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multicultural arts: always already mainstream

esther anatolitis: national multicultural arts symposium, adelaide

Esther Anatolitis is General Manager (CEO) of Melbourne Fringe, co-curator of Melbourne’s Architecture+Philosophy talks series, Chair of the Arts Industry Council (Victoria) and regularly consults with the small-to-medium arts sector on strategic planning and programming.

Candy Bowers, Who’s That Chik?, performing at National Multicultural Arts Symposium 2010 Candy Bowers, Who’s That Chik?, performing at National Multicultural Arts Symposium 2010
photo Andrew Dundon
CULTURALLY DIVERSE ART IS INSPIRING, INNOVATIVE AND MARKETABLE—AND IT NEEDS YOUR SUPPORT. THIS WAS THE CLEAR MESSAGE AT A RECENT GATHERING OF CULTURALLY DIVERSE PRACTITIONERS, EACH LEADING CONTEMPORARY ARTS PRACTICE ACROSS A RANGE OF ARTFORMS AND SPECIALISATIONS.

And yet that clear message is not so straightforward: needing your support means overcoming those persistent barriers that have confronted culturally diverse arts for decades. Identity, funding, leadership and the politicisation of its very vocabulary remain ongoing problems. All the while, the work becomes ever more sophisticated, attracts new audiences and tours internationally, joining that increasing array of Australian innovation that enjoys more brilliant accolades overseas than at home—or on our mainstages. So what’s still at issue? And how can cultural diversity lead contemporary Australian arts with widespread recognition?

Held in Adelaide and presented by Nexus Multicultural Arts with Kultour, the National Multicultural Arts Symposium was preceded by two days of performances and exhibitions, with Candy Bowers’ provocative Who’s That Chik? setting the tone (“a hip hop tale of a brown girl with big dreams”; http://whosthatchik.com). Culturally diverse artists framed the symposium, with the work and the practitioners speaking for themselves. This too was questioned at the outset: Who speaks? Who names? Need every artist and every work represent an entire community?

Names and their political appropriation have long confused the Australian community, and frustrated the practitioners whose work they label. Christian (Bong) Ramilo, Executive Director of Darwin Community Arts, saw little progress across two decades of advocating access, equity and representation. For Mirna Heruc, Manager of the Arts & Heritage Collections at the University of Adelaide (and former CEO of Nexus), “Sometimes labels have marginalised us, sometimes they’ve brought us to the centre, but nothing has changed.” Political decisions have seen successive governments adopt—and often, quietly reject—terms such as ethnic, multicultural, Aboriginal, Indigenous, cross-cultural, Community Cultural Development (CCD), disability, all abilities, Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD), Non-English Speaking Background (NESB), diverse, culturally diverse, and even culture itself.

When these shifting terms translate into shifts in policy, culturally diverse practitioners are—like it or not—drawn into their politics, needing to identify with the current language to achieve recognition or secure financial support. For Heruc, the best approach to these names is to reject them entirely; multicultural arts organisations should facilitate pathways into the mainstream, presenting work without any framing label. “Our job is really to get rid of this multiculturalism business, and just focus on the arts.” She adds, however, “We’re not close to achieving this.”

Independent producer Kath Papas, former director of Ausdance Victoria, distinguished between three kinds of diversity that focus her practice: form, content and philosophy. This approach overcomes the fraught cultural labels, opening diversity itself to a space beyond othering. Papas made particular mention of disability arts as informing her practice. “There’s a lack of engagement from the dance mainstream,” she says, and while there’s plenty of talented culturally diverse artists, “who’s going to take them on?” Papas identified flexible infrastructure, networking and skilling up as key issues. Without these essentials, “we lose those artists because they get too tired—you can’t self-produce forever.”

Not all artists make a conscious choice to self-produce, while for others the torch-bearing work of speaking for an entire community is central to the art. Khaled Sabsabi, visual artist and Creative Producer at Casula Powerhouse, saw no distinction between CCD and his own artistic practice. Karl Telfer, Kaurna Cultural Bearer and visual artist, described reconciliation as the driver of all of his work. Such practice is never about aligning itself to funding categories. As Sabsabi put it, “Art leadership is a resistance against the way things are.”

