Please note: Some of the content on this page was published prior to the launch of Creative Australia and references the Australia Council. Read more.

Australian Regional Development 2018 Conference, Tweed Heads – Tony Grybowski

Speeches and Opinions
Sep 18, 2018

·  Acknowledgement of Country – Minjungbal people, of the Bundjalung nation

·  Acknowledgement of Australian Regional Development Conference

The Australia Council has long seen culture as an essential pillar of sustainable development. We know that investment in the arts improves civic engagement, nurtures individual wellbeing and contributes to happier, more vibrant communities.

Indeed, in Australia, like in so many countries, art, culture and commerce have helped knit our society together.

Here, we also have the incredible contribution of our 70,000-year history of Indigenous culture and storytelling, which underpins and provides a unique foundation to the past two centuries of settlement and migration from around the world.

I like to think of the arts, culture and creativity as like legs on a proverbial three-legged stool. They are interlinked, and separate, but, without one, the stool topples over. They work closely together and form a strong platform for future generations.

You may be surprised to know that arts investment has a demonstrated multiplier effect and a multi-generational impact. It builds culture and strengthens social cohesion.

But what place does creativity have within our communities and workplace? These interrelated topics are the focus of my presentation today.

There is widespread international consensus that the future of work will be driven by creativity and innovation. As our workplaces undergo a rapid shift with the acceleration to AI, further automation, and machine learning, creativity and a creative mindset is increasingly seen as the way to out-smart the robots.

So, given the pace of change, how can we, as leaders, help others harness the power of creativity?

In particular, how can regional communities respond creatively to the challenges, and disruption of our economy and society? What value can we really put on the arts, culture and creativity to help us not simply survive, but thrive in the next 20/30 years, while still leaving a sustainablemeaningfulegacy?

Whenever I travel, I always visit the local library. It’s like the cultural barometer of a community. This morning, I popped into Tweed library – the place was filled with people, a group of older people sitting together at a computer trying to make sense of social media, mothers and children, newly arrived migrants applying for jobs – it certainly felt like a welcoming ‘place to be’.

I’ve felt a similar buzz in other libraries in regional centres, from Cairns to Albury, even Darwin to Karratha, Bendigo, and Alice Springs, from where I’ve just returned.

When I commenced my career some thirty years ago, the “local library” was predicted to close and the “book” predicted to become ‘extinct’.

Fast forward 30 years, in fact, the opposite is true. Libraries have been renewed and thriving community hubs, and books and reading are well and truly alive and thriving.

I’m proud to say that today the arts have a place in the lives of 98% of Australians, according to the Australia Council’s Results of the National Arts Participation Survey.

This is extraordinary when you think about it.

Literature and reading come first, with music a close third. More than half of the Australian population attended live music in 2016!

Australians might not think of themselves as “arty” but the same people surveyed repeatedly tell us that the arts ‘help them think creatively and develop new ideas’… or give ’a different perspective’…

I couldn’t agree more, although I may be biased. As head of the Australia Council, I’ve spent 30 years in the arts, first as a performing musician before I realised my calling was arts administration. Next month my 5-year CEO term at the Council finishes up.

During these past 3 decades, but in particular over the past five years as I have travelled the country, I’ve seen how art and its close cousin, creativity, can shape our world. How it can transform an inner-city laneway and revitalise an entire town. And I passionately believe that art matters — and it matters to us all. I am increasingly not alone.

Back in 1978, on one of those interminable family holidays, our station wagon rolled into Cairns. The foreshore was a deathly place. Nothing but mangroves and a lonely milkbar, haunt my memory.

Since then I’ve been back to Cairns at regular intervals.

I’ve been impressed by how Cairns has now re-invented itself as such a thriving “regional artistic hub”.

In 2015, I was in Cairns towards the end of a national roadshow. Cairns was number 24 out of 26 town halls that I visited as we launched and rolled out Australia Council’s, Culturally Ambitious Nation Strategy.

Thanks to consistent local and state government investment and involvement, Cairns now has many components that form an arts ecology across the town. A gallery, a thriving arts festival, a visual arts fair, market, fashion shows and dance performances.

There are numberous arts’ venues and arts organisations woven into the community. These include the Tanks Art Centre, the foreshore has been redeveloped, the Cruise Ship terminal has a multi-purpose role and hosts the annual “Cairns Indigenous Arts Fair”. Also, the new Precinct project, and the Cairns Performing Arts Centre (CPAC). This amphitheatre-style venue is an impressive addition to the city’s arts scene. As well, of course, as a library that was as busy as ever the last time I visited.

As a consequence of longer-term vision and investment, artists choose to live in Cairns, and a number of small to medium companies have chosen to base themselves there. A strong “community” has developed and it is relevant.

In fact to showcase the diverse creative businesses, cultural organisations and performing artists in the area, this year, the Council developed the Cairns Arts and Culture Map to help visitors navigate the “asset” and put a spotlight on such an asset in the community.

