Kathy Keele addresses 2008 Regional Arts Australia conference

Australia Council chief executive officer addressed the opening plenary session at Regional Arts Australia's Art at the Heart conference on Friday 3 October 2008.

Ministers, officials of Regional Arts Australia, Suzie Haslehurst (chief executive officer, Regional Arts Australia), colleagues and friends - good morning.

I'd like to begin by acknowledging the Arrerntye people as the traditional owners of Mparntwe (Alice Springs).

I'm thrilled to be part of the plenary that's kicking off the Art at the Heart Conference. Judging by last night's magnificent opening ceremony, it's set to be a memorable few days. Dion Beasley's fantastic cheeky dogs are everywhere and really capture the spirit of the occasion.

I'd like to talk to you today about the critical role that artists based in regional Australia play in our national cultural landscape. Our distinct regional voices come from our unique sense of place and our diverse identities. These voices can be heard through all our artistic creations - up and down our coasts, across the outback and throughout our cities.

I'm going to highlight three key areas where regional arts make a vital contribution to Australia's shared culture. Firstly, regionally based artists germinate some truly excellent art and stellar creative talent. Secondly, they make our communities better places to live in some significant ways. And thirdly, they provide a focal point for Australians to participate in and develop their shared culture. As a coda at the end, I'll speak briefly about the implications of this for policymakers, and I'll introduce a couple of new Australia Council initiatives that will strengthen the work of artists in the regions.

In discussing these themes, I'm going to avoid talking about regional arts in isolation. I don't want to set up some kind of city/country divide - as if regional arts exist solely for the 32 per cent of Australians who live outside major cities and metro arts exist solely for the 68 per cent who live outside regional areas. Each is a necessary part of the whole.

Yes, artists living in regional areas have specific needs by virtue of distance and infrastructure. Yes, many of them speak with a distinctly 'bush' voice. Yes, regional arts are undervalued by the mainstream. But these are not reasons to sideline regional arts into some kind of ghetto. They are considerations to either be celebrated or overcome.

In the same way that regional industry contributes 20 per cent of our exports and 10 per cent of our GDP, regional arts contribute a major slice of our national creativity. And it's this contribution that I'd like to explore today.

Regional arts and excellence in Australia's arts

The first key area of this contribution lies in the excellent work created by artists in regional Australia.

Producing great art and creative talent is something that our regions excel in. They truly punch above their weight. For while around a third of Australians live in the regions, the creative ideas and talent produced there has an influence far beyond these numbers.

To illustrate my point, you need only look to the great Australian artists from the regions. A who's who of Australia's contemporary artistic talent spent their formative years in regional Australia - Margaret Olley, Peter Carey, Peter Sculthorpe, Judy Watson, Graeme Murphy, Nick Cave, Leah Purcell and Ricky Swallow, to name just a few. Many - such as the great Aboriginal artist John Marwundjl, the late Rosalie Gascoigne and our 'poet laureate' Les Murray - lived in the bush all their lives. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a leading artist without a strong and abiding connection to regional Australia.

The work that's produced there resonates throughout Australia and around the world. The voices of artists from the regions are amongst the best in Australia, often characterised by their grounding in a strong and diverse sense of country and place.

Take, for example, the way that the Aboriginal art movement is not just at the forefront of Australian art, but leads the world. The global surge in the popularity of Aboriginal art in recent years is testament to this unique form of expression and the excellence of their artistic execution. It's little wonder that the artworks of leading Indigenous artists are frequently compared to those of the great European masters.

In a very different way, this excellence is also apparent in the innovative work of one of Australia's most unique theatre companies. Back to Back Theatre's contribution to the local Geelong community and the wider arts landscape is widely recognised. The success of small metal objects, which I'm sure many of you are familiar with, has taken them to the next level. Their inventive tale of friendship in a consumer-driven society toured to 13 different cities around the globe over the past year, from Toronto to Singapore, Paris and London. And the world has responded in kind, with rave reviews and a shower of accolades. Their performances garnered them one of Switzerland's premier theatre awards and, as you may have heard recently, a coveted 'Bessie', a New York Dance and Performance Award.

These diverse examples of the depth of excellence coming from regionally based artists are easy to agree with.

Regional arts and Australia's communities

Let's move to the second area of the unique contribution that regional arts make to Australian communities and the many fantastic outcomes that they deliver beyond the aesthetic.

The arts are a forum where we can all explore who we are and how we want our communities to be. The arts are a place where we are continually creating our own history and heritage. It's on this terrain where the creator and audience come together to create meaning, confront issues, record stories and histories, and even solve problems. It’s here that the arts make their most vital contribution to the life of our communities.

Some could argue that this meaning-making has a particular strength in regional centres. The response that artists get from regional communities is something that artists working in the cities can only dream of. But this is only one side of the coin. The arts also have benefits that range across a host of other social spheres - from community development to cultural tourism, health and well-being, social cohesion, and stimulating creativity in other areas of the economy and the community.

It's in these areas where regional arts have an important role both in shaping our shared future, and helping to address the long term social and economic readjustment required for life after the mining boom. Here the arts can provide both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities with opportunities for economic and social development.

These multi-faceted opportunities were obvious to me during my recent visit to the central desert where I attended the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of Ernabella Arts, the nation's oldest Indigenous arts centre. Ernabella Arts sits at the very heart of its community, about 300 kilometres south of here. Ernabella artists create wonderful works: batik, acrylic paintings, punu (wood carvings), ceramic works, spun wool, works made from bush materials and, increasingly, their popular beanies.

