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Australia Council boss Adrian Collette: Cultural tourism at the heart of regional recovery by Adrian Colette

Speeches and Opinions
Feb 13, 2020

Published in The Australian

Creativity connects us, especially in times of uncertainty and emergency. And as the impact of Australia’s bushfire crisis continues, arts and creativity will be crucial to the recovery of our communities.

The cost to communities is profound. The cost to our environment, including our wildlife, is distressing. The cost to the economy — to infrastructure, tourism — is still incalculable.

We know the arts can attract much-needed visitors, both domestic and international. The government has released a recovery package that includes a range of measures to help bring visitors back to fire-affected regions. Arts and cultural activity must be key to these efforts, including festivals, concerts and art installations.

The Australia Council’s soon to be released research, Domestic Arts Tourism: Connecting the Country, provides vital intelligence about the role arts can play.

Before the recent bushfires, domestic arts tourism was on the rise, with more Australians spending more time visiting those communities, which now will need visitors more than ever.

Our previous research indicates the arts are also a drawcard for international tourists, giving them a reason to travel farther and stay longer. Arts give locals the strength to endure and visitors reasons to return.

Arts tourists are high-value tourists — they are likelier to stay longer and spend more when travelling than domestic tourists overall. In 2018, the average length of stay for an arts overnight trip was five nights. In comparison, the average number of nights spent away from home on any overnight trip was 3½ nights. The average amount spent on an overnight arts trip was $1068, nearly $400 more than the overall average overnight spend ($685).

Our artists are often among the first to respond with creative approaches in times of crisis. We have seen artists take the lead in generating public awareness, empathy and direct action. Examples range from the now famous Facebook campaign led by comedian Celeste Barber that raised more than $50m, to the ­authors and visual artists auctioning works, musicians volunteering their time for benefit concerts, and even those creating handcrafted pouches for injured wildlife.

Long after the smoke has lifted and our skies return to blue, artists and their creativity will remain on country, in community, helping us to make sense of the loss, to reconnect and to recover, as local artists have done so many times before.

I’m reminded of the resourcefulness displayed in Strathewen, Victoria, one of the towns that bore the brunt of the Black Saturday fires of 2009. In the weeks that followed, a local artist brought the community together each week to connect, share and create beautiful mosaic letterboxes to replace those that had been burned. This single small gesture marked a symbolic step in a spirited journey from devastation to recovery.

Immediate actions are critical, but long-term efforts are also necessary. Recovery takes time — time to make sense of what has been lost, then to rebuild livelihoods and economies. Sustainable recovery needs a creative approach that drives collaborations and brings together unlikely people to address the problems we collectively face.

Creative projects can strengthen a community’s identity as well as its economy, such as Victoria’s Book Town Festival in Clunes and the Port Fairy Folk Festival, and the Byron Writers Festival at Byron Bay in northern NSW.

It was art that connected a South Australian photographer, an Argentinian artist and five grain silos on the Eyre Peninsula. The result: a towering art installation, and world-famous example of silo art, a locally relevant pin that has helped put Tumby Bay firmly on the tourist map.

A podcast series, Creative ­Responders, an initiative of the Creative Recovery Network, shares stories and conversations with artists, emergency management experts, creative leaders and affected communities from all over Australia as they prepare, respond and recover from natural disaster.

Arts also have helped many endure a drought that looks set to remain, such as the art that connected Kim Williams and Lucas Ihlein with the sugarcane farmers of Mackay on the central Queensland coast, a region and industry still recovering from the 2018 bushfires. Kim and Lucas have been visiting this region since 2014, exploring ways artists and farmers can work together to solve human and ecological problems. Their resulting exhibition shared stories and stimulated important dialogue on complex intersections between environ­men­tal management, social behaviour and cultural traditions.

These are all examples of what art can do and how creativity can connect us.

I believe that we, as a nation, must afford far greater recognition to the immense public value of our arts and creative industries.

Elevating the value of arts and creativity in our public sphere and investment, including in tourism and disaster response, will support the sustainability of our artists. This is essential to ensuring they can continue to deliver public value and impact into the future, whatever it may bring.

Adrian Collette is chief executive of the Australia Council.