Such a transformation of one centre can be described as building cultural cathedrals – that is creating new forms of art and culture that will be enjoyed by future generations.

In fact, it was in 2015 at a conference in Cairns, at The Tanks Arts Centre that I was first introduced to this concept.

The guest speaker was Rick Antonson who talked about the importance of ‘cathedral thinking’ in his keynote address— “cathedral thinking” is defined in a few moments but it is all about building for the future and not just focusing on short term goals-  thinking about the second and third phase consequences of our investments, our work, our creativity and our thoughts.

Within the world of the arts this can be taken a step further and is known as Cathedral Wealth, where what we create now has the potential to have a multi-generational social and cultural impact.

The concept of “Cathedral Thinking” has become central to my leadership/who I am, and the work we do at the Australia Council – while we do see the immediate benefits of our programs or grants, it is the long-term impacts and support of individuals and organisations that will be realised well into the future – for the artists, the broader community and indeed, the country.

“Cathedral thinking” also captures why it is critical for us to work together and to collaborate to have a shared vision and also make sure we communicate our vision. It also highlights the importance of bringing together those three elements of the proverbial three-legged stool: arts, culture and creativity.

The concept (Cathedral Thinking) comes from medieval times, when architects, stonemasons and artisans laid plans and began building the soaring structures that stand in places like Chatres or in Barcelona – Gaudi’s “La Sagrada Familia.” In those days, those involved often never saw or experienced the final outcome.

And this concept, when re-imagined, can be adapted to the oral knowledge collected and passed down through generations by the First Nations of Australia.

To paraphrase an idea from the Songlines, ‘Tracking the Seven Sisters’ exhibition, held last year in the Australian National Museum in Canberra, it is by telling and teaching our stories, we keep our culture strong. But also, the telling of the story is a statement of how strong our culture is today. 

This concept of Cathedral thinking seems apt for the Australian Regional Development Conference and how we can practically build and create sustainable communities. But being able to do this requires careful foresight and planning to enable future generations enjoy the benefits.

Cathedral thinking is about activating the big vision and remembering that we are just custodians of one small part of a much bigger process.

It requires a far-reaching vision, imagination and a commitment to long-term implementation.

Some here today will know our work well, others will not really have heard about the Australia Council. Let me explain. For over half-a-century the Australia Council has been at the heart of supporting and sustaining our national artistic community. Today, the Council’s role is to advocate for the arts and artists and allocate government’s funding to Australian artists and arts organisations.

Following the biggest reforms in the Council’s history, over the last five years we have succeeded to grow through a difficult period of budget changes, political upheavals and rapid digital disruption.

And overall, the proportion of Australians who agree that the arts make for a more rich and meaningful life has increased dramatically, from 71 percent in 1999 to 85 percent in 2013.

Central to our long-term vision is a commitment that the investments we make increasingly represent the diverse and changing population of Australia. Further, that our funding programs support a range of First Nations artists.

We fund artists from all parts of Australia, and, within the Tweed region, our funding programs support Debele Neur, and Djuki Mala to the First Peoples Music Collective.

The Council is also becoming a national repository of knowledge of the arts sector. Since 2014 we’ve developed greater data and research-gathering capability. This digital platform is already unlocking incredible research highlighting the value that arts plays in our society — and the powerful role that art, culture and creativity plays within our regions.

A snapshot of Australia’s regions indicate that creativity is strong. In fact you may be surprised by the figures.

Not only are residents as likely to creatively participate in the arts as those in metropolitan areas, and more likely to create visual arts and craft, the number of tickets sold for sporting events is often equal to those sold for arts events.

So while it may seem that every sporting field in regional towns are packed on a Saturday afternoon, equally so is the library.

In particular I recall in 2017 when I visited the new Murray Arts Museum in Albury. The $10.5 million redevelopment of the Albury Regional Art Gallery into MAMA, the Murray Art Museum had just been completed.

In Albury’s own cultural cathedral, the project brought together hundreds of people from the planning, development and building, with support from the various layers of government. In the case of Albury, philanthropy also played an important part.

The Murray Art Museum not only engaged but transformed the local community. As I walked through the new galleries, and met with many people, from the mayor to local artists, I could feel the palpable pride in the result.

Albury, like Cairns, has culture across the community, including organisations like the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, Australia’s world famous National Circus for young people, and the Hot House Theatre, both institution located in the community some years ago… but now very much part of the community and act as magnets for the community.

This can be replicated in other regional communities, but it takes long term planning and it doesn’t happen overnight. It is perhaps no surprise that the largest regional audiences I experienced during my 2015 national roadshow were in Albury and Cairns, because of the continued and ongoing investment.

I ask all of you to reflect a minute on your centre, what is the current level of artistic commitment in the community, and what could it be in the future? What is the gap and how could it be filled?

Our research suggests that regional cultural development creates benefits for local communities and economies in three key ways.

Firstly, with Social cohesion.

Secondly, Well-being.