While these artworks are all about the community expressing itself and recording it's history and heritage, they are also about so much more. Adults and elders engage with young people in meaningful ways. Blackfellas and whitefellas learn about each others' heritage. New artforms are explored and developed. In the end, what you have is a community sustaining itself. And at the bottom line, sales of the artworks are a welcome source of income.  And the range of business skills in sales, administration, product development and management all feed back into the community.

Most of all, Ernabella Arts stands as a model - one of a number of regional models that we can all learn from. It's a business model that has been adopted in communities right across remote Australia. But it's also a community model as a source of great pride for everyone living on Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands.

Regional arts and Australians' participation in the arts 

A third contribution that I'd like to mention is the way that regional arts are central to the right of all Australians to access and participate in their shared culture. People's right to enjoy the arts and participate in the cultural life of their community is recognised in everything from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the act that created the Australia Council in 1975. This right recognises the importance of the arts as a place to celebrate our shared humanity.

People living in regional Australia don't ask for any greater right to access their arts and culture than their city counterparts. They don't want any special favours. And, by and large, they get this access. The most recent Bureau of Statistics survey of attendance at the arts, in 2005-06, found almost the same percentage of people in the country as in the city went to an art gallery: 22 percent to 23 percent. The same number went to a dance performance: around 10 percent. Only slightly less went to the theatre: 18 percent to 15.5 percent.

While there is clearly still work to do, these figures show that people in the regions do access the arts. And this is thanks largely to the work of regionally-based artists. It's the festivals, venues, galleries, regional touring, and artists and companies in regional areas that provide this access.

One example of a regional program that delivers this access happens all over Queensland every two years. Over 17 days in July last year, the Queensland Music Festival took a host of breathtaking events to every part of that state - from the African Children's Choir appearing in Winton and Moranbah, to Deb Conway's Song Trails project and what truly lived up to its name as The Greatest Show on Earth. Where else in the world could they come up with a great, locally-produced show featuring rodeo riders, tent boxers, choristers, musicians and a brass band? The numbers from last year's festival, under the directorship of Paul Grabowsky, speak for themselves - 40 live shows, 16 new works, 21 communities involved and 100,000 people attending. And for every Queensland Music Festival there is a host of other great arts events and experiences being held in regional Australia.

Australia Council's support for regional arts

So far, I've outlined the contribution that regional arts make to the 'organic whole' of Australia's artistic landscape. I've talked about its contribution to excellence, community and access. And now I'm going to address the question, what does this mean to cultural policy makers such as the Australia Council? How do we better support artists from regional Australia, who we know are making a major contribution to the mainstream of our arts?

In the case of the Australia Council, the answer lies in our leadership role. We aren't the only Australian Government agency supporting regional arts, of course. We're pleased to be partners with the Department of the Environment, Heritage Water and the Arts in Canberra on important programs such as Festivals Australia, Visions Australia and Playing Australia. It's our goal to help build an environment where regionally-based artists have the resources to fearlessly pursue excellence, where they can contribute to outcomes in their communities well beyond the art itself, and where they can provide arts experiences for all Australians.

There are a couple of key initiatives that we have embarked on recently that I believe will make a difference for regional arts - our cultural engagement framework and our creative communities partnership initiative.

In April this year, the Australia Council's governing body adopted a framework to create more opportunities for all Australians to participate in our shared cultural life. This cultural engagement framework includes seven specific strategies that cover key elements of our culture. These strategies encompass Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts, arts in a multicultural Australia, creative communities, disability, education, regional and young people. These strategies don't sit in isolation. Together, they provide a context in which each of these key areas contribute to, and help develop, Australia's arts and culture as a whole.  While you can read about the rest of these strategies on our website, I'd like to draw your attention to one of them that may be of particular interest.

The Australia Council's regional arts strategy has our longstanding partnership with Regional Arts Australia as its centrepiece. While our common history stretches back much longer, our two organisations entered into a four-year partnership in 2006 worth $320,000 per annum. This partnership ensures that Regional Arts Australia can continue to deliver events such as this, and drive their attempts to breach the country/city divide through marketing and partnership brokerage. It will help them access new resources to support artists in regional Australia.

Another decision made earlier this year will have positive impacts on regional arts. The announcement in May's Federal Budget of an additional $10 million over four years for creative communities has provided us with another opportunity to have a greater impact in supporting regionally-based artists. Minister Garrett spoke last night about the importance of this initiative to the government. The size of the package, in the context of a difficult economic climate and tight budget, was a strong statement of support for community arts.  Now I'd like to briefly talk you through the details of how this initiative will work.

The creative communities partnership initiative will support major community arts and cultural development projects - from the city and from the country. It will support projects that engage various partners and can run for as little as a few months or as long as three years. The Australia Council's contribution to the partnership can be anything between $50,000 and $600,000, but this must be matched from other sources. But - and here's the but - to be successful, a partnership must have clear outcomes that extend beyond itself. It has to provide opportunities for Australians to participate in the arts and culture, be innovative, and enhance community well being. And it must be effectively evaluated.

In short, the initiative will support bold partnerships that bring clear benefits to Australian communities.

I encourage you all to find out more about the creative communities partnership initiative on the Australia Council's website, or talk to one of our staff who are here at the conference.

In talking to you today, I hope that I've gotten you all thinking about why the arts in regional Australia are so important to us all. Whether you are listening in this room - or over at Federation Square through our UrbanScreens broadcast - you're connected into an Australian arts community that we all share. If you'd like to discuss these issues further, or explore anything else that's on your mind, feel free to visit the Australia Council booth at any time over the coming days.

To conclude, I'd like to wish you all the very best over the coming few days. Whether you're one of the many volunteers who are making the conference happen, an artist who's attending or performing, or someone interested in regional arts, I hope that you take even more art into your heart.

Thank you.

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