A provocateur – that’s how I have been described. As someone who asks the questions that don’t necessarily have a straight answer. I am more than okay with this. Just because there aren’t straight answers doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be having the conversations. In fact, all the more reason to make sure we keep talking.
That was my intention – to ask the questions that we reframe from asking – when the National Association for Visual Artists (NAVA) offered me the opportunity to facilitate the Western Sydney Jam. Joining me was a dynamic panel, including artists Shivanjani Lal, David Capra and Marian Abooud and curators Adam Porter and Djon Mundine OAM.
There are three key points that are resonating with me after both the round table conversations and the forum: the necessity for artists to be more visible beyond cultural infrastructure and blockbuster festivals, the starvation for alternative models in the arts, and the necessity for artists to be equipped with enterprising skills. The thoughts that follow have been marinating in my head and a living word document for a while now. I let them mature, I let the news and politics play out. But if I don’t release them now, they will consume me.
I remember, a few months back now, being asked ‘are there even any contemporary artists in Western Sydney?’ (Feel the face hit the palm.) All I can put this down to is part ignorance and part lack of visibility. It is essential for artists to be visible beyond spaces designated for arts and cultural activity. As Djon Mundine rightfully said, we don’t confine athletes to a running track, so why are artists seemingly confined? Culturally activating public space is not uncommon in Western Sydney, with a plethora of festivals and projects taking place beyond cultural infrastructure. This can be understood in two ways: as a part of community cultural engagement or a limitation in access to flexible space in Western Sydney. Both are issues to be unpacked more at a later time.
I need to take a moment to call out the unproductive labeling of artists based on geography; the ‘us and them mentality’ of what is a “Western Sydney artist.” Why is it that the moment creatives who happen to live in Western Sydney come together we are expected to address this line of questioning? Ask us about if place and community influences manifest in our practice, sure, but why do we still have to justify seeing ourselves as something other than a Sydney-based artist or better, a contemporary Australian artist? (Thank you Shivanjani and Adam for the provocative conversations on and off the record that have helped me unlock my own potential.) That isn’t to say we aren’t proud to live in such a diverse region, but rather that our work is just as valid as any other artist who isn’t identified by geography. Have you ever asked someone who resides in Marrickville, Redfern or Paddington what it means to be an artist from that respective area? Probably not. So the ‘us and them’ of east and west needs to stop. It is counter productive.
Okay. Moving on.
In order for artists to be more visible there needs to be investment in alternative structures or models for the arts. Most of the existing visual arts institutions in Western Sydney are primarily supported by local government, meaning they are subject to objectives in local government policy. With the unequal distribution of arts funding from state and federal bodies (see the Deloitte report) these institutions are pushed to be innovative with collaboration and partnership models to share resources and maximise impact. The under provision of studio space for artists naturally results in artists seeking opportunities beyond the region. It isn’t that they want to leave the region, the roundtable conversation suggested a strong interest to stay in area, however the opportunities are not here. There are currently approximately 14 studio/residency opportunities available to visual artists across the year in the region. Given the vastness of the region and number of artists, this is disproportionate. Studio Switch, a program curated by Adam Porter at Casula Powerhouse, demonstrated how gallery operations can be adapted to cater to demand. This model has potential in how it made the artistic process more visible, gave artists access to mentors and curators and the general public were exposed to the process as a performative action, rather than just an outcome. This model broke down the public and private manifestations of creative practice. But more headway can be made if we turn to enterprising models.
Someone wise once told me that innovation doesn’t come from looking inwards, but from looking outwards to other sectors and adapting concepts to your own operations. He probably said it more eloquently, but I couldn’t agree with him more. Leading on to my third point: the artist as entrepreneur. Over the past eight months in particular, my work has focused on arts entrepreneurship. Meaning, placing emphasis on learning about different models to sustainably support independent arts activity. With changes in NSW art education and the existing ARI model being broken, there is a window of opportunity for innovation in the arts. The arts are not without ideas, but we need to adapt models that enable us to be viable beyond government grant dependency.
