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Why build theatres and galleries when people are unemployed?

When a community is creative, it’s vibrant and healthy. It’s prosperous and smart.

Oct 18, 2017

Words: Bryce Ives

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‘Arts, culture and creativity have a powerful role to play in our communities, socially and economically. This is as true in a small town as it is in a regional centre or city.’
- Martin Foley, Victorian Minister for Creative Industries.

Across the globe, a seismic shift is taking place in regional creative arts practice and cultural industries. The change, in part, can be understood from the power and need for local identity. In a time of a globalised world, there is power in coming from somewhere distinct. When culture is increasingly ubiquitous, consumers are craving and prizing localised experiences.

In his book Creating Cities, cultural commentator and Novacastrian superstar Marcus Westbury rather brilliantly articulated that, “being creative in a small town or a regional city is no longer an isolating or eccentric activity. Networks, communities, appreciative fans and markets reach well beyond the physical boundary of place”. For many years the prevailing narrative was that it was impossible to sustain a career as a regional artist.

Throughout my career, I have actively challenged that narrative and now believe we are witnessing a shift in what we conceive as arts practice and how creative individuals can sustain a career trajectory through a diverse array of jobs – locally, nationally, and internationally. Earlier this year I signed up to undertake a seemingly impossible task. Federation University asked me to reignite and recalibrate one of regional Australia’s largest creative arts schools.

Outsider interested in disruption.
For those who know me, I’m an unlikely candidate from an unconventional background. I come from outside of the university sector; my work has predominantly been focused on building the creative capacity and resilience of both communities and individuals, especially young Australians from all walks of life. I
passionately believe we must build our collective capacity to be brave and bold, in telling the most urgent stories of our time. I’m not an academic, and I’m certainly not a University Administrator and had never considered working for a university. This was until I considered the prospect of Fed Uni and a new type of regional creative arts training.

In Gippsland, Fed Uni is surrounded by a bubbling array of creative thought, action and activation; being realised in local communities, within interest groups, in new small businesses and in large scale projects. Marcus Westbury wrote in Creating Cities that, “Community is built up by the thousands of actions from hundreds of individuals and their collaborations, and not down from the whims of the few.” This notion is real and very much present in the creative ecology of Gippsland today.

A cultural and creative ecology does not arrive neatly and directly from government policy. It is never just the result of investments made by grant bodies. It’s most certainly not directly impacted alone by council strategic plans. Instead, a creative ecology comes from a diverse, dynamic range of actions, interventions, experiments, and projects. The notion of an ecology is that it’s rapidly developing, growing in ways that are sometimes obvious and visible, and sometimes brewing under the surface. Consequently, leadership in a creative ecology comes in all shapes and sizes. From emerging artists to elders, from innovators to the old school, from the city council to the community hall. It comes from artists and creatives who exist ‘inside the box’, and those who want to radically redefine or destroy the box.

Creativity knows no bounds.
After years of working in regional and rural communities around Australia, I would passionately argue that Gippsland’s creative and cultural ecology is amongst the finest, and most significant I have seen. Completely under celebrated and deeply misunderstood (particularly by the artists and creatives working closest within it), there are hundreds of creating thinkers, artists and doers working across Gippsland today. Collectively they present an opportunity for economic regeneration, social cohesiveness, environmental sustainability, and cultural vitality. When a community is creative, it’s vibrant and healthy. It’s prosperous and smart.

In a recent interview, a local broadcaster scornfully asked me about the quantity and impact of large scale arts investment in Gippsland. The premise of his question was based on his personal perspective that investing in the arts is a waste of money. You know the drill, in a very Alan Jones-esque voice, “Why build theatres and galleries when people are unemployed?” My response was for an arts sector to thrive you require large public galleries, which are both artistically ambitious and also economically sustainable. You absolutely require performing arts spaces, again of size and scale, that can support local, national and international artists. But you also require agile and more flexible models and modes to complement the major initiatives such as: pop up projects, hyper local events, funded projects, unfunded projects, gatherings and happenings.

So I would strongly argue that Gippsland requires projects like FLOAT at Lake Tyres Beach, and it also requires well-equipped galleries, like the Gippsland Gallery and the Latrobe Regional Gallery. The Stratford Courthouse compliments the work of the West Gippsland Arts Centre and the proposed Latrobe Regional Theatre in Traralgon. There is no argument in my mind that one form or one way of working will provide all of the answers. Instead, a diverse ecology is the key to building long-term resilience and creative ambition.

Conceptions and misconceptions.
One of my greatest challenges now are the misconceptions held in the community. For instance, it is a misconception that artists are poor, struggling and are not contributors to an Australian economy. The arts are an important part of regional economies. In 2013, regional Australia produced $2.8 billion in arts and cultural industry output (Gross Value Added, or ‘GVA’); approximately 24 per cent of the national arts and cultural output. When I consider the complex questions that the Latrobe Valley must answer in the next decade, I know that the answer, in part, must be creative.

