2018: What did this year mean?

It’s been a year of change, connection and reconnection, with many important national conversations about the value of the arts. At the same time, in 2018 we’ve seen Australia’s political leadership neglect and indeed abandon its civic responsibility in unprecedented ways, advancing a national ethic of shallow self-interest at a time when Australia’s diverse communities are more sophisticated than ever in our rejection of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and chauvinism.

What did 2018 mean?

The future of (art in the) public space

The year began with the unexpected urgency of protecting public cultural space from flagrant profiteering – unexpected, as this was not something I ever expected to have to do in Melbourne of all places. A city which has struggled and failed to finally succeeded with Federation Square, and then sold that cultural value to the highest bidder. That theme continued as Nine swallowed Fairfax and immediately announced redundancies after promising the reverse, while Sydney’s White Rabbit founder, philanthropist Judith Neilson, announced a welcome $100m investment into a new centre for public interest journalism. The public space – whether physical, discursive or online – is that place where new encounters can generate the new thinking that grounds and powers democracy. That’s why NAVA held Let’s Do This events in public spaces all over Australia in 2018, and why we spent so much of the year contributing to and reframing the public discussion on arts and culture. Especially on art in the public space.

Cultural practice

This year, for the first time, I published a piece of a private nature, drawing out personal and family histories to interpret the politics of contemporary Australia. The response was overwhelming and I continue to benefit from deeply enriching discussions with writers and with family across the world. My career in the media and the arts began working exclusively from culturally diverse platforms and institutions, orienting those voices to Australia’s blinkered monoculture and not the other way around. Australia has always been a complex multiculture, one I’ve characterised across a range of work, and one whose ethics I’ve had the honour of engaging with for over a decade in my relationship with Diversity Arts Australia. Responding to Voice, Agency, Integrity was a highlight of my year, as was presenting insights into Australia’s contemporary arts at a conference overseas. Seeing my sister and her daughter again, participating in Orthodox Easter rituals as an unlikely custodian of age-old ceremony explained to my little niece, and making a speech on love at the wedding of a very dear friend, deepened the year’s cultural practice in incredibly special ways that continue to resonate with me.

Public ethics

Australia’s political leaders did not shower themselves in glory in 2018. Many times I was reminded of the important lessons in Australia’s Second Chance, where George Megalogenis marvels at how irresponsibly the country’s natural and economic advantages are being squandered – most disappointingly, by persisting in racist immigration policies, as well as deliberately stoking racism. It need not be this way; we have everything going for us as a nation to build a future with confidence. Through four state elections and one federal budget, arts and culture were near silent, and when the arts did rate a mention at the federal level, it was a slap in the face to our foundational Indigenous culture. Political interference in arts and academic funding further exposed that weakness of confidence in independent expertise. And while NAVA sustained our feminist approach across the year, sadly, even ‘women of influence’ can be bought. Making sure that we raise the bar on public ethics through sector gatherings, joint statements and ongoing conversations across Australia was a big focus across 2018 – and this will be even more critical in 2019, a federal election year.

Critical reflection

Starting the year with first-time Alexander Technique brought the body into my critical reflection practice in new ways, and I find that I continue to work through those new understandings. The travels of this first NAVA year have been extensive, and despite a lifelong focus on daily practice and shared reflection, I end the year shamefully behind on my leave for the very first time! Thankfully, I maintained my retreat practice and enjoyed a beautifully immersive writing week among it all. I’ve learnt so very much from artists and colleagues among those travels, and some of these discussions have been recorded as podcasts, including Richard Bell, Mami Kataoka, Elvis Richardson, Chris Fox, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, Gosia Wlodarczak, Soda_Jerk and Jeremy Smith. Amazing. Essential to truly helpful critical reflection is responsiveness to external invitations and constraints. In 2018 this work included launches such as Lunaris, Destinations and An Act of Showing; talks including Who’s afraid of Australian artists?, Creative Conversations Bendigo, Art & Risk after TERROR NULLIUS, Hatched at PICA, CARFAC in Canada, several museums and galleries conferences, Diversity Arts Australia, Artlands, and Artstate; and two RMIT Architecture + Urban Design Practice Research Symposia, at which I’ve been an external critic for well over a decade. At the Monash, AAH and AAANZ symposia I engaged with leading academics working in cultural policy, and that’s been crucial to benchmarking and developing my own approach. We’ve got a lot of good work to do together.

The future

Contemporary art galleries are being built all over Australia on billions of new dollars without any new investment in artists. Arts summits are being presented without any outcomes. New arts policies are being developed without any reference to artists. The new CEO of the Australia Council has his work cut out for him – but so do we. In the absence of national cultural leadership from whose we elect, leadership must be up to us. In advocacy workshops across 2018 I argued that, as inevitable as disengagement feels when politicians lose our trust, when we disengage we actually give more power to those we distrust. And so we must engage more confidently than ever before. The arts clearly means something to those political decision-makers who see themselves cutting ribbons, launching summits or making funding decisions. Let’s draw on one another’s expertise, talk vervently about the new work that seizes our passions and our thinking, and hold decision-makers to account. 2019 is going to be a big year.

 

IMAGE: Photograph by Alex Frayne on Kodak T-MAX 35mm.