New models for new times

Image: Karla Dickens Mother's little helper, 2019. Installation view, Three Views, curated by Djon Mundine, historic Amoured Casemates, Georges Head, Mosman Art Gallery January 2020. Photo by Tim Connolly.

Welcome to the new decade – one in which artistic leadership will matter more than ever before. 

Because the culture we practice and the work we make is our most precious and powerful strength. It’s who we are and why we are. It’s impossible to imagine life otherwise. 

In the midst of our climate emergency, artists and artsworkers have looked out for one another and raised millions, even while losing a great deal themselves – and in far too many cases, that’s meant losing everything. With thanks to the generosity of so many artists and organisations who’ve donated their work and their time, we’ve compiled this no doubt incomplete list of all the art auctions and fundraisers happening all over Australia. Enormous thanks and big respect to all of you. 

Among fires and dust storms, floods and water shortages, injuries and deaths, and loss of wildlife at an incomprehensible scale, our new decade is already demanding courageous responses that overcome old ways of thinking to remake our world. If there’s one thing that the failures of leadership have shown us at this horrific time, it’s that new models are needed for new times. 

When ethics and convention no longer align, and confidence in democracy is at an all-time low, how should government operate, make decisions and remain accountable? How can we make it ok for political leaders to ask for help and get the help they need to carry out their responsibilities? What kind of world are we imagining together? And how will we make sure that arts and culture aren’t lost to the national agenda – at a time when rigorous creative responses are needed just as urgently as coming together to express ourselves and ask difficult questions? 

With weather extremes here to stay, the loss of climate equilibrium is indeed our new normal, as countless scientific warnings have made clear for a long time now. However, far from feeling resigned to imagining leadership failure as our new normal, we need to invigorate ourselves with the conviction that leadership is up to us. 

Throughout 2020, we’ll be looking at all the ways that artists determine futures, set agendas, and create worlds anew. We’ll be asking questions about what leadership means and where artists’ voices need to be heard the most. And we’ll be making sure that it’s artists who are setting that national agenda. 

Artists and organisations across Australia are already thinking this way. In winter, Artisan is presenting Dystopia/Utopia: 2070, an exhibition project where a diverse range of practitioners will collaborate on craft and design solutions to scenarios of possible futures. In May, the Next Wave Festival presents A Government of Artists, creating a world shaped by artists. On 20 February at MONA, Kate Rich’s Feral MBA, Despoinas Media Coven and Favour Economy will present The Thorny Question of Art and Economy: A Conversation Piece to open radically different tactics and vistas – and I’ll be part of that event. 

This month we’re also releasing the timeline for our Code of Practice review – work we’re undertaking alongside a number of important partners and advisers – so that we’re fostering the best frameworks for sustaining the sector. 

A significant aspect of NAVA’s work on behalf of our Members is to ensure that contemporary arts issues feature prominently in the national conversation, so that responsible decisions can be made to strengthen the arts for everyone. 

This year we’ve got quite a number of local, state and territory elections that will focus our advocacy work: local government elections in Queensland (28 March), NSW (12 September) and Victoria (24 October); territory elections in the Northern Territory (22 August) and ACT (17 October); and a state election in Queensland (31 October). 

Local and state arts policies have great national significance to the contemporary arts – well beyond the publicly funded sector. Both local and state governments offer, regulate and support affordable spaces for artists to work, as well as the creative precincts that foster artists’ communities. Local governments across Australia own some of our most important regional galleries and their collections, while state governments own our major capital city galleries and their collections. This makes local and state government workers crucial to the development of practice, to cultural and gender representation, and indeed to the art market. We’ll be keeping all of this top of mind as we prepare our Election Report Cards and other insights and collaborations for this busy election year advocacy. 

Our major national advocacy focus will once again be Arts Day on the Hill. Pop it into your calendar now – Wednesday 15 August – and let’s inspire the nation’s key decision-makers with all of the key issues. More about that soon. 

Speaking of national issues and this new decade. Back in April 2008, the Australia 2020 Summit was held at Parliament House to imagine a confident future informed by the nation’s leading thinkers across a broad range of disciplines. Come April this year, journalists with long memories are bound to reflect back and offer their own report cards on our progress since. Looking back on the Summit’s final report, it reads more like a summary of discussions than a blueprint for the arts – but its tone of grounded optimism is a tonic for our times. Because come April this year, we can also expect to find ourselves in a lot of conversations about James Cook, a young British naval officer who in April 1770 opened fire on First Peoples within fifteen minutes of docking in what is today the Prime Minister’s electorate, did not circumnavigate Australia, and was later killed by First Nations peoples of Hawaii. This 250th anniversary risks obscuring even further Australia’s First Nations history, and so the voices we each choose to prioritise at this time will be crucial. 2020 needs to be a year of deep listening. 

Around this time, we will also know the outcome of the Australia Council Four Year Funding Program, and with it, another realignment of our ecology – with a strong sense of that broader responsibility to the entire sector by every funded organisation. This will be another important moment to come together and remind ourselves just how strong we are together. 

Leadership in a time of crisis means acting responsibly, with courage and with care. Delving deep to draw on everything we have, with honesty and generosity, to make a world that entrusts us to one another. 

This is what art does. The objects we craft, the images we make, the stories we tell, the platforms we create and the experiences we share – they prepare us, they inspire us, they challenge us and they connect us.

Let’s make 2020 the year that remakes the new normal as a place of caring, courageous adventure.