After fifteen years of working directly with young people from rural, regional and remote communities, I’m deeply aware of the social and well-being issues that are at play in rural communities. Disadvantage, poverty, and neglect are often ingrained into the daily experience of many young people living in rural and regional communities. There is an economic argument for a vibrant creative and cultural ecology, which we must champion. But let’s also not forget this argument is trumped by something more personal and profound: that creativity, art-making, and storytelling, create a sense of pride, well-being and cohesion. My ten years of work with the ABC’s Heywire Regional Youth Summit project has taught me the well-being of people living in rural Australia is an unresolved problem of national significance. But it has also taught me about the power of storytelling and the urgent need for young people to share their perspectives. Storytelling and creativity can lead to change.

A new conversation.
I’m endeavouring to lead a long ranging conversation about our future as a Creative Arts school in Gippsland, Berwick, and Ballarat. We know that both the Gippsland Centre for Art and Design (GCAD) and the Ballarat Arts Academy have vibrant histories. GCAD was, of course, a place for experimental and innovative art. In its heydey, it was celebrated and renowned. Many alumni would like to see GCAD return to those glory days and I understand that thinking. However, it doesn’t take into account the political, economic, social, and technological disruptions that have taken place in the university sector, in creative arts training institutions and in global arts practice.

Of course, our values are informed by our past. We should feel proud of what we have been, what we are, and what we will become. Those values should inform everything about our future. We can’t have a romanticised version of a creative arts school. Instead, we need to be current and to seize the opportunity of this moment in time.

Today, we ask students to commit to studying creative arts at a time when house prices are beyond being affordable, when a university degree ends in extreme debt, when the cost of fuel and basic living is more than most students can afford, and when depression and anxiety are at a record high amongst young Australians. This is a time when successive Federal Governments have slowly and surely made the circumstances of delivering education in regional places more difficult. Arts funding continues to be slashed.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.
There are some people I’ve met who want us to get to quick answers. To provide quick wins that everyone can feel good about. Over the course of this year, we’ve held some conversations with community members, artistic leaders, creative entrepreneurs and young people.

We are designing a new vision for our Creative Arts School: to foster creative excellence, transformational cultural leadership and artful engagement with place. If we succeeded, in five years time we will be a creative arts school, a site for community engagement and exchange, and a centre for excellence in regional arts practice. In our students, we build transferable skills in employment.

Next year we will deliver a Bachelor of Applied Creative Arts. It’s an exciting innovation, but it’s also an experiment. The development of the curriculum is responding to what we’re hearing as we talk with Gallery Directors, Councillors, young people, youth workers, artists, and creatives. The only course of its kind in Australia, the program will train students in using the arts and creative industries to affect social change in community settings. This is a dynamic student-centred course where students will be challenged to work as grassroots artists with local communities while becoming international leaders in the fastest-growing field in the arts – socially engaged practice. The program will have a unique twist with a focus on rural, regional and peri-urban issues; particularly those issues around employment, economic change and social sustainability. Teachers in the course will be practising community artists, creative leaders, and academics; many of whom are internationally renowned for their work in the field.

The new Bachelor of Applied Creative Arts aims to strengthen student engagement with the arts, through applied practice, and demonstrate how art making may be harnessed to change communities, lives, and inspire new possibilities for economic growth, prosperity, and personal fulfilment. Most importantly it’s being fuelled by values that I see across the cultural ecology of Gippsland:

1. Art for everyone
2. Striving for excellence
3. Diversity and inclusivity
4. Design-led thinking and creative entrepreneurship
5. Playful intelligence
6. Critical Reflexivity

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
I don’t want this article to read as a manifesto. It’s really a reflection of my current thoughts and aspirations. I know at this point, as the experiments begin to take shape, that we need to think small and promise little. We need to listen and creatively respond. But we also need to help of the cultural ecology.

There is an extraordinary moment developing. I hope we can seize it.

Bryce Ives is the Director of the Gippsland Centre of Art and Design and the Arts Academy Ballarat. He’s led the strategic development youth projects, including SYN Youth Media (2003 to 2007 as General Manager) and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Heywire Regional Youth program (from 2007 to 2010 as Executive Producer, and from 2007 to 2017 as Chief Facilitator of the Heywire Regional Youth Summit). Bryce is also the Artistic Director of leading contemporary performance group, the Present Tense ensemble, and in his creative practice he’s undertaken the roles of an artistic director, theatre maker, director, writer, creative producer and composer.

In 2015, East Gippsland Aboriginal artist Cassie Leatham's artwork Over Time We Come Together, featured at the top of this page, won the Working Together Art Prize to be the face of East Gippsland Shire Council's Reconciliation Action Plan and presents a wonderful example of how the arts can strengthen community bonds.

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