Earlier this year (2016) the Foundation for Young Australians released the Future of Work report (with the next installment immanent). In short, the report supports the Financial Review’s assertion that we are currently experiencing the next industrial revolution. Young people are studying for jobs that in the near future will no longer exist due to automation and the globalised work force. The report found that citizens are looking for more meaningful and flexible work arrangements. Importantly, the report proposed that the future of the workforce is the portfolio career – something that is not unfamiliar to artists. At first I thought this would put us at an advantage, until I realised there has long been discussion about artists finishing their studies and not being equipped with the skills and tools to view themselves as a business – enterprising skills which are crucial to the new work order, according to the Foundation for Young Australians. It was this deficit in knowledge after finishing my degree and the lack of professional development pathways available, that saw me undertake opportunities with the School for Social Entrepreneurs and FYA. I had to build this essential skill set and as I have, I have grown beyond seeing myself just as an arts worker. I can now see how my skills apply to other sectors, opening up opportunities for collaboration across sectors and new employment opportunities.
Herein lies the opportunity to adapt arts education, something that Western Sydney University and Monash University are already prepared for. Monash University is offering a Master of Cultural and Creative Industries. The course looks at ‘how culture can build economy and transform communities across the world’. From one reading, this course appears to bring arts education up to date with changes in the national and global cultural economy, responding to the movement of people between organisations and the reality that employers are looking for enterprising skill sets, not arts-specific skills. A research internship enables students to act as consultants to bettering creative city or creative clustering policies.
At Western Sydney University, the recently launched Bachelor of Creative Industries Degree combines majoring in a chosen field within the creative industries, with minors in business management and law. In short, the degree I needed four years ago. According to the outline, the course caters to ‘culture and society, creative writing, design, enterprise innovation, journalism, literature, media arts, music performance and photo media.’ Both courses from Monash University and Western Sydney University aim to fill the critical gap in skills offered through traditional arts training. Whilst courses of this nature will not be for everyone, they respond to changes in the workforce and cultural economy, preparing the cultural leaders of the future to develop essential skills.
As a personal anecdote, I refused to do a masters as I couldn’t afford to go further into debt for courses that I didn’t perceive to prepare me for the future of work. My undergraduate studies gave me essential skills in critical thinking and socio-cultural understanding. It is exciting to see that these two Universities are now responding to a greater need to equip graduates with enterprising skills. Maybe I will go to Melbourne for a Masters….
Without getting drawn into how these courses don’t cater for studio development, which is crucial for the creative process, I believe that they are courses that are done concurrently to other study for one’s practice. Andrew Frost’s article for Art Guide Australia proposes revisiting the nineteenth century model of arts education – small clusters of schools that set their own curriculum and have the potential to relocate and attend different schools of thought. Comments on the article included concern for a de-intellectualisation of the arts (oh the horror!) on the one hand and praised the possible rise in diversity in the arts, particularly in respect to non-metropolitan areas and the nuances they offer, on the other. Thinking back on your studies, if you could reimagine how the arts is taught, what changes would you make? What worked, what didn’t and what have you figured out on the fly?
It is no secret that I have “strong opinions” based on my lived experience, with exposure to the arts and social sector. In order for artists to be more visible alternative models for cultural infrastructure and programming are essential, particularly in Australia’s growth regions, such as Western Sydney. The next generation of cultural leaders need to be equipped with enterprising skills to ensure they can navigate the future of the work force and to transform the role of artists in society. The greatest concern for artists in Western Sydney coming out of the roundtable and forum remains to be the tyranny of distance, meaning the time and resources invested to commute to other areas for opportunities. It is not a matter of relocating to where there is a perceived abundance of activity, because these areas are not necessarily affordable. Some may choose their isolation, for others it is a lifestyle, overall wellbeing or financial decision. To overcome this ongoing pain, the arts needs innovation before it is starved of diversity in representation.