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Performing Arts Centres Australia (PAC) 2018 Conference, Karratha – Tony Grybowski

Speeches and Opinions
Sep 11, 2018

·  Acknowledgement of Country – The Ngarluma People.

·  Acknowledgement of PAC Australia and the invitation to attend.

Two weekends ago I was in Melbourne at the opening of a show, by visual artist, Danie Mellor, in a commercial gallery. Known for his large contemporary pieces evoking landscape and cultural history, he created a significant and inspiring new work stretching across an entire wall, titled “Land Story”,  using infra-red photography showing hidden stories of the past in the present image.

Danie received an Australia Council Fellowship in 2016. He told me that fellowship had allowed him to take “time out”, to “experiment”, “explore“ and develop “new techniques and media”. The result – a major shift in direction for him, which can only be described as “Big, Bold and Visionary”.

Only a few days before, I was standing in the state-of-the-art Indigenous recording studio, part of the Buku Yirrkala Arts Centre in Nhulunbuy, in the far-eastern tip of the Northern Territory. Started by Will Stubbs 25 years ago in one room, previously part of the hospital, it is now one of the leading Indigenous arts centres in the country.

It comprises various parts. It is now famous for the ceremonial poles, and bark paintings; it has a premier print studio with its own press, and a small cinema showing Indigenous films to the local community and visitors. It positively hums as a gathering place for all members of the community. Much of this is down to the work of Will, who put the foundations in place, brought the right people together, had a vision – and saw it through.

Both of these are shining examples of cathedral thinking which I’ve introduced to many of you before. For those unfamiliar with the concept, this acknowledges that we are all custodians.

Our work has immediate benefits but must be seen in terms of what it can contribute to the future, and the impact of the second and third phase consequences of our investments, our work and our vision.

A cousin of cathedral thinking is cathedral wealth. This acknowledges that 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. Think of the cathedral at Chatres or in Barcelona – Gaudi’s “La Sagrada Familia” – which is where the concept is drawn from.

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.

The longer I held custodianship of this precious agency, the more that cathedral thinking; the value of smart, purposeful partneringbuilding cross-sector relationships; and strengthening the entire arts ecology, informed both my day-to-day work and my long-term strategic planning.

When I started in the role, the government had endorsed 18 of the recommendations of the independent review of the Australia Council. In addition to addressing those recommendations, of course. I had my own list of what I wanted to achieve. At that stage in my career I had worked for 18 years, and interacted and dealt with the Australia Council as a member of the arts sector. I had always been a little unsure of Council, and sometimes it felt a little impenetrable.

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 four key agendas. Half way through my term a fifth emerged and will be critical for the future for the Council.

The first agenda was about putting the architectural plan in place. The Australia Council had never had an overarching strategy and that was our first task. However, in order to know what that plan would look like, I spent the first 12 months speaking to as many people in the sector as possible, consulting widely and across all disciplines. We worked endlessly with our Board, Executive Team and staff – this was not my vision alone, but one I was guiding and steering.

A national road tour over about 3 months helped get input and clarity on some stand out key words – words that resonated and mattered to you. Words, some 16 of them, that resonated with the sector and became the pillars of our vision – nicely fitting under four key goals. Fifteen months later we launched our Strategic Plan – Culturally Ambitious Nation. This landmark document was our inaugural strategy and one that was well received and has guided us through the last 4 years.

For me, knowing and “owning” your strategy and then sticking to it, is critical for any leader. This helps create stability during the toughest times.

The second agenda, that to grow, our bricks and mortar needed to be robust and clear and clean. This led to the reform of the existing grants model (and progressively many other programs and initiatives) which had served the sector well over many years, but had grown (like a big but entwined fig tree) without a clear and singular vision and become labored and overly complex.

Following a 2-year consultation, (and some very clear calls from the arts sector) the Council initiated the biggest structural reforms in its history, moving from art form focused structure and reducing an extraordinary 154 grant categories (with 54 annual closing dates) down to five categories and three closing dates. This massive change required a shift in perception and message – and, I admit, sometimes nerves of steel.

Third on the agenda, was a recognition that the Council wasn’t as diverse as it needed to be. In addition to general broader diversity, we also had a single unit focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, and we aspired to having First Nations arts and culture embedded right across the organization.  I honestly feel in the last 5 years, as a country, we have turned a corner on recognising the incredible contribution of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts community to our national story. The fact we now refer to First Nations is part of that shift and broader recognition.

Similarly, as a national agency, we needed to reflect the diversity in our nation and advocate strongly for more diversity in the arts and among our arts leaders.

Fourthly, we strengthened our foundations through long-term research and advocacy, enabling us to become a national repository of knowledge of the arts sector. This is still a work in progress, but I am proud of the advancements we have made, the research papers we have released to date and the foundations that we have put in place for an increased and impressive output planned for the future.

