and helps preserve culture, Michelle said the project works because it was grown from the community - not imposed top down. The arts centre is important, and one of the buildings in town that never gets vandalised.

From San Francisco we heard "The building is just a wrapper for the program" from Deborah Cullinan of Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts. This is good news for those performing arts centre managers who are stuck with an uninviting building. We make the centre "the both, and...", Deborah added, which is a rallying cry to welcome into the centre all diverse communities rather than relying upon those familiar faces (who may look a lot like you) or choosing a target group. "Artists provide cultural solutions to issues within their community" she assured us. I am inspired by this idea and wonder how many people in the room have seen it happen?

It isn't always obvious how to build relevance with the community - so here are some sensible tips for those of you who are not sure where to start. This is based on work I led at the Australia Council in a previous life;

  • Research and reflect: understand yourself and the people you would like to engage with

  • Make connections: through community organisations, contacts and representatives

  • Maintain partnerships: develop connections for achieving shared goals

  • Make art together: help the community to express their creative and artistic aspirations

  • Learn and leave well: ask the community members for their views and evaluate outcomes

REAP conference keynote, Bryan Joseph Lee, tells us that often "people who are thought of as marginal are in fact at the centre of their communities." He spoke about mobilising his own black queer community in New York - sometimes despite their complete lack of interest. As a Director at The Public Theater he saw it as his job to make the place relevant to his communities - even if they didn't see it yet.

It is no secret that diversity is good for business, and it makes good sense to include diverse people in decision making roles, so I was surprised to learn that the arts and cultural sector is not leading in cultural diversity in Australia. Diversity Arts Australia research by BYP Group and Western Sydney University, found that just 9% of the leaders of our major cultural institutions and less than 10% of our artistic directors come from culturally diverse backgrounds. The performing arts earned one of the worst statistics with only 5% of leaders estimated to be culturally diverse.

This research paints a picture of a largely non-migrant arts sector which doesn't reflect our multicultural society, and can limit the diversity of our public imagination. Worryingly, Prof. James Arvanitakis and the research team met with resistance from 22 cultural organisations who refused to participate in the survey, and some even questioned the need for it (see the article). While solutions aren't easy, and no-one wants a tick box response, the debate really needs to be had about how to make a change. The Australia Council’s Corporate Plan 2019-2023 objective ‘our arts reflect us’ provides hope they may provide leadership in this area.

Diverse works produced in Australia illuminate our lives and I would love to see more of them. I was particularly glad to see 'Single Asian Female' by Michelle Williams at La Boite Roundhouse earlier in the year. It is a funny, moving, and sometimes uncomfortable tale of how young women navigate between the expectations of their Chinese Australian mother and the casual racism of their Anglo peers. A great example of original culturally diverse theatre that is both relevant and beautifully executed and, not surprisingly, had more than one sold out season.

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