Back in 2010 Kultour, now Diversity Arts Australia, commissioned me to respond to their National Multicultural Arts Symposium in a piece for Real Time Arts headed Multicultural Arts: Always Already Mainstream. Today I was honoured to be invited to respond to Voice, Agency and Integrity, Diversity Arts Australia’s action agenda following 2010’s Beyond Tick Boxes symposium.

The National Multicultural Arts Symposium was a day of passion and urgency, examining the pressure CALD artists face to represent community; the collapse of state-based multicultural arts bodies; the pattern of political reappropriation and then quiet rejection of terms such as ethnic, multicultural, diverse, culturally diverse, and even culture itself; the challenge of rejecting those terms ourselves and seizing the mainstream as our own. Mirna Heruc lamented: “Sometimes labels have marginalised us, sometimes they’ve brought us to the centre, but nothing has changed…” Khaled Sabsabi said: “Art leadership is a resistance against the way things are.” And Candy Bowers asked: “How can cultural diversity lead the Australian arts? – Get out of my way.”

So how much had changed come 2017’s Beyond Tick Boxes, and today’s Voice, Agency and Integrity report? While a diversity of artists are making more compelling work than ever before, representation is still woefully low. Compounding that, Australia today is an uglier, more volatile place than in 2010 – and that volatility is deliberately stoked by our political leaders and by the media, each for the same reasons: to mobilise and embolden their shrinking base. Today, racism colonises the public discussion – whether it’s a cartoon, Australian senator or US president, the currency of the public discussion, what it’s trading in, what’s bought and sold, is outrage and offence. And it’s Australia’s First Nations and culturally diverse communities who are suffering because of those threatened by the undeniable reality of Australian cultural diversity. Always was, always will be.

In the midst of all this, the Uluru Statement has been dismissed appallingly, despicably, just like the decade-long treaty work culminating in Corroboree 2000. If John Howard taught the country that we don’t need to apologise, Scott Morrison is teaching us that we don’t need to justify our reasons, and the former ABC chair has just experienced the consequences of that. Both the ABC and also SBS are without a CEO right now, and the ABC without a chair, as the Australian Government persists in disrespecting public institutions that people trust more than them.

On the one hand, intersectional identity politics is understood better and better, even while there are more and more appalling attacks on identity, agency and voice. Even Liberal Party women are talking about quotas. And yet, the arts sector itself is not adapting. Fewer institutions are upholding the NAVA Code of Practice, fewer governments are upholding it, and so fewer artists are actually getting paid. The representation of people from non-English-speaking backgrounds in the arts is less than the workforce average (10% v 18%), according to the latest Throsby Report for the Australia Council, and the gender pay gap is worse in the arts than in other industries. Those artists who can afford to work for free or accept exposure as a form of payment are, of course, those artists from cultural backgrounds and social positions that can access the networks and afford the opportunity cost.

The time of inaction is long past; we can no longer choose to do nothing. Diversity Arts Australia’s action agenda is clear –

  1. Make CALD artists and creatives more visible: showcased by funders and decision-makers in public spaces, stages, books and screens
  2. CALD artists and creatives to take action: join peer assessment pools, measuring outcomes and sharing successes, recognising cultural diversity as a competitive advantage
  3. Measure diversity to increase diversity: create a benchmark for change and hold institutions accountable
  4. Take affirmative action: make funding conditional, tied to CALD priority areas, targets and quotas; create targeted pathways, mentorships and professional development frameworks; ensure the industry holds funding bodies accountable
  5. Create an enabling environment: remove barriers to entry, going way beyond the token and the superficial

and, of course,

  1. Support the work of Diversity Arts Australia to lead, champion and uphold these standards and actions.

2010’s Beyond Tick Boxes had been such an important focus for us all – a lightning rod. Lily Shearer’s call for respect, reciprocity, relationships, responsibility; recognising, identifying and challenging systemic discrimination; the need for greater visibility to counter racism; rigorous critique of artistic excellence as a white construct; the need for a greater diversity of decision-makers; a commitment from Create NSW to make funding conditional on taking action; and new understandings of what leadership means in a time where decolonisation has very much entered the discourse. As we recalled that event today, Tim Soutphommasane’s successor as Race Discrimination Commissioner was announced, and so Tim was unable to join us – he’d been an important voice at Beyond Tick Boxes and his absence was felt. As it turns out, Chin Leong Tang plans to take quite a different approach to Tim’s much-needed advocacy. “Calling out racism is very important, but I want to be very careful that we put things in context – because I do share a view that that can be overplayed sometimes,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Cultural leadership? It must be up to us.

So many powerful artist voices are telling us what needs to be done, and we need to listen – as artists, as leaders, and as human beings.

Most immediately, we need to challenge what we’re institutionalising and what our institutions continue to colonise. We need to overcome the pretence of cultural inertness, of transparent virtue by the grace of our good intentions.

Unless we’re First Nations people speaking from a First Nations perspective, we need to stop talking about decolonisation until we’ve engaged critically and rigorously with colonisation – colonisation not merely as the violence inflicted on this land of which we are all the beneficiaries, but also, colonisation as appropriation, as unreflective value formation, as an uncritical mode of engagement.

What are the values that our institutions exert as a condition of engagement? To what extent are those values gendered? Ableist? Culturally hegemonic? Are we putting First Nations first, last, nor nowhere at all?

How does institutional leadership exert power? What organisational culture, what concept of artistic excellence does that entrench?

Another way of asking this is: How is leadership rewarded? If all a gallery director needs to do for example is bring in ever-increasing millions of dollars, aren’t they likeliest to achieve that by devoting their attentions to the wealth that’s the most stable, the most established? How do they need to behave to achieve that? Who do they need to spend time with? How are they perceived by their staff, and what behaviours do those staff then emulate to exert their own authority within their institution? How does that mode of power disseminate across the independent arts into ARIs, for example, who were asked by Abdul Abdullah at Future/Forward where “all the black and brown people are” in their organisations? What understanding of the work of art does this impose? In Australia today, is artistic excellence an asset, an object displaced from the conditions of its creation, negated from its cultural practice, and celebrated for its quiet, inert presence as an inert object of inert contemplation?

What do our institutions – whether government, non-profit, artist-run – continue to colonise? What’s in their blind spot? How might we rethink our institutions? And as Lina Kastoumis asked today, how might we reconceive the artwork of the future as anything but culturally inert?

To prepare ourselves for following Diversity Arts Australia’s action agenda, let’s question our values, rethink excellence and leadership, and accept that colonisation continues to implicate us. The most important thing we can do in response to this crisis is to advance a confidently mainstream Australian cultural diversity – decisively, with conviction, and honestly, with clear ethics.


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Header image: Diversity behind the camera as well as in front. Maria Tran’s team document Voice, Agency and Integrity. All photographs by Esther Anatolitis unless otherwise credited.