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Kathy Keele Addresses The Regional Arts Nsw Annual Congress Dinner

Speeches and Opinions
Oct 31, 2007

Australia Council CEO, Kathy Keele, discusses the role of the arts and cultural development in regional, rural and remote Australia, and considers the future direction of the Australia Council.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people, the traditional owners of this land.

Thank you all for the invitation to join you at dinner this evening, and thank you Elizabeth (Rogers) for the kind introduction.

It’s a pleasure to be here tonight and to see so many familiar faces in the room – notably Jack Ritchie who is a member of the Australia Council’s Community Partnerships Committee. I look forward to meeting more of you before this night ends.

Tonight, I’d like to speak about three things:

First, my impressions of what the arts and cultural development mean to regional, rural and remote Australia;

Second, some background on the valuable partnership that has developed between the Australia Council and Regional Arts Australia – of which Regional Arts NSW is an important member.

Third and finally, some observations of the Australia Council after three months in the hot seat and my thoughts on the future.

1. What the arts and cultural development mean to regional Australia

As those of you who are familiar with my background might know, I’ve worked for some of Australia’s most important corporate names – such as BHP and Telstra – companies with operations in far-flung and remote places across this big nation and around the world.

These are companies that are committed to, and invest in local programs that promote community engagement and sustainability often using the arts as the medium.

I’ve witnessed firsthand the contribution of the arts in country Australia, from community building; regional economic development; the welfare of young people; to positive futures for Indigenous Australians. Many of these programs involve touring our iconic companies such as the Australian Opera, Bell Shakespeare, or our orchestras. But often these are programs are grown out of the community itself.

One of the first lessons that I learned in supporting community programs is that each community has its own ideas about what programs they want to develop. The one-size fits all approach was not the best way for long-term community involvement – for either the company or the community.

More recently, I’ve become more intimately acquainted with regional arts; acquiring a lot of local state and territory knowledge and a deeper knowledge of the business of the arts right across the country. I became familiar with quite a number of inspirational programs and partnerships:

Partnerships like the one between Australia Post and Opera Australia, which received AbaF’s 2006 QantasLink Regional Award.

A three-year sponsorship agreement that made Australia Post the principal sponsor of OzOpera whose core activities include a rural and regional operatic tour and a Schools Company tour that performs in primary schools in NSW and Victoria.

This partnership helped take regional tours of productions such as Carmen and La Boh�me to thousands of people in regional areas, many seeing opera for the first time.

And at the other end of the spectrum is the work of Feral Arts, the community based arts company, in Queensland. They’ve worked for more than three years with land owners and traditional owners in the Dalrymple Shire to address issues of land and water useage with innovative media arts and digital story telling techniques. Such is the impact of this work that, I’m told, Feral Arts is currently in the US showing their brethren in rural communities in the US just how effective it can be.

You don’t need me to tell you how important the arts are to the one in three Australians who live in regional, rural and remote parts of this great nation.

But as much for my own confirmation, allow me to play back some of the messages I’m hearing and include some personal observations.

The arts are important social glue in regional communities. They contribute to social capital, promote belonging, assist when populations are changing and help build and strengthen regional communities.

The arts stimulate smaller communities that don’t have the plethora of activities available in the cities and bigger centres.

The arts help engage young people and help them express themselves in their own way and connect, contributing to more fulfilling lives for regional youth and serving as a diversion from anti-social behaviour.

The arts can serve as a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The arts sector contributes to regional economic development – generating jobs, income, infrastructure investment and tourism.

The arts sector is growing in regional Australia at a time when other sectors, such as farming, are declining.

The value of the arts simply can’t be overstated in hard-pressed communities where economic pressures and isolation can wear people down.

A vibrant arts sector is an ‘attractor’ in drawing professional people to regional communities and then retaining them.

Regional arts help tell city folk stories of life beyond their concrete jungles and challenge perceptions that nothing much of artistic merit happens beyond the bright lights and city limits.

The truth is hundreds of regional, rural, remote and very remote communities have established an arts landscape as distinctive and as ‘Australian’ as this country itself.

I have just finished reading Lyndon Terracini’s Platform paper called A Regional State of Mind. Lyndon has a long career of making regional art and in doing so has a keen sense of the value of community involvement in the development of art. This is a refreshing discussion about the role of rural and regional arts in the bigger mosaic of Australian Arts and expresses many of these same thoughts, but with a challenge to us all: How do we more fully support rural and regional arts.

2. Australia Council/Regional Arts Australia partnership

As many of you would know the Australia Council and Regional Arts Australia have been partners since the establishment of Regional Arts Australia almost a decade ago.

It’s a partnership we’re very proud of and value for its foundation of goodwill and for the contribution of you all to our shared agenda.

The partnership has developed and delivered a broad range of special programs that have benefited many of the almost 7 million people in non-metropolitan Australia – including the livelihoods of thousands of artists who live and work in the regions.

These projects and programs have added an important dimension to the way in which regional arts activities in each state and territory have been supported at a national level.

