By Genevieve Jacobs
I grew up in and have lived most of my life in NSW wheat country. From the wide expanses of West Wyalong to the rolling, fertile hills at Wallendbeen, the places of my heart are dotted with the familiar architecture of silos.
They’re tall, strong, thick-set and designed to safely store grain for years. Nowadays, they’re also often empty, forming a canvas for community murals. The silo trails have become an unlikely tourist attraction for ours and many other small towns.
As it turns out in the 21st century, silos aren’t as useful as they once were for keeping wheat safe. They need to change form and look outwards now.
Some years ago, the ACT arts minister’s Creative Council, which I chair, first began arguing for a comprehensive analysis of Canberra’s arts community, across individual practises, organisations and tertiary institutions.
As a journalist, I could provide an analysis of the local property sector’s economic heft without difficulty. But the arts community resists this analysis.
Many don’t recognise themselves as artists because their practise is a passion or part time. They may be uninterested or unaware of other arts practises and communities. And not infrequently, they’re uninterested in that bigger picture. Ongoing financial stresses for arts organisations can breed an inwardly focussed “survival of the fittest” competitive mentality. Many arts organisations are also fiercely protective of their funding and donor bases. There are deeply grounded fears that other, similar, organisations will steal something – your donors, your thunder, the government’s gaze. It feels safer to sit in your silo, protected by the high walls around you than to cast your gaze outwards to inspect the arts landscape as a whole.
There’s plenty of solid evidence behind the fears. Take for example the disastrous National Program for Excellence in the Arts, where Senator George Brandis brought funding decisions into his personal remit, to the real detriment of many smaller organisations who had no means of arguing their case.
Many leaders are still prone to seeing the arts as a nice extra for the good times rather than an essential tool in building community and defining identity. That all leads to the temptation for arts organisations to grab what they can get their hands on and keep it to themselves.
But it’s hard to make the argument for sustainable funding models, for investment and for well-grounded development if we stay inside our silos, ruled by fear of what we might lose rather than seeking opportunities to share and grow.
Working together is in fact one of the key ways to leverage those strengths without losing competitive advantages.
I currently chair the Canberra International Music Festival, which for many years has had a loose association with the ANU’s School of Music and by extension the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. The Festival needs the resources the School of Music offers. The School’s students benefit from exposure to internationally recognised artists through workshops, master classes and collaborative opportunities onstage.
The Symphony Orchestra and Festival play similar music to similar audiences – but at different times and in different ways. Why not investigate working together, we’re asking ourselves? An MOU has just been signed between the School and the Festival. Formalised frameworks between our organisations will make us both accountable to deliver on an ongoing basis. We’ve gone further by recruiting an ANU development specialist for the Festival Board, while I sit on the School’s advisory committee. We’re at the beginning of this journey, but Head of School Professor Kim Cunio and I can see a future that involves not just our organisations but possible projects with everyone from student choirs to the National Folk Festival.
Ideas like this become infinitely more attractive for large scale government and private funding than scrabbling over meagre individual crumbs. We all grow together.
Canberra’s arts minister, Tara Cheyne, has recently released an ambition for the arts, reaching for a future where Canberra is a nationally recognised creative centre. We’re a small, smart city with plenty of brains and big ideas. Our population is culturally engaged, highly educated and co-operative. Our economy is clean and green and our community is strong.
Sharing our arts resources will help us reach for the stars and a brighter future for us all.
Genevieve Jacobs has been a journalist for 30 years, working in print and radio. She is the former Mornings presenter for ABC Canberra and is now the Group Editor for Region Media and a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Genevieve is a director of the Cultural Facilities Corporation, the Conflict Resolution Service and The Australian Center for Christianity and Culture. She chairs the Canberra international Music Festival, sits on the ANU School of Music Advisory Board and has an enduring interest in building and strengthening community engagement.