Thursday, July 27, 2017

Arts Value Forum

Arts Value Forum.  Presented by The Childers Group and The Cultural Facilities Corporation, Canberra Theatre Centre, Wednesday July 26, 12.30 – 6.00 pm.

Keynote Speaker: Kate Fielding, Board Member Australia Council for the Arts, Chair Regional Arts Australia.

1.10 pm
What Arts and Culture can do for us; Insights and Reactions; Open Discussion.

Speakers: Kate Fielding; Jenni Kemarre Martiniello; Rachael Coghlan; Dr Natasha Cica; Michael Chappell; Padma Menon; Prof Desmond Manderson

2.40 pm
Focus Groups:
Health – Chair: Raoul Craemer
Speakers: Dr Jenny Macfarlane; Kristen Sutcliffe; John Pratt; Philip Piggin

Economic – Chair: Kate Fielding
Speakers: Kareena Arthy; Liz Lea; Harriet Elvin and Greg Randall; Gretel Harrison

Identity and Social – Chair: Dr Natasha Cica
Speakers: Gordon Ramsay MLA; Don Bemrose; Michael Chappell; Yasmin Masri

Commentary by Frank McKone

The Childers Group, according to Forum chair Stephen Cassidy, is not only independent but is ‘proudly’ unfunded.  This description raised in my mind some issues – for example, about the Group’s relationship with the Cultural Facilities Corporation owned by the ACT Government; or about the perception it may encourage that the arts might be proud to be unfunded; or about the middle-class nature of an arts advocate in this city being able, and proudly, to find its funds independently.

How independent is the Childers Group when this is the fourth event of this kind presented by them ‘in partnership with’ the Corporation?  Or is it better to say that this arrangement allows the Government to remain at arms length and therefore be better able to hear independent advocacy?

Putting my initial thoughts aside, as the Forum got underway the purpose of the partnership became clearer as 100 participants from across arts disciplines, representing practitioners, administrators and government policymakers, heard a keynote and six other speakers lay out their ideas and experiences about what Arts Value in Australia means.  This session was an opening for more focussed breakout groups headed Health, Economic and Identity and Social to hear each others’ stories, questions and responses.

I can confidently report that the variety and level of expertise of the speakers in the opening session succeeded in stimulating discussion in the three groups and clearly created a positive relationship between arts advocates and public service administrators, even up to the ACT Arts Minister, Gordon Ramsay flagging what he implied would be an important positive ‘announcement’ in the not too distant future as he concluded his time in the Identity and Social group speaking and answering questions on Art in an Inclusive Society.

“Watch this space,” he said, proving he well knew the business of creating theatrical anticipation as he left the scene for his next appointment. 

“No,” he told me, smiling, “I can’t say just how long you’ll have to wait.”

As Keynote Speaker, as I had expected from the part she played earlier in the year at the February 23, 2017 launch of Platform Paper No 50 by Lindy Hume: Restless Giant: Changing Cultural Values in Regional Australia (recorded on this blog and at, Kate Fielding gave an artistically well-structured speech – practical while philosophical – on how to talk to strangers (people who say they have little to do with the arts despite reading books, seeing films etc etc etc) who are actually friends (just needing to be made aware that they are already on our side).

She quoted Article 27 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, pointing out that the arts don’t need to have an extrinsic purpose – they are simply a right without conditions, for anyone to create, enjoy and appreciate.  But she criticised the tendency in policy language to characterise the arts as ‘flattening out’ diversity by referring to their being in a general way for ‘our humanity’.  Art, she said, “is the opposite of flattening out” because it delves into the details of each artist’s culture.

(Amusingly, at least to me at this point, prior to her speech I had wished for more flat surfaces in the typically crowded conference style finger-food lunch with plate and serviette in one hand, coffee cup balanced on its saucer in the other, and nowhere left to put even one of them down.  Whether this symbolised the state of assessing the value of the arts, I leave to my reader’s imagination.)

Perhaps Kate Fielding’s most significant thought was that we report on the television almost nightly a graphical measure of ‘business confidence’ in the economy, with comment on the causes of its state that day and what the effects might be for the future of life as we know it.  Fielding suggests we should be building and measuring ‘community confidence’ which today’s research shows can largely be measured by the amount and quality of arts activity.  The evidence is that 98% of Australians participate in the arts as readers,viewers, audience or as practitioners, and the creative industry employs three times as many people as mining, as one example.

