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Darwin Arts Sector Conference – Adrian Collette AM

Speeches and Opinions
Nov 12, 2020

I acknowledge the Larrakia Nation, owners and custodians of the land you are meeting on today in Darwin and also the custodians of this land from which I speak, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.

The Larrakia lands of Greater Darwin host a dynamic, creative city – home to many talented artists, passionate audiences and a rich cultural life.

I’m sorry I can’t be with you all in person, though I’m pleased two of my colleagues, Trish Adjei and Andy Donovan are with you, and I look forward to being able to visit again soon.

I also look forward to the resurgence – the efflorescence – of public expressions of creative energy when we emerge from the many challenges of 2020.

I am inspired by the theme of this year’s conference: Resilience and Re-imagining.

This has certainly been a year that has called for both, in urgent and compelling ways.

Little did I know that as my family and I drove out of the threatening bush fires on NSW’s south coast on New Year’s Eve this year, that – like  all of us – we would be challenged by something more stealthy and more threatening as this ghastly year unfolded.

Resilience has been required of all of us as we faced the many individual and shared trials of COVID lockdowns, border closures and restrictions on our normal lives. As necessary as these were, they ran rough-shod over careers, livelihoods and wellbeing.

Politics aside, the response in this country – the civic-minded, community-spirited response – has been nothing short of inspirational; an enduring signal that this is a country that can largely govern itself in threatening circumstances.

I know I’m preaching to the choir when I acknowledge how immediate, intense and devastating these challenges have been for cultural workers and businesses.

I recognise how hard it continues to be.

I’m conscious that while many cultural organisations have been supported through significant local, state and federal government measures, the attempts so far to ameliorate the impacts of the Pandemic don’t address all the complex challenges faced by the cultural sector.

Re-imagining has been required of us all.

In truth, I think the re-imagining has just begun; and this conference will provide an important moment to develop and test our collective ideas. The disruptions wrought by COVID have in some senses accelerated changes that were already coming – transitions to digital solutions; new forms of audience engagement; new business models and a radical rethinking of the value we provide and the reasons we make creative work.

There is opportunity for some in these new ways of working:

  • distance is less of an obstacle when the world is operating on zoom
  • those who have less access to travel may be less disadvantaged
  • many are thinking and engaging locally in new ways.


We must not lose such opportunities, which often ensure equity of access, as we emerge from the COVID cocoon.

To reimagine our approaches and work in light of these possibilities may come up with great innovations that reshape our practices for the better.

These are important considerations, and, indeed, the Australia Council’s current consultation process that will help inform our sector development goes forward under the banner of ‘Re-imagine’.

Resilience and Re-imagining.

While we think about how our sector might build back better, we can also think about this theme another way: from the perspective of what arts and culture does for all Australians.

We know that participation in arts and culture build resilience and make individual and collective forms of re-imagining possible.

Through arts and culture we can fortify our own wellbeing, connect with each other and reach across divides for better understanding. We use cultural experiences to reimagine – to play out – our futures, our history, relationships and contemporary realities.

I think a true engagement with the challenges and opportunities faced by Australia’s arts and cultural sector should look beyond the sector itself: not restricting our focus to what is required for artists and creative workers, we should contemplate what the sector does – for the broader community.

We should consider the immense value the cultural sector provides. How vital it is to the resilience of Australian communities and their capacity to rebuild (especially after this annus horribilis). And how arts and culture enable Australians to reimagine and reshape their futures.

At the Australia Council, we know our support is not only supporting individual artists or organisations but – in very real terms – their audiences, communities and the broader economy.

At the Australia Council we are amassing a growing body of research around Australians’ participation in, and perceptions of, arts and culture.

And the news is good – the evidence is very encouraging – at a time we all need encouragement!

A core piece of this work is a longitudinal study called the National Arts Participation Survey. The latest findings, published last month under the banner Creating our Future, tells a compelling story about how central our cultural participation has become in our lives and in our communities. How much we rely on it. And how much we value it.

The study, drawing from a nationally representative survey of almost 9000 respondents conducted just prior to the COVID outbreak, tells us that arts and culture do a huge amount for everyday Australians.

  • 84% said arts and culture had a positive impact on their lives
  • 56% said it was important or very important for their mental health and wellbeing
  • 71% said it helped them understand others’ point of view (this is critically important; in ways I will discuss later)
  • more Australians than ever before see arts and culture as vital to their children’s education, the future of work and their place in their communities.

These are real, tangible benefits that provide key support for the wellbeing and cohesion of our society.

Creative skills are the skills of the future: problem-solving, collaboration, communication and innovation – uniquely human traits that will become ever more important as more and more of our work and traditional forms of productivity move to automation. Such skills will be vital to the next generation, and we are seeing increasing recognition of this from both educators and employers.

Of course, arts and culture is also vital to helping us understand who we are today. According to our participation study:

  • 75% recognise that First Nations arts are important to our culture.
  • 52% see arts as important to shaping and expressing Australian identity.

We use arts and culture to express and examine our identities both in its making, its consumption, its sharing and its critique.

The survey uncovered high levels of participation in both creative production and engagement for First Nations Australians and Australians of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Cultural participation is not an elite activity. It’s all of us. It is an essential human right.  And for many, including half of CALD Australians, it provides an important way to connect with, and share distinctive cultural backgrounds. 71% of the community now agree that the arts in Australia reflect our cultural diversity.

Why is this important?

Australia’s cultural identity is now more than ever an essential work in progress.

Australia has one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse populations in the world.