And, several years into the role, a fifth agenda became really apparent – that we were falling behind the advances of technology and in order to ensure that we could withstand disruption, we initiated a major internal reform of our business systems and IT (our internal wiring you could say!) to help future proof the Council. To become more efficient, flexible, mobile, and, optimise the systems and technology that had emerged.

These agendas inevitably overlapped and like a ‘pincer movement’, advanced slowly side by side and became a massive reform period. The future looked bright!

But as many of you would know, you can have the best laid plans and then events take over. The changing nature of the political climate means you are often going to be deflected or challenged. During my 5-year term, I have worked with three federal arts ministers and through two federal elections and ongoing and regular interaction with many state and territory ministers and their departments.

You learn quickly the need to be pragmatic in the face of external pressures. To try to remain true whatever is happening around you. To develop resilience, and your own rituals that will keep you facing true north.

Sometimes the sheer complexity of the task ahead was daunting; managing planned and unexpected change. I also realized through this period, that while it was a small agency of 100 staff, our stakeholders were broad – from the person on the street through to the Prime Minister. Everyone had a view, and gave it to me!

Since establishing the new open and simplified grants model, we’ve received and assessed over 14,000 applications in just three and a half years. (The diversity of demand for support just continues to grow). These applications are reviewed and now assessed by peers from a pool of “700-plus experts” representing diverse areas of practice, demographics and geographies. The success is evident in the 20% plus, first time applicants we support in each round.  We currently have the capacity to invest $18 million per annum in the grants program and $29m per annum in four-year funding for some of Australia’s leading “critical and precious” small to medium arts companies.

What has become clear is that reforms and our granting “architecture” and assessment model works. But the concern I have, is the excellent “engine” we have created needs more fuel to support and drive the Australian arts ecology.

So, what were my guiding principles, that helped me navigate and deliver through this exciting time of change?

Firstly, what I loosely call, “brokering and convening”– not between goods and services – but between and among artists, and art administrators. Bringing the right people together, creating the right platforms, for people to exchange ideas and being at the sector-led and driven conversations – just as you are doing here today in Karratha. I certainly hope that in the future the Council will have far greater capacity to support these platforms, gatherings and convenings that are critical to having the right dialogue and connectivity.

This is collaboration with purpose. It’s not just meeting to talk about the same thing, but the right thing. It’s about the quality of the conversation and who’s in the room. These cross-sector partnerships are what will support arts ecology, especially when faced with economic, social and technological disruption.

For me, this connectivity across the art sector, working to strengthen and participate, is critical to our long-term success.

This brings me to my second guiding principle, the need to invest in strong arts leadership, now and for the future. We needed to support our master artisans and arts administrators, to help them leverage their expertise become even better at what they were doing. This capacity building in the sector was critical for us to grow.

I could see a significant gap in affordable learning opportunities to ensure we build the future arts cathedrals of this country. We could foresee that if we didn’t invest now, the next generation of arts administrators would not rise to the next level.

Under my watch, I passionately drove this capacity-building program, and as many of you have experienced, it’s now been delivered to 100s of leaders in all genres and fields, with an impact that will last 10-20 years. So far it’s had a 95% positive impact on individual careers.

This leads to my third guiding principle, view all strategy as holistic.

This means seeing the interdependent nature of what we do – it comes back to strengthening the relationship between our artists, the art sector and our audiences.

You can’t just think about the canvas, or the brush strokes. You need to stand back and see the whole work. This is also where second and third phase investments are realised.  This is also why we remain committed to what I describe as a sensible and necessary “holistic approach” for strategic investment and development in the arts, to work closely alongside our open grant programs.

We’ve seen ongoing success across the arts sector as a result of this targeted strategic investment approach both nationally and internationally: for example, in the Council-led delegations to 25 international platforms, art fairs and markets across Europe; in our Visiting International Publishers program which has increased the rights sales for Australian authors; and our decision to broker 3 roles for international development managers in North America and Europe. This range of activities remain critical for the future success of all Australian artists, both nationally and globally.

There are several pieces of the sector-landscape that will remain unfinished for me personally, but are well advanced and will be addressed shortly, as they were always part of our overarching strategy and plan. These reforms are equally critical to the sector now and the arts ecology for the longer term.

I am pleased to report we have certainly listened and have a blueprint for the future. I particularly refer to our role in managing some important arts government frameworks and I specifically refer to the Major Performing Arts Framework (and the Playing Australia regional touring program, of particular benefit and interest to many in this room today) – we have advocated and advised the Government and its Department, on appropriate reform in preparation for the meeting of Cultural Ministers that takes place next week. I am optimistic of receiving national support for necessary reform, and while changes are “evolutionary rather than a revolution”, and subject to further consultation, this will, over time, address many of the concerns we have all had and will lead to transparency, refresh and growth.

