NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Supporting cultural equity and enduring prosperity in the arts

By Claire Watson — It is easy to lament the chronic underfunding of the arts in Australia. Some may mistake the tireless production of content for festivals, exhibition tours and online programs as evidence of a healthy and robust industry. Optimism and impactful advocacy are, of course, necessities in the current climate.

But just what do we tell the next generation of artists as they embark on creative arts’ degrees? Are we feeding them a perpetual lie that maintaining a career in the arts is a worthy pursuit that is not only enjoyable but also sustainable and inclusive?

As someone who has had the good fortune to forge a career in the arts bolstered by a practical course in fine art, there is indeed hope for the future – I can only reinforce the value of studying creative arts in an Australian university. The skills developed are undeniably suitable for an ever-changing world. Creativity can be a comfort and a tool for overcoming hurdles or obstacles in life. The art of reframing, and understanding that perspective influences everything, is an incredibly important skill. It is through lateral thinking that innovation and entrepreneurial visions thrive. Creative thinking is the very lifeblood of both the business world and the arts world. There is certainly room for improvement in scholarly pursuits though – practical arts courses would do well to offer students electives in business management, cultural equity and effective advocacy.

That is because there are harsh realities to face, and there are not as many jobs available as there are students graduating. The arts are, quite simply, surviving – and only just. Should you be fortunate to find a paid job, it is likely not to be in strong alignment with the cost of living. Finding ways to be frugal will be required. These issues must be addressed proactively at a national level. Supporting artists with financial compensation that keeps their practice alive and dynamic is imperative for our future growth as a creative nation. Advocating for the fact that artists deserve fees that support a living wage should be the practice of every arts worker and CEO at every meeting they attend.

Moreover the arts, like many sectors, is entrenched in cultural inequity. The best outcomes and approaches in the arts are through representation of diverse voices, and increasingly many arts organisations in Victoria are making important contributions to foster more inclusive approaches – Next Wave, Arts Access Victoria, Multicultural Arts Victoria and Arts Project Australia are stand outs. Nonetheless, for too long the visual arts sector and the artists that it celebrates have been influenced by a lens of institutional whiteness.

At NETS Victoria, the state’s only full-service visual arts touring organisation, we understood that we had played a role in this narrow perspective and in 2019 determined strategies to manifest our ambition to support cultural equity and cultural safety. As a service provider to regional art galleries in Victoria and beyond, we realised the importance of representing the diverse lived experience of their communities. Some of these strategies included:

  • Opening the decision-making process around which exhibitions would tour to a newly formed Artistic Program Advisory Committee and a Board that is committed to diverse representation, as well as ensuring funding to support independent practitioners on the Board and Committee.

  • Appointing a First Nations member on staff and making it mandatory that all Board and staff members have undertaken First Nations Cultural Competency training.

  • Devising seminars on cultural equity, access and inclusion in collaboration with the Public Galleries Association of Victoria.

  • Ensuring there is an operational budget for anti-racism and First Nations Cultural Competency training.

  • Undertaking cultural equity training with Multicultural Arts Victoria and disability awareness training with Scope Australia.

  • Developing a new Artistic Program Policy and Reconciliation Action Plan in consultation with Indigenous law firm Terri Janke and Company.

These efforts have been received well amongst the curators and artists that we work with, and we know there is still a long way to go.

It is essential that power is divested from whiteness to enable space for First Nations creatives and other underrepresented groups to be self-determining. Lived experience of diversity should be present in every arts organisation and every peak body; striving for representation in the make-up of staff, Boards and in artistic programs should be a fundamental goal.

But moving beyond the efforts of individuals and individual organisations, messaging within the political landscape requires a more collaborative strategy across various arts organisations. With the support of philanthropists, peak bodies need to work together on advocacy campaigns to create an uplift of understanding in the public consciousness that the creative arts provide meaning to life itself. National multi-arts advocacy campaigns coordinated between state and national peak bodies will have significant impact in advocating for further arts funding. Until the peak bodies strategise to find meaningful ways to work together, there will continue to be multiplicity of trajectories that never reach their targets or vision for a thriving creative arts sector in Australia.

Claire Watson is the Director of NETS Victoria – the peak body for visual art, craft and design touring and the state’s only full-service visual arts touring organisation. Her professional experience includes serving as a member of the Arts Industry Council of Victoria (2020-), advisor on the Touring Panel for Creative Victoria (2014-2016), Board member of the Public Galleries Association of Victoria (2017-2019) which included chairing their Advocacy and Research Committee; and a range of senior roles at arts organisations including BLINDSIDE, Asialink, Gippsland Art Gallery and Bundoora Homestead Art Centre. Claire has curated over one hundred exhibitions including the Artspace Mackay touring exhibition Violent Salt (2021), co-curated with Yhonnie Scarce; NETS Victoria/BLINDSIDE touring exhibition Synthetica (2015-2016); and the Asialink/BLINDSIDE touring exhibition Vertigo (2014). She has been a guest speaker at the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei; Galeri Soemardja, Indonesia; and the TransCultural Exchange Conference, USA. She has a Master of Fine Art from Monash University, a Graduate Certificate in Public Art and First Class Honours in Fine Art from RMIT University. Claire is a practicing visual artist.

NETS Victoria is a member of the Arts Industry Council of Victoria, The National Exhibitions Touring Support (NETS) Australia, and the National Association for the Visual Arts.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Jenny Wilson — The landscape has shifted for many in tertiary creative arts. COVID has focused government attention and funding towards the health and science areas, and at the same time changes to the student fee structures have disadvantaged those in the creative arts, social sciences and particularly the humanities.
By Lee Hornsby — Creative UK champions, connects, supports, and invests in creative people and businesses. We’re a group of diverse and inclusive professionals who believe in the power of the creative industries to change lives, placing creativity at the heart of the UK’s culture, economy and education system.
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.
By Lucy Brown — Strides have been made to tackle the lack of gender equality within the screen industry but despite this only 14% of all directors are women, 27% producers, 20% writers, 17% editors and 7% cinematographers –statistics that have barely changed in 20 years (Calling the Shots).
By Professor Kit Wise  — ACUADS, The Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools is the national peak body for the university visual arts, crafts and design disciplines. ACUADS represents over 20 Australian university art and design faculties, schools and departments and other academic units offering university degrees at undergraduate and postgraduate levels; as well as Vocational Education providers and private institutions.
By Jamie Lewis — When I completed my undergraduate studies in art school in Singapore, I remember thinking I knew the theatre that I didn’t want to make, and not the theatre I wanted to make. I then lapped up the opportunity to undertake a postgraduate diploma in Australia a year later.
By Professor Vanessa Tomlinson — The Creative Arts Research Institute began at Griffith University in July of 2021, in the middle of a pandemic which has caused profound disruptions to all our research; both in the tertiary sector and the arts sector.