​A consequential national visual arts summit?

As we emerge from the whirlwind that was 'Future/Forward: the National Visual Arts Summit', NAVA is reflecting on how well our objectives were achieved and what the participants thought of it. During the event, the Twittersphere was electric with comment but we know that the real value will be if it continues to resonate and have impact long after it's over.

Photography: Henry Whitehead.

Our ambition was to stage a truly national event that actively involved the participants in considering models that transform, not only how we engage with contemporary practices but also the institutions, modes and structures that underpin them. There was a wealth of material to draw from.

The big hit was undoubtedly Nikos Papastergiadis' opening keynote address, artfully wrangling the question 'Do we live in a borderless world?' He discussed afresh the term 'cosmopolitanism' and the possibilities of global conversations, changes in artist mobility and exchange and, to the excitement of the audience, suggested "art as a world making activity where artists are the initiators of our possible worlds."

The other keynote presentation by director of the Seoul Museum of Art in Korea, Dr Hong-hee Kim posited that the 'post-museum' of the C21st was about interaction and empowering audiences; where the importance of the art object is as a means to explore ideas, themes, and relations with the viewer. She proposed that 'glocalisation' was setting the parameters for collaboration and exchange between artists across geography and cultures and required a concomitant restructuring of the art institution.

Because art is a microcosm of the world it was going to be hard to choose amongst the many competing topics for discussion. NAVA had spent the previous year consulting nationally through round table meetings in each state and territory and thinking about which of the pressing matters were most valuable to delve into right now. In considering what are the crisis points, we selected those on which we are likely to have some impact eg freedom of expression and censorship, the role of the artist as citizen, the failure of the art market to acknowledge and appropriately remunerate most Indigenous artists, artists' career viability over their lifetimes and the opportunities to effectively reach audiences and participants.

We wanted to encourage some subtlety of debate, not furious agreement and were rewarded by some feisty presenters who did not flinch from discussing controversial or political issues relating to the production and presentation of art. For example in the session on big ideas for arts policy objectives, though there was support for the suggestion that we need an audit to measure the impact of the arts, in relation to the call for one united voice for the arts there was disagreement about whether this should be from the sector itself or could the newly formed Arts Party be the instrument.

The thing that most people go to events like this for is both formal and informal opportunities for active engagement, networking and interchange with peers. Proof was that the breaks were abuzz with conversation with people creating informal discussion circles, getting intense in bar exchanges and baling up speakers to call them on points of difference. And this went on into the night.

We were certainly aiming not for a singular discussion, but a multiplicity of voices. We worked hard to get diversity not only of opinion but also of viewpoint. Indigenous participants asserted the necessity to stop the exploitation of Indigenous artists and a delegate recently returned from three years in Chile called for raising again at UN level the necessity of enforcing recognition of access to culture being a fundamental human right. The artist Lindy Lee spoke poignantly about her work embodying the experience of being made aware of difference when as an Australian child she was told she “looked a little bit Chinese". This was further dissected in the charming exchange between artist Dr Julie Gough who talked of the quiet impetus for her work and academic Professor Ghassan Hage who described it as a gift.

But now of course the real challenge is how to capitalise on all that was compressed into a very power packed two days to have some real impact on policies that influence the arts environment and on the structures which determine what can happen. NAVA will be inviting further engagement and using it to build on its National Visual Arts Agenda which was launched almost a year ago at Parliament House in Canberra to mark the start of our 30th anniversary celebrations. Through integrating some of the good ideas that came from the Summit NAVA hopes to build momentum and political support to see the sector's shared objectives better realised.

As one delegate said, “I really feel that the forward thinking ahead of deepening problems with arts funding is essential at this point in time. It helps paint a more hopeful view of the potential for artists to take agency of their projects no matter the industry concerns. Hearing such influential speakers and practitioners was good to affirm that certain successes and difficulties in the industry are not isolated."

Can we say that the Summit will change our world? It was not instant gratification but there were some real gems. To keep up the momentum, NAVA will be putting vodcasts of the main talks and panel sessions on its website and drilling down further into several fruitful topics through a series of webinars that will run over the next two years. You will be invited to join in.

Tamara Winikoff

Executive Director

National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA)