Art Works Blog

Postcard from Australia

One of the really neat things about the IFACCA conference was the number of arts performances that were scheduled throughout the conference. Jamie took this photo of a performance by the group Kundalila.

I was just in Australia for the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture (IFACCA) conference in Melbourne---first time I’d ever attended that. It was great to meet up with my counterparts who are doing the same thing I’m doing although many of them on a much bigger scale, of course. Alan Davey who’s the CEO of Arts Council England is also the Chair of IFACCA, and it was great to meet him. It was also great to reconnect with Bob Sirman, my counterpart in Canada, and to meet a lot of the people who do what I do in different countries. It was especially wonderful to meet Kathy Keele who’s the CEO of Australia Council for the Arts, who is a very dynamic and energetic woman who is really, I think, making a difference for the arts in Australia. I also had dinner with James Strong---the chairman of her board---who’s one of Australia’s most important businessmen and very engaged with the arts, as is his wife. You know you really see what a strong support system the arts have on an ongoing governmental and public basis.

I also spent some time with Luciano Cruz-Coke who’s the Chilean Minister of Culture. (IFACCA is going to have its next convention in Chile.) He’s a young, very dynamic guy who is passionate about the arts. Chile is making a real commitment to the arts though his office.

Melbourne is really an arts city. I said at one point that I wish I could transplant it on the West Coast of Florida. The thing about Melbourne---and about Sydney---is that the arts are integral to their identities, to how they view themselves, and to the development and economic life of the cities, and it was great to see all the cultural organizations and activities that are there. Australia is just a very arts-oriented country.

We spent a few days at the conference in Melbourne, and I was on a panel that was moderated by Professor Paul James from the Global Cities Institute in Australia. We talked about creative placemaking. It was a panel really about how the arts affect places, and how they create places, which is very much our theme here at the NEA. It was great to see that this is being done around the world as well. There’s a real interest in it, and a lot of countries are adopting the same agenda, in many cases before we have.

I think there’s probably much more public acceptance and support of creative placemaking in other places where public support of the arts is stronger than it is in this country. This is a relatively new concept here in the United States. One thing that we do here in the U.S. that is very active is public-private partnerships. We’re especially doing that at the NEA. It’s somewhat new to the other countries where there’s not as strong a private sector commitment. There’s not the tradition of individual and corporate giving for the arts as there is in this country. So much more of the burden falls to the governments who are, indeed, very active, but I think they’re looking more and more to find a more balanced model where there is also private sector support and commitment to the arts.

Obviously, there are a lot of differences in the publicly supported arts programs of each country that were at IFACCA, but we also have a lot in common. I think everybody’s feeling the financial crisis. There are budgetary pressures everywhere; everybody’s trying to figure out how to sort them out and how to structure their support and their giving system into ways that make more sense. I think other arts councils too are going to be making fewer grants, more targeted grants. There’s a lot of discussion about financial issues. I think there might be more of a coming together of the two models---public and private. We’re looking, ultimately, at trying to have bigger public support for the arts and in other countries, they’re looking to beef up the private sector support for the arts. There are also the same pressures about kinds of art, censorship issues, what taxpayer-funded art should and shouldn’t be, etc. Those issues exist everywhere, and it was great to be able to compare notes with a lot of my colleagues.

While I was in Melbourne I met with Frank Urbancic, who’s the U.S. Counsel General there, and it was great to get an American’s perspective on what was happening in that part of the world; not just in terms of arts, but politically.

Overall, It was a productive few days of meetings, and I was glad to be a part of IFACCA and the work they’re doing. It’s very important that all of us who do this around the world be able to compare notes and be able to talk and find out what each other is doing. I think sometimes the view is that we in America are kind of insular and it was great to go out and learn something---learn things from other people---and be exposed to what they’re doing.

From Melbourne I traveled to Tasmania for a personal trip, except it turned out to have an NEA application because we got to see MONA, the Museum of the Old and New, which was created by a guy named David Walsh. It’s an amazing museum and very instructive, I think, in terms of the potential for something like that here. It was the most idiosyncratic and unusual museum I’ve seen---at first you think there’s no organization to it. You start at the top and go down, and you just wander around as you go down. You can make right and left turns almost everywhere; you can get lost in it. The museum is very informal, and it feels very spontaneous. They give you a handheld device that you walk with that attunes you wherever you are and tells you about what you’re watching. There’s a tremendous sense of spontaneity, and this was probably the most fun museum I’ve ever been in. I think if museums had this kind of spirit all over the place, museum attendance would be much higher because people would be so excited about being in them. While you’re walking, you just turn a corner and find some startling exhibit you didn’t expect. There was one section where you pull out drawers and each one of them has certain sound effects and I think it said, “I love you, I love you,” but it also had text in each one about mortality. It was just a thrilling museum to be able to wander around in and see. I think everybody who does museums in this country should go to Tasmania and see MONA.

We also visited Sydney, and the Opera House there, which is an architecturally great, iconic symbol for the city and, I think, a great advertisement for their commitment to the arts. For anyone who loves the arts, go to Australia. The people there are so welcoming and so warm. We’re looking forward to going back as soon as we can.

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