Australia is home to the oldest living cultures in the world; shaped by more than 60,000 years of continuous, unbroken Indigenous storytelling.

Our culture reflects two centuries of British settlement.

In contemporary Australia, 46% of us came from somewhere else.

We speak 260 languages and counting.

And identify over 300 ancestries.

Writer, George Meagalogenis, articulates our opportunity and our public policy challenge with great clarity when he writes:

‘Australia is the sum of most nations on earth – half our population…was either born overseas or has at least one parent who was; our two largest cities have crossed the threshold from being Anglo-European to Eurasian – immigration is keeping those cities young…

To find a common voice which speaks to the Eurasian capitals of Sydney and Melbourne and Canberra, the Pacific capital of Brisbane, the Anglo capital of Perth and the cities, towns and regions of old Australia we need to shift the conversation beyond who we were to who we’ve always been: the most welcoming people on earth.

We need to understand and atone for the wretched start to settlement, celebrate the survival of the First Peoples, and draw inspiration from the simple fact that every wave of immigrants…helped to build a peaceful, prosperous nation. Australasia can face the 21st century with confidence if we ensure that all of us are welcome in the new country we are making….

The alternative is a fractured country like the UK or the US, split between those who are globally connected and those who are yelling stop!’

As Megalogenis helps us understand, in social and economic terms, in terms of

public policy or community cohesion, the stakes are high indeed.

To realise our ‘common voice,’ which is radically different to ‘one voice,’ we

need the arts now more than ever.

An essential finding of our Arts Participation Survey is that arts and cultural participation is embedded in all of our lives. 98% of Australians regularly participate through music, dance, books, visual arts, design and live performance.

Often hidden in plain sight, you might say ‘We’re soaking in it!’

The impacts of all this engagement span our most intimate selves – from our mental health and wellbeing or our deepest, reflective worlds to helping us build more cohesive communities and stronger local and national economies.

Our creative and cultural sector is a big employer – estimated at well over 600,000 workers (more than six times the mining industry). It is a great source of innovation, which has multiple positive halo effects in other areas such as health, education and tourism.

Our Domestic Tourism research published earlier this year shows that arts and culture are significant and growing drivers for domestic tourism, contributing $16 billion to the domestic tourism market in 2018 through arts-related daytrips and overnight stays. People who engage in arts tourism are ‘high value’ travellers who tend to stay longer and spend more.

I don’t need to tell any of you about the positive flow-on effects from the crowds who come to the Darwin Art Fair or Darwin Festival for restaurants and cafes, hotels and tourism operators.

Last year, I attended the Darwin Art Fair for the first time. It was vivid, energetic, inspiring. For me, it was also profoundly instructive. The Darwin Art Fair provides almost a perfect model for how the cultural and creative industries actually work at their best. Think about it?

Over 70 Indigenous cultural communities create their highly distinctive work that is exhibited at the show – highly differentiated, deeply rooted creative expression that strengthens each of these local, often regional and remote communities. Individual expression, sure, but also born of coherent community identity and resilience.

Such work is then curated and exhibited at the Fair, prompting thousands of people to come to Darwin from around Australia – and increasingly from around the world -compelled by the art on offer which is unique to this place.

Hospitality and tourism industries thrive, so a different kind of public benefit or value is created.

Art is bought and sold, ethically, because First Nations leadership governs this environment. Millions of dollars benefit creative artists and local communities. And there is even a contemporary fashion show inspired by breath-taking Indigenous design!

From authentic community and cultural expression, to national and international cultural exchange, to commerce and significant economic benefit, I can’t think of a more articulate example of how public value is created through the cultural and creative industries.

So, to recap….

Arts and culture will be key to Australia’s recovery from the health and economic shocks of this year.

Arts participation builds wellbeing, confidence, engagement, mutual understanding. It makes us stronger, more connected, and more open.

It draws us out of our homes, it fortifies our sense of community.

It heals.

It also makes us spend more money.

Engagement. Confidence. Growth. Regeneration.

This doesn’t happen by chance.

We all know what it takes to create arts and cultural experiences of a scale and quality that generate these benefits.

Decades of training, years of development, sector building, the ecosystems of companies, audiences and venues.

We must not take the benefits of all this work, all these layers of recognition, of energy and of trust for granted.

This is a moment for the cultural sector to take stock. To define the value of what we do. To reimagine how we might build back better from our current crises.

And we need to think carefully about who has access.

How we ensure that our creatives, our organisations and our audiences are reflective of diverse contemporary Australia (for all the reasons I have alluded to).

Those of you here who work in First Nations arts and culture will know how long-term and genuine relationships and mutual trust and benefit are vital to success and to sustainability.

This form of thinking should inform all our creative practice.

These approaches take work, commitment and creativity. We can’t just imagine that the ways we have always worked will deliver new outcomes. We need to understand our diverse audiences – the talent emerging from a range of backgrounds and lived experiences – to find the points at which we can meet them and bring them with us.

Many of these opportunities will be digital. Tools that can amplify our intentions and help us do what we do better, connect with more people, deepen their engagements.

We have been forced through the circumstances of this year to address some of these opportunities at an uncomfortable speed, working out solutions on the go, in circumstances that no-one would choose.

Radical re-imagining has been forced upon us. We have the opportunity now, including in the context of this conference, to reflect on and share what has been learned and what might be useful through the many unexpected outcomes of improvisation.

It is great to see the sector coming together to discuss how we can draw on and build resilience and reimagine where this moment will take us next.

Thank you for listening.

Adrian Collette AM