Twenty years ago, two highly talented women, each strongly committed to their practice, were neighbours in an Abbotsford street. They talked over the fence between No 34 and No 36, sharing their daily experiences and looking out for each other across some seven years. Today, each one has reached the pinnacles of career success in her field.

One of these women is the internationally acclaimed artist, Madeleine Flynn.

The other woman is Australia’s twenty-seventh prime minister, Julia Gillard.

Working in collaboration with partner Tim Humphrey since 1993, Madeleine Flynn specialises in sound and music composition, performance and installation. She has presented work in urban and regional contexts around Australia and the world. Her work is vital, innovative and important, constantly redefining the bounds of Australian collaborative practice across a growing range of disciplines.

Julia Gillard’s work has also taken her into the public eye. On a daily basis she negotiates complex problems and composes timely responses, constantly recreating the Australian culture of the moment with the leadership she expresses across a diversity of contexts.

Flynn’s practice is experimental and collaborative. Together, she and Humphrey have earned many awards, residencies, grants and a diverse range of recognition both within Australia and overseas. They have won a Green Room Award for Outstanding Composition or Sound Design, a Melbourne International Arts Festival Award, an Australian Network for Art and Technology Synapse Award, two Asialink Residencies in China and Japan, and most recently, the APRA-AMCOS National Awards for Excellence in Experimental Music.

Throughout such work, Flynn has raised a family, volunteered on committees and boards, and regularly gone out of her way to support and mentor the work of emerging artists. From time to time her projects have received public funding, having made successful applications to strongly contested funds. The Australia Council for the Arts, the Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory body, has supported her work in this way and on a number of occasions. Most recently, the Australia Council funded the collaborative work Gauge, an installative investigation by a group of artists and scientists into weather, water and scale, working with leading experts from the fields of climate science and artificial intelligence.

Like politics, art’s dynamic field of composition allows such divergent traditions and practices to come together and be composed into temporary new syntheses, finding ever-new modes of expression and experience. The sophistication of Flynn’s practice is such that the experience of her work is one of beauty and complexity, boldness and sensitivity.

As Julia Gillard considers the potential scope and impact of the National Cultural Policy, she’s bound to reflect on the creative practice of her old neighbour, and feel delighted and proud of her successes – as Flynn is bound to reflect on Julia’s.

Who are your neighbours, and what are their passions? Who are Wayne Swan’s neighbours? Tanya Plibersek’s? Anthony Albanese’s? Penny Wong’s? Malcolm Turnbull’s? Tony Abbott’s? Who were your neighbours twenty years ago, and where are they today?

Such accidental snapshots in time and place define us: they offer us contingent markers for making profound reflections. They make tangible what might so easily have been otherwise.

The Prime Minister and her team are about to determine whether future generations of Madeleine Flynns will have the potential to develop their artistic practice and take on the world stage.

The National Cultural Policy marks a turning point in Australian leadership and vision. We have the rare opportunity to imagine a confident nation of courageous communities and audacious individuals taking creative challenges in their stride.

While the Australian vision is dauntless, sustaining a career as an artist is a tireless endeavour. An intricate ecology of independent organisations offer frameworks, support and opportunities to present new work. A small portion of those organisations are funded by governments under highly competitive arrangements, and an even smaller proportion of artists will ever receive a government grant.

A national cultural policy needs a national cultural vision that motivates and inspires our decision-makers. The National Cultural Policy will only succeed if it is framed and funded with confidence and fervour.

And then, in another twenty years’ time, Madeleine and Julia might get together and reflect on Australia’s growing artistic successes, with a world of creative talent thriving locally and presenting internationally. Now that’s an Australian vision.


This article first appeared in The Australian on 3 December 2012. Image of Madeleine Flynn from Rasa Sayang catalogue with Tony Yap Company.