My fourth principle is the power (and necessity) of co-investment. A very powerful but simple fact should be in all our minds. Over the next 15-20 years, 55% of private wealth in Australia will change hands. As people become more socially aware, they are leaving money to trusts and foundations and the Australian community. They want to be part of growing cathedral wealth for future generations. Philanthropists not only want to give, they subscribe to the Council’s vision. That’s hugely affirming.

Our first successful partnership was with the Perpetual Foundation, entrusting us with $1.3 million in arts scholarships to deliver on their behalf. We have also secured a new scholarship for women in music in partnership with the Harding Miller Foundation, as examples of two new relationships.

There are untapped opportunities for co-investment. Currently, we have a model where the local and state government co-invest with arts organisations. But in the future the federal agencies, whether health or educations, could also be co-investment partners. We’ve already done that with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – very successfully.

The Department wanted to invest in our programs to enable arts leaders from the pacific and Asia to collaborate and participate in our programs. The reciprocal benefit is profound and long-term for Australian artists.

But we could not have achieved any of our reforms and changes without support from the sector. There has been changes and it has, at times, been very hard.

I am not going to revisit today the budget changes, and the challenges it brought. What it did bring however, was an incredible wave of support and unity across the arts sector.

A senate enquiry was established, which spanned many months, and is etched in my memory as I read submission after submission and endless transcripts in support of our independent body administering arts funding, transparency, greater investment and a process that enables artists to ensure their “freedom of expression”.

Not everyone agrees 100% with everything we do. But those 2000-plus submissions endorsed the role of the Council.

They gave me the injection of adrenaline and the motivation to stay the course. Personally, it was very humbling.

As a leader, we all know the challenge of maintaining our eye on the horizon.  When faced with external challenges, it’s even more important to hold to your original vision.

Certainly, the government’s budget changes did “test us”. But it was then, more than ever, that we needed to stick to the architectural plan that provided the foundation and stability for our Cathedral.

Through that difficult period – many across the sector said; “resign”, “stand up for yourself”, “make a fuss…

It was believing in, and holding to our inaugural strategy, that enabled us to weather the storm. I experienced incredible leadership and support from our Board, under the leadership of our Chair, Rupert Myer. Not one of our Board members or Executive team resigned. We all cared about the arts sector too much and we were committed to the challenge.

A calm and resilient demeanour, sticking to our strategy, working with the government and new minister, was our plan.

I will never forget a Board meeting after the budget decisions were announced, and our Board was considering options. Our Deputy Chair, Lee Ann Buckskin was very clear – maintaining our support and commitment to our strategy was more important than ever! The Board was unanimous with its support.

Ultimately, our recommitment to the Culturally Ambitious Nation strategy meant that when a large majority of the funds removed were returned in March 2017 – a significant policy turnaround – I am pleased to say, we were still on track.

So, as I end, I’d like to touch on – to my mind – the 3 big ticket issues that are going to shape us all in the future. In mid-2016 I attended a global leadership conference, part of the World Economic Forum, and this helped crystallize my thinking during my final two years as CEO.

During that conference, neither Brexit nor Trump had happened. Both were predicted as likely, if not inevitable.

As leaders we, firstly, need to accept that political and economic turmoil is our new operating norm.

Secondly, that the shift in the global economy means continued modest growth, but not global collapse.

Thirdly, that we are now fully into the technological and information, data-driven age. Consequently, the future of our workforce will change beyond all recognition with the rise of AI and machine learning.

So, what does that mean for the Council, and the arts?

I believe it is a great opportunity!

Creativity and a creative mindset is increasingly being seen as the way to out-smart the robots, and, will be critical to the future of a successful community and nation.

Numerous global studies affirm this!

The future of work will prioritise the place of human creative capacity. In this scenario, artistic occupations are an area of potential growth. This was recently confirmed by a UK study which forecasts that creative occupations will grow by 5.3 per cent over the next six years. That is double the projected job growth across the UK economy.

So in my handover notes to my successor, I will be encouraging that privileged individual to keep their eye on the bigger vision and meet with you all, to consult and engage, to work with the broader sector and develop and lead a strategy for the next five years. To attend gatherings like this to hear from the coal-face. To take over leadership of building that cathedral knowing that future generations will be the beneficiary.

It has been an enormous pleasure to join you here in Karratha today.

To hear the stories, success and challenges, and, to know that the sector is in good hands as you plan, collaborate, share and learn from each other.

It has also been a great privilege and pleasure to serve the sector in this role.

Thank you again to Rick and PAC Australia for this opportunity today.