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2018 National Forum on Arts and Disability Meeting Place, Alice Springs – Tony Grybowski

Speeches and Opinions
Jun 24, 2018

·  Thank Mary Jane Warfield, Chairperson of Incite Arts for introduction.

·  Welcome to Country delivered by Arrernte elder Sabella Turner

·  Acknowledgement of Country – the Arrernte people.

·  Acknowledgment of hosts Arts Access Australia, CEO Meagan Shand and Incite Arts, and the invitation to speak.

·  Acknowledge the Australia Council colleagues here today – Jeremy Smith and Kate Clark.

Five years ago, our then Chair, Rupert Myer, and I visited a visual art exhibition in Perth HERE&NOW13. This project was the result of an exceptional partnership between the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at University of Western Australia and DADAA.

It brought together eleven of Western Australia’s outstanding artists with disability to explore processes of communication, embodiment and narrative through a variety of art forms including painting, sculpture, drawing, installation, performance and the digital medias.

Rupert and I had been in Perth for a Board meeting and had been encouraged to stay on for the weekend to visit the exhibition.

I remember distinctly walking into the grounds of UWA – a campus with striking and commanding buildings, sweeping lawns, and then into a gallery I had not visited before. I hadn’t really prepared or read the background for the exhibition nor what to expect of the gallery.

This is surely the beauty of art. You arrive with a sense of curiosity and perhaps an expectation to learn something, make a “discovery” or be moved or transformed in some way. You step into and explore a new world.

Rupert and I certainly were moved on this occasion. At HERE&NOW13, audiences were invited to step inside each artist’s own way of knowing and being in the world…and we did.

At that point in my life I had not experienced such an expansive and rich gathering of work by leading artists with disability. As I walked around the exhibition, from room to room, I had that “tingle factor”… I was wanting to know what was going to be around the next corner, in the next gallery space.

Some of the pieces were large form, with strong colours, others went into the minutiae with intricate detail. As I looked at the works, I tried to imagine – as I often do at any exhibition or performance – the artist’s studio, where the work was created – what was the life and circumstance of each artist. What had inspired their work and style?

When Rupert and I left to go to the airport we both shared our excitement with each other. We had indeed been “moved” and certainly learned a lot.

The visit was timely as it coincided with the early stages of the reforms that the Australia Council would go on to deliver over the next 5 years.

These reforms were driven by a central idea – that the artist, regardless of background or medium, should be central to our activities. Also central was our commitment to broad diversity, and raising the profile of artists, to garner wider visibility and reach new audiences – ultimately to get greater recognition.

This, my last public occasion as CEO of the Australia Council, is a mark of my deep appreciation and respect for the arts and disability sector- that this gathering is my last public speaking engagement. In just a few weeks I will complete my five-year term as CEO.

Today I’m also delighted that I can share with you all, news of two new initiatives in support of artists with disability. But, before I get to that, I wanted to make a few remarks on how we have reached this point and the journey of the past 5 years.

It was clear to me when I started my term as CEO at the Australia Council that, while five years may seem a long time, it would be over in a blink of an eye. But that’s all any Australia Council CEO has to make his or her mark, deliver a vision and create impact now, and into the future.

As I mentioned earlier, what I was very clear on was putting the artist front and centre to everything we did at the Council. The artist would always be central to our thinking, and that belief underpinned my key agendas.

As an incoming CEO, I was very pleased to be leading an organisation that had a robust, well developed Cultural Engagement Framework. Our CEF (as we call it) was like an overarching “guide” that recognised and reflected the broad diversity of artists in all communities – covering areas of reconciliation, and the contribution of First Nations people, children and older people, and people with disability, and those in regional Australia.

There were however two areas of our CEF that I looked at first – our Disability Action Plan and our Reconciliation Action Plan.  I knew that as a new CEO of a Federal Agency if we weren’t really strong and “current” in leading work and thinking in these areas, other arts organisations would not follow. This was very much about the important leadership and role in advocacy that we play.

I am pleased to say that the Council has always had a deep commitment to artists with disability and has had a DAP (disability action plan) for more than 20 years. But many things change and we underwent consultation to launch our updated DAP early in my term. The commitments we made then shined a spotlight on areas and qualities that would lead to greater long-term sustainability – leadership, accessibility and arts practice.

As CEO, or, as I like to describe my role: as the current “custodian” of what can only be described as a precious Australian Government Agency, my leadership has been informed and inspired by the concept of Cathedral thinking.

