Attaining greater representation of culturally diverse practitioners in the arts has been a 30 year conversation. Research by the Australia Council for the Arts (AUSCO) demonstrates that the arts sector is less diverse than the rest of the Australian workforce. Only 8% of professional artists come from culturally diverse backgrounds. That’s rather embarrassing for a sector that promotes cultural inclusion and diversity.
Beyond Tick Boxes was a timely national symposium produced by Diversity Arts Australia (DARTS) calling for a renewed strategic focus to increase diverse representation on the nation’s stages and in galleries. The 2016 Census data (released the night before the symposium) provided essential context. It demonstrated that 49% of Australians are first or second generation migrants.
As Dr Tim Soutphommasane pointed out in his keynote address, ‘for those of you working for diversity in the arts, this task has become more urgent than ever.’
The 7 word summary: equity, access, visibility, immediate, sustainable, respect, culture-change.
Below I have collated seven key takeaways from the symposium. Some of these won’t be new ideas, but the fact that they were mentioned by panellists suggests they remain key priorities.
- Practice the four Rs: responsibility, relationships, respect and reciprocity
This was raised in relation to working with Aboriginal artists and communities. The audience was encouraged to do away with processes and formalities; just sit down with an elder with the intention to listen and learn. Secondly, check your language. There are a number of phrases used to categorise artwork and artists. Show respect by checking with the artist about how they would like to be spoken about.
- The importance of visible pathways
This theme came up a few times. Firstly, during the Aboriginal Arts panel where the importance of leadership from within communities and removing the white lens of curating were explored. Secondly, during ‘State of Play’ a conversation with the three levels of government. Tiffany Lee Shoy of Fairfield City Council pointed out the necessity for people with culturally diverse backgrounds to go for policy and administration jobs in order to shape change. This issue came up again during the break out session. We spoke about people of diverse backgrounds (but also all staff) in service or funding bodies being visible and available to early career talent. As the cliché phrase goes ‘we can’t be what we can’t see.’
- Can conditional funding work for cultural diversity in the same way that it has for gender?
After Grainne Brundson (CreateNSW) shared the culture change they were able to instigate in the screen sector through conditional funding, the room was confident that the same should happen for cultural diversity. By comparison, Lisa Walsh spoke to AUSCOs approach that is more research focused. They report back to the sector about the disparity in their programs as opposed to not funding programs that don’t improve their representational spread. The strong position on priority areas for CreateNSW left a lot of be desired from the Australia Council. At a local level, Tiffany Lee Shoy demonstrated that the demographics of Fairfield meant tick boxes weren’t necessary. ‘We all do multiculturalism because that’s just our community.’
- Find the specificity in Storytelling
The personal is universal – who is telling these stories and where are they being told?
This theme came through following the launch of Diverse Screens. Four early career/emerging film makers so spoke to the tired stereotypes and limited roles available to actors from culturally diverse backgrounds. In order for these stories to change, film makers and directors from culturally diverse backgrounds need access to roles (or create their own) to tell their own stories.
- Systems change = cultural change
We need leadership at the top as well as at the grassroots. There needs to be a willingness to listen, lead, follow and innovate. Doing much of the same won’t see the progress that we need in this space. Whilst there may be internal champions in organisations and government, at the end of the day there needs to be decision makers who are empathetic to the cause if we are going to see change.
- Plagued by initiative-it is
New projects need funding, but long term support for sustained impact is necessary. This conversation raised concerns that State of the Arts keeps harping back to, and that is changing the funding culture within the arts. We need to establish business models that are sustainable independent of government funding. Although, this won’t be right for everyone and not all will agree, there needs to be a financial plan to complement our artistic endeavours.
‘Start speaking from a position of power’ – Sunio Badami
If we have been having this conversation for 30 years, let’s replace the language of deficit with a position of power. Remember that the majors weren’t always majors. There were once mavericks.
This article was first published by State of the Arts Media on September 21, 2017.