From our point of view the partnership has given us ready access to consistent and well-considered information and direction on issues affecting the arts in non-metropolitan Australia.

There have been many milestones and celebrations along the way but two in particular I’d like to mention tonight.

The first is the initial ‘strategic partnership’ established in October 2003 which was supported by an investment of $420,000 over three years to target the strength and sustainability of regional, rural and remote communities in Australia.

The second was the renewal of our partnership in September last year, which builds on these foundations.

Announced at the Regional Arts Australia national conference in Mackay, it includes an investment from the Australia Council of $1.28 million over four years.

We hope that this partnership will continue to increase the engagement of rural and regional and rural communities with the arts and culture; and promote the vibrancy of regional arts and the many benefits they bring to their communities.

We also hope that it will bring our two organisations even closer, as well as being a genuine success story of a “whole of government” approach.

And from the Australia Council’s perspective, we know it will enhance our capacity to deliver some of our programs more effectively and implement some of the key recommendations of the Community Partnerships Scoping Study we completed last year.

The possibilities are simply amazing and I look forward personally to working with you on the program over the coming months and years.

3. Impressions of the Australia Council

In about a week or two I’ll celebrate an important milestone – my first three months in the job.

It’s been a real whirlwind – just coming up to speed with the programs and getting to know the whole home team – not to mention the universe of external stakeholders with whom I’ve also been spending a good deal of time.

As I’m sure you can imagine I’ve had lots of conversations and I’ve listened a lot.

Let me share with you some of my early impressions.

First, I’m really taken with the breadth of Australia Council involvement across art forms, from the more traditional practice areas to the constantly evolving, highly innovative new media. We get involved at all point of the value chain from artist development to audience engagement. We recently had a look at the long history of the Australia Council and I got a real sense of the progress that the arts sector has experienced over the 40 years of the Council.

I’m also impressed with the range of expertise, commitment and passion of Australia Council staff, of the members of our peer review boards and on the governing Council.

The challenge for us is to ensure that all the good work that’s being done right across the country has impact and that we continue to focus on our two key priorities – artistic excellence and audience and community engagement – in the most efficient way possible.

Of course this raises the issue of how we define and measure impact and we’re currently looking at this issue in a very focused way.

I’d be keen to learn how others such as you are meeting this challenge.

I think there are also a number of areas where we could do things in a different and potentially better way.

We’ve collected a storehouse of ideas about change across a broad spectrum of the operation and we have a number of reforms and improvements already underway.

Let me share a few of them with you.

At the top of my (short) list is managing the perception about bureaucracy and being process-driven.

And to address this we’re taking a forensic look at our systems and processes, stripping out any embedded inefficiency and cumbersome red tape.

Our financial management and reporting systems, too, need a major overhaul and we have some options currently being developed.

Our website with its labyrinth of content has a short remaining life and we’ll bring you a better communication channel in the second half of this year.

And some of the great innovation I’m seeing – like the use of iPods for distributing support material for music and media arts applications – is being shared among teams and across the organisation.

The great news, from my perspective, is that the initiative for much of this change is coming from our staff, many of whom have been constrained in their decision-making and service delivery capabilities by the inefficiency of our administrative arrangements.

Looking now to the future…

Some of you might not be aware that we are a relatively new leadership team at the Australia Council.

As you know I’ve been in the job less than three months. Our chairman James Strong has been onboard for less than a year and we have several new members on the governing Council. And of course we have a new, fully engaged Minister for the Arts, George Brandis.

We are currently undertaking a strategic planning review of what the Australia Council is, what we do, what our impact is and what we can do better.

This is simply in order to better understand the current challenges and identify opportunities on the road ahead.

This strategic review is a natural part of the business planning cycle of any well-oiled organisation.

Despite recent media speculation it’s not a precursor to another restructure, nor is our focus on cutting staff.

At the Council meeting in Adelaide two weeks ago, we took our first steps with an audit and lively discussion of what it is we do.

And in June we’ll be taking an objective look at the arts sector in Australia.

We warmly welcome any input you might have to this process – particularly any ideas or suggestions for what other things we could be doing or different approaches we might take.

This will culminate in a two-day strategic planning session by the Council this July – the outcome of which will be a roadmap into the Australia Council’s future, a future shaped by a more outward looking and responsive organisation focused on achieving measurable outcomes for the benefit of the Australian arts and all Australians.

I’d like to conclude by reaffirming our commitment to the partnership with Regional Arts Australia – and its member organisations, like Regional Arts NSW.

We’re grateful for your cooperation and support.

We’re also grateful for your friendship and generosity of spirit, and I’d like to thank you again for inviting me here this evening.

I’m sure you’ll agree that we’re at the beginning of an exciting new chapter for the arts in Australia.

Finally, I’d like to commend you all on the remarkable work you do right across New South Wales. And acknowledge the significant support provided by Arts NSW and the local governments that support the regional arts boards in NSW.

You help give a voice to your artists, make the arts more accessible, and put culture at the heart of community life in every corner of the state.

Thank you and good night.