Many speakers lamented the rise and fall of leadership organisations; touring and advocacy body Kultour remains the only national multicultural organisation. Yet all speakers agreed that leadership is about the work itself, and its articulation into the community. Bowers spoke passionately about a new space in which diverse artists see themselves represented in the faces as well as the programming of mainstream arts organisations. “Beyond being ‘championed,’ or ‘helped,’ we want to be paid for being artists. We want the resources, we want the recognition.”

So, how do you position yourself in the culturally diverse arts? Head on. In fact, it’s a proven strategy. Karen Bryant, Associate Director of the Adelaide Festival Centre, presented a powerful argument for diversity as a strategy towards financial sustainability and artistic success. “We’re no longer a series of buildings,” says Bryant, “we’re a facilitator—which means asking, and then re-evaluating.” Direct engagement is essential: programming is developed in close consultation with emerging and established communities. In this way, the Centre overcame its empty seats and its venue-for-hire image. The results are inspiring: a 33% increase in audiences in its first year, and 25% in the second.

Similarly, Adelaide Fringe’s 2011 Director, Greg Clarke, aims at international recognition as a culturally diverse festival by 2020. Clarke sees this as an artistic as well as a commercial strategy for engaging with a majority of Australians. With a strong record in culturally diverse policy as well as programming, Clarke says the Fringe has prioritised diversity quite simply “because it was mind-blowing.”

Communications consultant and editor Fotis Kapetopoulos’ statistics demonstrated just how marketable culturally diverse art is—both at home and overseas. “Our mainstream companies are caught up producing the same styles, but what we’re talking about is international.” Aaron Seeto agrees: “Internationally, diversity is our point of difference.” Seeto, Director of artist-run space Gallery 4A: Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney’s Chinatown, described the contemporary visual arts museum as “a self-replicating machine, a safe-house,” while contemporary culturally diverse work is “feeding into the international arena.”

Rather than engaging with and supporting this work, our own governments prefer to stick to the known. The major mass-marketing campaign in culturally diverse Victoria is Melbourne Winter Masterpieces, a showcase of well-known European artists from previous centuries. Kapetopoulos described the end of Sydney’s Carnivale as a cynical stroke: it was defunded by the NSW government at its peak demand and sustainability point because its audiences “had started to look too mainstream—it didn’t look like an ethnic festival.” Such ironies were not lost on a gathering of practitioners accustomed to being ‘othered.’

On the other hand, some mainstream arts organisations experiencing significant audience loss have been receiving funding boosts in recent years. Emphasising this particular irony, Opera Australia’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini used his morning keynote to ask the funding bodies in the room to “empower” his organisation through a funding increase. Opera Australia currently receives as much Australia Council funding as the other 900+ funded organisations and projects combined. Terracini, founder of Kultour member, Northern Rivers Performing Arts (NORPA) in Lismore NSW, spoke of new Indigenous and Asian initiatives: “I don’t want to play to an elite audience—I’ve never wanted that.”

With all speakers projecting a future Australia of increasing diversity, governments will need to direct subsidies to culturally relevant work that’s artistically exciting as well as economically sustainable. The undeniable reality of Australian multiculturalism as always already mainstream can no longer be avoided; changing labels simply exposes a political reluctance to accept that diversity will not remain ‘othered.’

Fundamentally, such barriers aren’t specific to the arts. They’re generational; they’re administrative; they’re political. Ironically, they’re cultural—in the word’s corporate meaning, describing entrenched practices in establishment organisations. Culturally diverse art is ready to lead contemporary Australian practice, further developing audiences here and overseas.

Candy Bowers knows it. “How can cultural diversity lead the Australian arts?—Get out of my way.”


National Multicultural Arts Symposium 2010, ?Diversity in the Arts: Theory + Action, May?19-21, 2010, presenter Nexus Multicultural Arts in partnership with Kultour

Esther Anatolitis is General Manager (CEO) of Melbourne Fringe, co-curator of Melbourne’s Architecture+Philosophy talks series, Chair of the Arts Industry Council (Victoria) and regularly consults with the small-to-medium arts sector on strategic planning and programming.

RealTime issue #98 Aug-Sept 2010 pg. 42

© Esther Anatolitis; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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