Building community confidence relates to evidence that 2 hours per week of creative activity creates a similar improvement in a person’s well-being as the more well-known evidence about having 30 minutes a week of physical activity.  This thinking was firmly backed later in the Health group, in the report presented by that group’s chair, Raoul Craemer, of the peer reviewed research in Western Australia published by Christine Davies et al about “the dose-response relationship between recreational arts engagement (for enjoyment, entertainment or as a hobby, rather than therapy) and mental well-being in the general population”, following similar research in the UK into Arts on Prescription: Creative Health.  There the prescription of arts activity created a drop off in GP consultations by 37%.

[Davies et al.  BMC Public Health (2016) 16:15 published online Open Access, Creative Commons Attribution.  Correspondence: christina.davies [at] School of Population Health, University of Western Australia.  Full title: The art of being mentally healthy: a study to quantify the relationship between recreational arts engagement and mental well-being in the general population]

In WA, "respondents with high levels of arts engagement (100 or more hours/year)...after adjustment for demographics...had significantly better mental well-being than those with none...and medium levels of engagement".

With six other highly original speakers in just the opening session and dozens more in the breakout session, I can report only snapshot images to show something of the diversity of ideas which made the Forum worthwhile as a gathering for cross-fertilisation of knowledge and generation of possibilities. 

Southern Arrernte woman, and award-winning visual artist, Jenni Kemarre Martiniello, made a strong point in showing that our knowledge of history is to be found in the art bequeathed by people in the past as an inheritance for us, and “we are all the custodians of the arts – creating, bequeathing and inheriting” – with a duty to “pass our sense of responsibility onwards”. 

Rachael Coghlan, speaking of Craft ACT’s annual Design Canberra Festival showed how the arts can engage a large number of people in their own and others’ homes in the featured and highly successful Living Room Design component.  This is arts in the community, with the prospect of Canberra being named a City of Design by UNESCO.

Dr Natasha Cica, recently named Director and CEO of Melbourne’s Heide Museum of Modern Art, focussed on her concern at the present-day ‘degradation’ of politics, art and culture, seeing her task as a ‘curator’, literally from the Latin meaning, to ‘take care’ of ‘beauty’ – which does not mean being pretty, but is the artistic expression of truth.  I thought of Keats, as she explained that she is a writer who likes to write in a book.  “I like books,” she said.  “I don’t tweet.”

Michael Chappell was concerned that Australia does not have an ‘evaluation culture’, while the UK and Canada are now spending money on evaluation, putting the metrics all together to create a ‘wholistic picture’ of the value of the arts.  He found the contrast disturbing in a West Australian policy paper including a note that funding in the arts is “expenditure in which no return is expected.”  He looks for a Public Value Measurement Framework.

Padma Menon was “not convinced we’ve gone very far in 20 years” in discussion of the value of the arts.  She sees the ‘economic argument’ as the ‘elephant in the room’ – hidden but dangerous.  Well-being is now established as an industry, so her aim is now to concentrate on Well-Being Plus, which adds the arts into the equation, because it is the arts which gives everything meaning.

Prof Desmond Manderson explained how the training in law is at fault.  Students, outstandingly gifted, have their expression of feelings repressed, but the law in all cultures is entirely based on feelings – about authority, respect, the body, other people; about fear and anxiety.  So, he said, “Art and Law are essentially the same thing.”  Art is experiment, creating the possibility of change.  It is not “instrumental logic which leads to submission to external pre-given standards”.  It is “not only the mirror but also the way of changing society.”

And finally I have chosen Liz Lea, performer, choreographer and producer, talking about Dance Business in the Economic breakout group.  She spoke of the contrast in working in Australia compared to Europe – the lack of decent levels of payment here, the lack of professionalism in communicating, and the lack of an investment approach to the arts – including the need to invest, as a performer, in your own body, mentally and physically, since she must “present myself as my product”.

So, without the space here – or indeed the need – to detail all those others who spoke, listened and questioned, I found my initial questions resolved.  The purpose of bringing those who practise the arts together with those who appreciate the arts and those who work in administration and policy development for the arts was to further everyone’s thinking; consistent, I thought, with the approach of Selina Walker’s Welcome to Country and Jenni Kemarre Martiniello’s Arrernte philosophy of respectful communication and recognition of everyone’s place as custodians, inheriting, creating, and bequeathing culture for future generations to grow.