Then there are those art projects that exceed all expectation, and take on a life of their own. Such an example is the Kulata Tjuta Project established in 2010 at Tjala Arts in the community of Amata.

Kulata Tjuta Project began as an intergenerational mentorship program. The arts project was introduced in a community that had high youth suicide and it taught, particularly the men in the community, the tradition of spear making that was once an innate part of their lives.

Together with the artists at the Tjala arts centre, this turned into a major national arts project. The spears – in their curated form – have gone on to become arts objects in themselves in galleries across this country. So it not only had social impact in the community, it also had a cultural heritage and significant artistic impact.

I come across many projects like this one. It reminds me how art can reshape our perspective, and transform lives in unexpected ways – for me, this is why art matters to us all.

To quote Frank Young, Kulata Tjuta artist, ‘We need young people to be standing behind their culture, not behind bars.’

There is a growing body of evidence about the role of culture as the foundation of First Nations peoples’ wellbeing, and of the benefits of First Nations arts and cultural engagement for First Nations people and communities.[1]

We also recognise that Australians want more exposure to First Nations culture and art. In fact, 7 million Australians experienced First Nations arts last year – double the number in 2009.

This leads to my third point on how regional cultural development creates benefits for local communities.

Thirdly, Economic. While business leaders may see arts and a return on investment as strange bedfellows, the Council has always recognised both the social return as well as the economic return when building a strong, dynamic creative economy.

This is reflected in the second and third phase consequences of our investments. We are already seeing how the cathedral thinking approach in the Council’s strategic investment across the arts is paying future dividends, not only financial, but in the strengthening of the arts ecology, increased audience and community participation, and confidence among artists themselves.

So what else can be done to support our regional artists and our communities? Council has been the sole funder of the Cultural Development Network who are co-conveners of the Australian Local Government Cultural Forum, which began in 2013.

The Australian Local Government Cultural Forum promotes stronger cultural development practice in local government across Australia. It brings together the seven state and territory local government associations, eight Australian capital city local governments and the Australian Government Association.

One objective of the Cultural Forum is to identify and collect a set of headline data that tells the story of local government’s contribution to cultural life in Australia. The results are worth sharing.

Data from a sample of 28 local governments estimate the local government contributes over $7 million of cultural assets, capital value, $3 million cultural collections value, and an extraordinary $788 recurrent gross expenditure on culture.

Cultural Forum shows the importance of collating this data, as a way to advocate for the importance of culture, and provide a means to measure benefits and outcomes in places like Cairns. Clearly, there is a huge value in having some common indicators to help us all tell this great story.

Thanks to the Forum and a growing realisation of the importance of arts in our community. We’ve seen an increased capability of local government to support the cultural development in their local area, a more meaningful leadership role of local communities in making and expressing their own culture through creative participation in the arts, and — to my mind, the most exciting outcome — a more influential leadership role by artists in cultural development projects in local government, leading to more successful projects. But that won’t just happen alone – recommend embarking on a “cultural planning process” to have the “architecture” for your own “cultural cathedral”.

Again, this circles back to the importance of engaging with artists in the community now so we get the long-term dividends later.

In fact in regional Australia, this is an area where there is great opportunity.

Today, 1 in 6 professional Australian artists live in regional cities or towns. Craft practitioners, visual artists and community arts and cultural development (CACD) artists are the most likely to live outside capital cities.

So as closing, some thoughts to leave you with.

1. I encourage all of you to think of yourselves as a Cathedral thinker. I know that within government and bureaucracy, that long-term approach bucks the trend. But having seen the multiplier impact, it is the way for us to create sustainable communities and leave a meaningful legacy. 

2. I commend you to the importance of Cultural planning. Look at some communities, and, the work of the National Local Government Cultural Forum in looking how this impact can be “measured”.

3. Within your organisation, and within your own role, can you find ways for cross-sector conversations to happen? Can you facilitate this actively, and bring arts leaders and organisations together to share their “vision”. Instead of seeing the arts and creativity as a bolt-on, take the approach that it can allow other parts of who we are as humans to flourish.

Creating work that endures for generations is surely every great artist’s dream. But to create works that will only be realised centuries from now requires some stretch — or Cathedral — thinking.

The Future Library project is at the forefront of such thinking.

The idea, conceived by Scottish artist Katie Paterson in 2014 is to plant a forest of 1,000 trees in Nordmarka, just outside Oslo.

These will take 100 years to grow.

Each year, one author is invited to contribute a story to The Future Library. Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood was the first writer to submit a story to the project.

In 2114, the trees will be cut down to make paper upon which these 100 stories from the past will be printed, published and read.

Who knows what Tweed library will look like then? Maybe all the books will be electronic.

But people will still be reading, connecting and creating community. Humans will be building worlds and futures for their children and their children’s children.  And while 100 years may sound a long time, in the scheme of things, it’s a blink of the eye.

But taking that long-term view is what matters when building truly sustainable communities, knitted together by shared culture and stories, that stand the test of time for many years to come.

Thank you.

Tony Grybowski