This week the Myer Foundation, the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation and the Keir Foundation announced what is called “A New Approach” following their call in December 2016 to provide $1.65 million to establish a lobby group, of sorts, to “defend and promote the benefit of intellectual and creative life”.
According to the Myer Foundation, the three Foundations called for “expressions of interest to address Australia’s absence of a public, expert, independent voice capable of championing investment and return in arts and culture”.
“Australia needs an informed, independent entity which has the necessary resources and public authority to advance a coherent, comprehensive policy position from which we might build better political and institutional settings and allied public commentary. The project aims to address this critical need,” they said.
Commentator Esther Anatolitis argues below that the Foundations’ $1.65 million competition mobilised the arts industry in unprecedented ways. While its outcome offers a new direction, she says the range of unsuccessful proposals is a strong indication of the sophistication of a sector facing significant barriers against successful and impactful advocacy.
In architectural competitions for public buildings, a shortlist of unsuccessful schemes is often made public, either ahead of a final decision or following its announcement. Highlighting the competition’s value as a public good in itself, the publication of competing visions for cultural futures is designed to guide critical discussion, as well as advocating for the profession as a collegial set of publicly-minded experts. International design competitions for Federation Square and Flinders Street Station, and the more recent competition for Shepparton Art Museum, have stimulated a great deal of new thinking on how design can foster the contemporary cultural practices that shape our lives.
Last year, three philanthropic trusts invited new thinking on “championing investment and return in arts and culture.” The Myer Foundation, the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation and the Kier Foundation called for an “expert, independent voice… which has the necessary resources and public authority to advance a coherent, comprehensive policy position from which we might build better political and institutional settings and allied public commentary.” Together, they offered $1.65 million over three years for the formation of such an entity, which they called “A new approach”.
So what kinds of potential entities submitted a proposal, and what were some of these new approaches?
The final outcome is a shift on what was originally proposed, with the trusts reframing their approach in response to learnings from the process itself. So what kinds of potential entities submitted a proposal, and what were some of these new approaches?
While colleagues across the nation submitted applications in confidence, and the list of applicants remains confidential, the conversations stimulated by the philanthropists’ provocations have brought colleagues together in exciting new ways. Day after day last summer, I found myself in discussions of great scope and great ambition, imagining a confident future where the value of Australia’s arts could be expressed, quantified and advanced with compelling impact and tangible influence. In sharing these approaches, I have been careful not to identify individuals and groups, maintaining the confidence of our conversations and their submissions. Making this work public ensures that this strategic work does not end with the competition, but rather, continues to power the national cultural discussion as a public good.
The value of each of these approaches is profound. Each had massive, game-changing potential to change the way the arts is championed and defended in Australia.
One approach proposed to unite, for the first time, key performing arts organisations from across Australia, partnering them with a university and a leading media organisation. The potential to build research on dynamic data and trends, and attract national and international attention, was tremendous.
A different model was proposed by a prominent advocate with a team of experts in national and international cultural policy, arts data and public campaigns, and was supported by two additional philanthropic trusts. This approach would have built significant long-term capacity to harness data and industry expertise, developing influential advocacy.
Another approach, headed by a leading social researcher, gathered diverse arts expertise to make a strong public case for arts participation bolstered by comprehensive arts policy. This proposal would have introduced new expertise into arts advocacy with lasting impact.
Three universities collaborated on a research and advocacy proposal led by the nation’s most impactful scholars in the arts space, working together for the very first time. As well as building on considerable strengths in research and public policy, this group proposed ways to focus the arts community on national advocacy objectives.
Another university of research leaders in arts management proposed an approach that built on its considerable strengths and deep, diverse professional connections across Australia. This proposal would have propelled a wealth of current, industry-engaged research to national prominence.
The value of each of these approaches – and of many more – is profound. Each had massive, game-changing potential to change the way the arts is championed and defended in Australia. Each brought together a rigorous approach to research, with the expertise to interpret that research, as well as the capability to achieve the national platform so sorely lacking. Notably, each of these approaches was headed by women leading culturally diverse, cross-disciplinary teams, each with the capacity to get arts and culture on Australia’s front pages, as well as influencing sophisticated policy outcomes.
The opportunity to unite expertise and advocacy is rare.
“Defending and promoting the benefit of intellectual and creative life as a critical crucible of the national future is proving to be increasingly difficult”, the philanthropists had acknowledged – and it’s true. The opportunity to unite expertise and advocacy is rare; for decades, frustrating barriers have persistently prevented such approaches from being realised. Across the past few years, changes in the policy and funding environment at local, state and national levels have been so disruptive as to mandate increasingly tight organisational focuses that eschew public collaboration on shared advocacy aims. Maintaining practice and sustaining organisations has been the priority – and organisations can scarcely find the resources to unlock their own data for their own strategic use, let alone for policy and advocacy work. Without the funds to afford the space and time for considering effective options, valuable data remains trapped with those individual artists and organisations, and advocacy for policy impact perpetuates the stop-start approach of the political cycle.
Another somewhat counter-intuitive barrier to effective, evidence-led advocacy is the reluctance of arts leaders to become cultural leaders. Mistaking advocacy for lobbying, colleagues holding executive positions in arts organisations tend to avoid speaking up about arts and cultural policy matters because they fear being misinterpreted – misinterpreted either as speaking out about funding as a public grab for more, or as speaking out against a particular party or politician and therefore risking organisational reprisal. Even at senior leadership levels, the political decision-making cycle is poorly understood, and so the potential to influence the Australian discussion is not realised. The thinking stimulated by “A new approach” has reoriented arts leaders to the research potential of their work, as well as its political dimension – political not as a partisan tool, but as a public good. To focus that thinking on powering the public good is the civic duty of every cultural leader.
It’s vital that all this good thinking continue. The conditions characterised by the philanthropists’ call-out are just as pressing now. Let’s maintain these conversations, keep talking to potential partners, and see what we can achieve together. There is so much at stake – and so much to create.
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Esther Anatolitis is a writer and cultural commentator