Regional creativity crucial to cultural growth

Artists compel us to open our minds. Ultimately, it’s the customs and practices we create as culture, and the works our artists make, that bring meaning to our existence and inspiration to our lives.

Launching his national cultural policy earlier this month, Simon Crean said: “I see the artist as central to us as a nation.” Will Tony Burke, Crean’s successor as Arts Minister, share this vision?

A cultural policy must encompass the arts, education, business, sport, trade, health, transport: indeed, all the ways our everyday practices make and remake our diverse culture. Crean’s cultural policy was about the arts and the Australia Council, but it also touched on education and sport, offering a set of starting points for fostering Australian culture.

How does the artist leap from those starting points to develop a successful career? In the first instance, by seeking out like-minded people, becoming part of a community and finding new audiences. Across Australia, thousands of independent arts organisations — the overwhelming majority not in receipt of, nor seeking, government funding — are dedicated to specialised artist support and development. Many have built expertise across decades and keep finding ways to support artists with minimal resources and maximum passion.

The Australia Council invests significant resources in organisations that work directly with artists. The Regional Arts Fund is the government’s primary vehicle for fostering regional creative practice. Through the fund, organisations such as Regional Arts Victoria work closely with thousands of artists, as well as partnering with other regional bodies and local governments.

While the cultural policy has a strong emphasis on pathways and training, as well as investments in existing organisations and models, the question remains: how can we develop the expertise that drives careers in the arts? Most pathways are created through internships, short-term project roles and producer developments. Just as the most successful and innovative broadcasters started out in community radio, the finest artists, producers and creative leaders come from independent organisations. They’ve learned by doing; they’ve applied themselves though volunteering, internships and placements, a set of arts apprenticeships powered as much by their initiative as by the generosity and the passions of those they work with.

Creating pathways means learning from sophisticated models such as those of Castlemaine’s Punctum, Daylesford’s Nano Lab, festivals such as Freeplay, Emerging Writers, Next Wave and Melbourne Fringe — plus Arts Mildura, whose organisational and peer review model inspired Gough Whitlam to establish the Australia Council.

We need to find ways to create industry standards from the specialised education and training work of independent arts organisations. In Latrobe Valley, at ARC Yinnar: Centre for Creativity and Contemporary Arts, 30 years of arts expertise support emerging and well-established artists. Paint-splattered easels rest against the wall, ready for whenever you visit. Booking time in the ceramics studio costs just a few dollars an hour. On a recent visit, I longed for a week to spend there and learn directly from its artists about what has worked best over the years.

If any cultural policy is to keep up with the realities of creative practice and the agile advances of the creative industries, it must engage meaningfully with contemporary arts and culture outside the big cities. That’s a thrilling challenge. For immersion in the independent arts, venture into the regions, open your eyes and ears, take a risk, and be prepared to get your hands dirty. There’s so much inspiration to be found.


First published in The Australian in 2013.