This is a concept/metaphor that I discovered at one of the Australia Council marketing summits and it resonated with me. Cathedral thinking acknowledges that we are all custodians, that we are all contributing to something bigger than ourselves. It is the belief that what is going to make the biggest difference is what, I can only describe, as a movement against seeking immediate or “quick” outcomes. Cathedral thinking could also be described as “anti-short-termism”!

We are all building for the long-term. Much of what we do does, of course, have immediate benefits, but equally important is what it can contribute to the future. I encourage you all to think about what is possible and imagine the “second and third phase consequences of the decisions we make today”.

Particularly within the arts, what we are building is more than financial, our artistic projects have the potential to have a profound multi-generational social and cultural impact.

Fifteen months into starting my role, we launched our Strategic Plan – Culturally Ambitious Nation. This landmark document was our inaugural strategy and one that was well received. It has guided us through the last 4 years. The plan was the result of much thought, sector consultation and the work of our staff, executive and Board.

In 2014, as part of our Strategy and commitment, we delivered the “Sync Leadership Program” for leaders in the arts and disability sector, and, at Arts Activated later that year, I announced a 4-year arts and disability funding initiative. But, as we all know, we live in a turbulent and changing world. Our operating  environment changed and so did our budget. But through this period of change and some turmoil, sticking to your strategy, and “owning it” was critical to both my leadership and the Australia Council.

When our budget circumstances changed dramatically the next year, we had to make some hard decisions. We agreed that maintaining a strong commitment to A Culturally Ambitious Nation, was as important as ever and I am very pleased to say that we stuck to our overall strategy. We did, of course, have to cut some areas and make some other changes, however, we protected the $1m commitment to artists with disability. I am particularly pleased to know that some of the artists supported through that program are here in the forum today.

Last week, we released an important report Creating Pathways: Insights on support for artists with disability. The report brings together findings and insights from research undertaken by the Australia Council in 2017–18 into the dedicated funding program I announced 4 years ago. The research contextualises this with wider literature and research about artists’ careers and contemporary arts practice. The findings have informed the Australia Council’s next strategic investment in the arts and disability sector, and they shape the input we are providing to our colleagues at the Department of Communication and the Arts as they lead the work on the National Arts and Disability Strategy. My colleague from the department, Dr Stephen Arnott will be talking more about that work shortly.

There is no question that a diverse funding approach delivers some fantastic outcomes. The artists we supported  created some innovative projects and there were a number of first time applicants to Council.

But, taking the long-term view, what were some of the ways that we could make this more impactful and help build greater long-term sustainability?

Long-term sustainability is achieved through creating “resilience”, increasing capacity and providing strong leadership. With these areas as a focus – we achieve a sound platform for growth.

I will let you read the further findings in the Creating Pathways  report which has some fantastic examples and illustrates just how artists with disability are vital contributors to Australia’s arts and culture. Their work offers excellence and artistry, and engenders dialogue, empathy and understanding.

Which brings me to the announcement of two new investments and initiatives which I am delighted to tell you about today.

There are two key components to this announcement:

The first is about capacity. We are supporting new structured mentorships as part of a practice-based project or career development opportunity for artists with disability. These will be designed to be particularly beneficial for artists who have not yet been able to access the Council’s grants program.

Secondly, we will launch two new national awards to celebrate the achievement of artists with disability, for an established at $50k and an emerging artist award at $20k. These awards will open early next year and the recipients will be announced on International Day of People with Disability in December 2019.

The Australia Council will be making a commitment to $750k strategic investment in artists with disability over the next 3 years.

Close, and some future areas for consideration.

As my final speech in the role, I am so pleased to be here with you all today in Alice Springs. Looking at the depth of the program and the line of up artists I have no doubt you will have an extraordinary few days. Having the important conversations, learning from each other, sharing your experiences. And, making an important contribution to the “cultural cathedral of the future”.

It is important to remember a simple but important point – the Australia Council only exists because of the arts sector! And even though I will no longer be “custodian” of the Council, I know my successor and our team will continue to work with, and build on, the current work of the Council over many years to come, and ensure a strong dialogue and relevance to this particular part of the arts community is maintained.

All of us, in our different ways, are building these cultural cathedrals for the future for the long-term growth and increasing sustainability of a vibrant arts community – something that we all share in common in the room today.

It has been a great privilege and pleasure to serve the arts sector in this role and I thank you for all your advice and support.

Thank you again to Arts Access Australia and Incite Arts for this opportunity today.