Across the next two months, I’ll be thinking a great deal about advocacy for arts and culture: globally, at the IFACCA World Summit on Arts & Culture; regionally, at the biennial Artlands Dubbo; and nationally, at Arts Front 2030, the start of a four-year process to build a national vision for the arts.

But what does that mean? What is a national vision for the arts? And how can we achieve that?

It’s been an intensive couple of years for arts advocacy in Australia: while we’re still weary in redressing unjustified and unexpected attacks on the arts, in many ways and after a number of false starts over the past few decades, we’re only just getting started on constructive advocacy. And we’ve made some incredibly important strides in getting started, with advocacy for the arts increasingly seen as an essential complement to any public role in the industry. And not just in leadership roles: as Drama Victoria’s former Director Emily Atkins says, we lead from where we are. Advocacy is expansive, reaching out beyond our supportive echo chambers to speak passionately about valuing arts and culture. Advocacy can be as simple as a conversation that motivates someone to share that conversation with another, whether they agree with you or not. At a more sophisticated level, advocacy for the arts can advance a set of strategies for sustaining the arts as an industry, securing vital partners and harnessing the impactful apparatus of government to ensure that those strategies are realised.

The next period will be crucial to ensuring that we start well and stride confidently together, sustaining a much-needed momentum to distribute effective advocacy across the nation. For me, this is not only a passion, but part of a longer-term project – not just as an advocate on specific arts matters, but also, as an advocate for distributed advocacy, whose models of artistic leadership I’ve been investigating here and overseas so as to best contribute to effective advocacy here.

The IFACCA Summit brings together an enormous diversity of cultural leaders from all over the world to work on moving the arts on from its current crossroads. Here’s the discussion paper that frames all the issues. With thanks to the Australia Council, I will be part of the Australian delegation comprising Jade Lillie, Bec Allen, Kelli McClusky, and the Australia Council’s Tony Grybowski and Wendy Weir. Kelli is presenting in the longtable on politics, activism and the arts, and I am chairing the session on the democratisation of advocacy campaigns.      >>> After the event: here’s my Storify.

Artlands Dubbo has a strong focus on Indigenous arts as well as recent research and best practice from all over regional Australia. The Regional Arts Victoria team will reprise our Special Agents role initiated by Ben Fox at Arts & Edges Kalgoorlie, and I will speak on place and transformative projects. We also launch Victoria as the home of Artlands 2018, with plenty more to share with you on this across the coming year.    >>> After the event: here’s my Storify.

Arts Front 2030 by Feral Arts hopes to help shape the future of culture and arts in Australia by developing a shared vision, building a national network of collaborators, and planning joint campaigns and projects. It’s a three-day unstructured gathering of 100-200 self-selected and invited participants on 23-25 November 2016 at Footscray Community Arts Centre that begins a four-year process which has been funded by the Australia Council.   >>> After the event: here’s my Storify.

What might it mean to develop a shared vision for the arts? Is it a manifesto on what drives us? Is it a policy vision for government? Is it about the ways in which we work – an ethics, a code of practice? Is it the development of a uniquely Australian perspective, a characterisation of the arts sector? Is it a mapping of the scale and scope of the arts? Or a shared agreement on what a national network of collaborators could achieve together? A set of key messages for those joint campaigns and projects?

And how would you go about achieving that? Open discussion? Visioning brainstorms? Expert talks? Policy workshops? Media engagement sessions? Government relations insights? Advocacy skill-shares? Campaign scenarios? Political reality-checks? Leadership development? So many options, so many platforms.

We embark on such adventures not knowing the answers, and that’s what makes them so critical – and yet, it’s vital that we know the questions we’re asking. Structure sets you free: when we know the frameworks in which we experiment, we can take the greatest risks, knowing that we’re not inventing the process at the same time as taking those confident strides. A robust framework allows you to plan unintended consequences: to generate what nobody would’ve thought possible. Facilitation is the most intriguing of the artforms.

Being open to asking questions is invigorating, keeping in mind that a danger in starting from scratch to envision a vision is that there is no blank slate, no politically neutral position. As soon as you assume a canvas that is white, you’ve already introduced considerable risk. So much has come before. What were the lessons learnt through the vision developed by the former Arts Action: Australia and Arts Industry Council of Australia that led to Paul Keating’s Creative Nation? And the extensive national consultation for the more recent National Cultural Policy? What have we learnt from the 2,719 submissions to the 2014-15 Senate Inquiry? How have past leaders and collaborators in the development of these visions applied that thinking to subsequent work? What worked? What didn’t? What do they wish they’d done differently? How best to engage with a government whose principled preference is for policy to emerge from industry strategy developed by industries themselves? How can we develop a vision that can have real and lasting national impact, while at the same time, creating a process for the timely renewal of that vision?

Momentum has been lost since the National Arts Election Debate. At the same time, a great many conversations are happening across the country among artists, as well as among experts in artistic leadership and cultural policy development. With no national body that’s an advocate or reference point for strategic advice or policy development, the arts is at a perilous disadvantage compared to other industries; at the same time, the more well-resourced voices of individual organisations advocating to government have an impact that can be disproportionate to their actual outputs and impacts on the arts more broadly.

Across the world, there are a great many models for us to examine as we consider our next steps:

  • What Next?: a movement bringing together arts and cultural organisations from across the UK, to articulate, champion and strengthen the role of culture in our society. What Next? chapters across the UK meet regularly to build alliances outside of the cultural sector, build relationships with local and national government, and engage the public in new and different conversations about the arts. It’s an hierarchical, distributed, dispersed network of advocates.
  • Arts Observatories: groups that act as clearing houses, collecting, analysing, re-packaging and disseminating resources on the arts, with the objective of supporting advocacy processes and influencing policy making. See the Melbourne UNESCO Observatory of Arts Education and other UNESCO Arts Observatories.
  • The International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA) is the global network of arts councils and ministries of culture. Their vision is for a world in which arts and culture thrive, and are recognised by governments and peoples for their contribution to society. As well as supporting its member organisations and their leaders, policy makers and researchers, IFACCA presents the annual global arts summit, to be held this year in Malta.
  • Culture Action Europe: the biggest umbrella organisation representing the cultural sector at the European level, working on European cultural policy issues with immediate access to EU decision makers. Widely recognised as a unique resource of expertise on the EU and its cultural policy. EU institutions see CAE as the first port of call for informed opinion and debate about arts and cultural policy in Europe.
  • Americans for the Arts: a well-distributed national advocacy network for advancing the arts through advocacy, research, training, and leadership and network development.
  • League of Culture: a UK advocacy body for the culture sector that connects grassroots campaigners with decision-makers in cultural policy, and explores ways in which creative activities can be used to aid a non-creative issue.
  • Artist-focused models like Artist Pension Trust and Arts Emergency are sophisticated collaborations on specific matters, reflected in Australia by fledgling groups like The Protagonists as well as Frontyard Projects.

Our own next steps will unite the arts and cultural industries like never before in Australia: diversifying our approach, strengthening our advocacy, and making it possible to address decision-makers within and beyond government in meaningful ways. As well as never again seeing a repeat of damaging funding cuts through unjustifiable policy change, we will develop a shared vision that’s not simply defensive, but constructive. Let’s ask some good questions together.


Join the global, regional and national arts conversations along my travels on Twitter.
IMAGE: My mind-map of the Unexpected Partnerships longtable facilitated by Magdalena Moreno at the IFACCA World Summit.