Philosopher Alain de Botton once described “museums of art as our new churches”, having “replaced religion as a touchstone of our reverence and devotion”. Unfortunately for many, participating in the world of high-profile contemporary art does not extend beyond playing the role of an outside spectator.
Just like de Botton’s metaphoric religion, the gates to creative merit and meaning are seemingly kept according to arcane institutional practices within the arts industry establishment.
Opportunities for personal creative development and meaningful engagement with an active arts community can seem distant for individuals living in regional and remote locations, as well as those disadvantaged by barriers such as disability, economic hardship or stigma.
"I became interested in how I could work with people who were not dance trained..."
Samara Cunningham is a professional artist based in Fish Creek who is determined to address the inequities preventing wider community engagement with the arts.
She is no stranger to the challenges faced by creative individuals living in regional locations, having to leave her childhood home in Tasmania after high school to pursue a professional career in the performing arts. Samara’s direction as a practising artist headed towards research and collaborative development of participatory community arts programs once she completed her formal training in contemporary dance at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts.
“I ended up moving into community arts after I graduated, instead of a full-time performing job. I was running community workshops in regional Western Australia, teaching young people who wanted to be professional performers, and conducting research into the operation of youth dance companies.
“I became interested in how I could work with people who were not dance trained, and how to help unleash their capacity for creativity and imagination through guided movement and improvisation.”
Her subsequent experience and growing expertise as a facilitator for inclusive community-based arts programs around Australia eventually resulted in her involvement as artistic director for (it’s no) drama – a Leongatha-based theatre company, which has been operating successfully since 2015. (it’s no) drama provides an inclusive environment for people identifying with having perceived disability to develop a professional career and industry recognition in the performance arts.
Samara’s determination to continue her work in facilitating greater inclusion within the arts industry was recognised by Regional Arts Australia, who awarded her with a Fellowship Grant in May 2021 to continue her professional development in the area over the next ten months.
Her Fellowship project, titled Learning from Others for Others, will focus upon building enduring links between industry experts and artists within the general community, as well as encourage skills and knowledge-sharing through these relationships.
“Inclusion is about creating a safe and welcoming space where participants can be themselves and have autonomy over their own creative and performance decisions. Unfortunately, there is not a lot available locally for people with disability to participate in professional-level arts experiences.
“I want to address the need that there are people in the community who want to go to university or performing arts school but cannot access those kinds of opportunities. I feel like we should be able to provide those kinds of rich cultural experiences locally, rather than directing people to make the long drive to the city.
“We’ve been lucky to receive funding through Creative Victoria for (it’s no) drama, but I want to investigate how we can make these kinds of programs sustainable over the long term. Receiving the Fellowship provides me with an opportunity to work with other skilled companies and individuals around Australia so that I can develop my own skills to bring back to my local community.”
The Learning from Others for Others project comprises two parts: professional development through research residencies with companies having expertise in inclusive practice, and the Online Visibility and Collection Project. For the first part, Samara has arranged to engage with three professional theatre companies to develop her own skills in program administration and implementation.
“The idea is that each theatre company will offer different learnings in relation to inclusive arts productions. I’ll be spending a two-week residency in Sydney with Force Majeure, a company that does work in physical theatre, to learn more about developing shows; a week in Tasmania with Second Echo Ensemble to learn more about how their company structure provides opportunities to pay performers with disability as professionals; and finally with Fog Theatre in Melbourne, as they are offering evaluation processes for the project as well as audio description and peer facilitation. It’s not just administration and content development though – it’s also about developing new working relationships.
“I’m hoping that my engagement with these companies will provide touring opportunities between these locations and South Gippsland. Eventually, I would like to connect with other specialist services and groups in our region, offer training for their staff and share my key learnings with other local organisations.
“I think the Fellowship will be a springboard for future projects, and I hope that I can be a catalyst and facilitator for these to begin.”
"I hope that I can be a catalyst and facilitator for [future projects]"
Samara has already made some early formative arrangements with some South Gippsland organisations to deliver workshops that are relevant to their local communities, such as Manna Gum Community House in Foster.
The second component, the Online Visibility and Collection Project, is probably the most exciting part for the local community, as it involves their direct involvement as research participants and project collaborators.
“I’ll be making a nationwide callout to artists – either artists identifying with having disability, or artists working in the field of inclusive arts – to submit an image and corresponding description to get an idea about who is working in inclusive arts around Australia. These images and descriptions will be collated and analysed, and the resulting output scheduled to be presented in March 2022. All the artists and members of the arts community that submit to the project will be invited to be part of a networking event during the launch.”
Samara considers this part to be a critical element in directing how future workshops and activities are designed and delivered.
“I want to find out from the community who they are, what they need, and what their priorities are. Is it young people, older people, people with disability? There’s no point in me running an activity if the community doesn’t want it. I need to find out what is relevant for them, and go from there.”
As a practising artist, Samara does not tread the well-worn path of the solitary auteur. Her creativity is manifest through facilitating the dynamics of social relationships and interactions to allow new and hidden phenomena to emerge.
“I think the project will be successful when other people get to spark something in their own life or in their imagination. I hope I can act as a conduit for other experiences, and to get people to be bold and try something different. We could all do with comfortable spaces to explore different ways of seeing things, and to just play. Every individual brings something. It’s always more fun with friends and other creative people.”
She believes that art does not have to be the exclusive domain of the privileged – and when given the opportunity, that everyone has a capacity for their own unique form of creative expression.
When asked what motivates her to work in the area of inclusive art practice, Samara concluded with this statement: “Everyone comes with their own story, with their own creativity, with their own imagination. They all have something to say, and it’s really wonderful to be able to give a platform for people to be able to perform and share their stories.”
Anyone interested in participating in the Online Visibility and Collection Project can contact Samara and find out more here: samaracunningham.com or contact: email@example.com.