World Summit on Arts & Culture

Executive Director of NAVA Tamara Winikoff missed the voices of artists at the October 2011 World Summit on Arts & Culture in Melbourne.

Not being a representative of a government arts policy or funding body, I felt my presence in Melbourne at the recent World Summit for Arts and Culture was somewhat voyeuristic. I went with great expectations that I would gain new insight about arts policies in all their diversity, especially as I was in the last few days of putting together a submission on behalf of the Australian visual arts, craft and design sector in response to the Australian Government's National Cultural Policy discussion paper. I wanted to be inspired, to have my mind stretched and to have solutions to tricky problems plopped into my lap.

Is it fair to expect that of a conference? Well it was a meeting of the 'world’ so that means the best of the best, right? I hate to be ambivalent but yes and no.

It is true that there were some speakers who had the gift of rhetoric, some who showed examples of very admirable projects, some who provided insights into contexts which were very different from what we have here in Australia and that certainly broadens the mind.

However, the ambition of the conference - ‘Creative Intersections’ – was not to hand out one-size-fits-all cultural policies, but rather to frame discussion around the instrumental role of the arts in health, the environment, education, business, new technologies, etc. Not that I have any objection to that. It is increasingly important to those of us who act as arts advocates to be able to make that case with conviction to decision makers, especially those who are resolutely economic outcomes focused. And there were certainly many, many examples given of the social good that arises for communities from the efforts of artists. But I couldn’t help feeling sorry that the other benefit that we derive from the arts was bypassed – its more philosophical role in trying to make meaning out of the chaos of human existence and the mastery of material and process that sets art aside from straightforward problem solving.

Nevertheless, for an Australian, it was very affirming. Because this is such a multicultural place, we tend to take cultural diversity as a given. This was especially evident in the live art experiences offered at all the refreshment breaks (at a bezillion decibels); a program chosen to demonstrate the principles of diversity of race, ethnicity and ability. In the lectures, the diversification of approaches to cultural programming presented to us as fringe practice in some countries tends to be more mainstream in Australia. More sobering was the whole session on ‘Outside the Comfort Zone’ dealing with the work and bravery of artists who are prepared to challenge repressive authority and put their lives on the line. We are perhaps fortunate to be on the periphery when it comes to art being a dangerous practice within an environment of threat, corruption or extreme disadvantage. So far, censorship is the worst we have had to deal with in this lucky country.

To be truthful, I was wanting to hear artists themselves in live debate with policy makers. We are after all in the age of interactivity where everyone has an opinion of equal value if not authority. So I chose the Across the Divide roundtable out of the nine offered on the second day. It promised a discussion on the relationship between policy makers and arts practitioners and how the gap might be bridged. But there were no artists there to have the conversation with the two policy makers who presented starkly different approaches - one from the Arts Council in Ireland offering a consultative model, the other from the Tunisian Ministry of Culture proposing a mechanistic top down systems analysis. Overall, art was not a protagonist in the discussions I witnessed. It was an adjective to the nouns: community; place; and policy.

As with all such events, in my experience the best talk happens in informal conversations with people who are not part of one’s usual network. For me that was unexpectedly sharing an outdoor dinner table on a balmy spring evening with a couple of speakers from France: one white, one black; one a mental health expert the other an actor and president of a major cultural facility, both gay. That’s cultural diversity in the flesh and the kind of close encounter that makes worthwhile taking time out from work at the coalface.

The experience that left the deepest impression on me was an offering from the conference’s parallel cultural program, Back to Back Theatre’s thought provoking Ganesh versus the Third Reich which challenged the usual theatre convention of sequential narrative and suspension of disbelief and threw down the gauntlet in confronting our covert prejudices towards disability. I guess no amount of talk can substitute for immersion in the real thing. Coming face to face with the art of artists is where I still get the best and most subtle aha! moments.

Tamara Winikoff is Executive Director of the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA).