I start today knowing that from Thursday I will be away from the office for over a week travelling to Australia’s Far North. In some of our remote regions, communications can be challenging as there is no internet or phone access. And so for the next three days team discussions will be a priority to ensure that we are on track for rolling out our national strategic projects for the next three years.
We discuss the upcoming Signature Works Innovation Hub, where 30 creatives will come together in a multi-disciplinary space to explore ideas that shape First Nations’ storytelling across all disciplines: from performing arts to visual, literature, community development and digital platforms. One intergenerational strategic project is Chosen, which invests in the handing down of artistic and cultural knowledge, from our First Nations’ elders, cultural custodians, senior lawmen and women, professional practising artists and arts workers, to the next generation.
The energy around expressions of interest for Chosen is buzzing. Lots of intense conversations are taking place between us, the artists and creatives. There’s a real need to explore the artistic and cultural assets in their communities and the wealth of knowledge that they want to impart to younger generations before it’s too late.
In First Nations communities the sense of urgency is palpable as the mortality rate indicates that First Nations people die some 20 years earlier than the rest of the Australian population. Around 60 per cent of our First Nations youth population is under 25 years of age, whilst only three per cent are over 65 years of age. It is crucial that the body of artistic and cultural knowledge from the world’s oldest living continuous culture on the earth is handed down to younger generations, who will become our future decision-makers and cultural leaders.
It’s a 5.30am start for me in order to check what needs to be sorted out before I leave for the Far North this week. I check the vegetable garden and pick some luscious purple eggplants [aubergines] for tonight’s dinner, followed by a quick brisk walk with the dogs before I get ready for work.
At the office I participate in a webinar rehearsal for ISPA Melbourne that will go live next Wednesday with colleagues from Australia and Canada. Then I review the status of two of our current research projects, firstly examining the showcasing of First Nations creativity through presenting venues. We are looking to see who is producing the work and what productions are being presented and toured. Secondly, I look at the research on the cultural and economic value of our First Nations visual arts sector. We are building a picture of how we can define value at a conceptual, quantitative and qualitative level.
I also check in with the communications team about the schedules for our National Indigenous Arts Awards in May, including planning a visit in early May with our chair, board director and CEO to the lifetime achievement award winner in their homelands.
Discussions continue about our new four-year funding programme for organisations with ongoing analysis of how the arts sector and industry can be supported. Then it’s on to a conversation about how we can highlight our research at the upcoming Australian Performing Arts Alliance (AACA) industry conference in late August, through forums involving artists, venues and organisations. We’re also in the planning phase for the Venice Biennale, which includes a potential First Nations exchange with Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. These exchanges all build on activity to date in the visual arts, dance and theatre sector, and we discuss the audience and market development strategy in progress that encompasses this international focus.
After some last-minute checks for the upcoming Torres Strait Forum, followed by another in Darwin in a fortnight, I catch a two-and-a-half hour flight to Cairns. In the evening I have dinner with artists from the region.
I manage to visit a regional gallery exhibiting several artists, whose creativity engages with digital media. And then I meet with artists from Far North Queensland who recently had work installed at the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco. They highlight the vibrancy of this region and the future directions they wish to see for their artistic practice.
I take a leisurely stroll along the Esplanade by the sea and then enjoy a coffee and breakfast amongst the tropical beauty of Cairns. I get to go sightseeing with community people and hear the latest about how Cairns is developing its local infrastructure for arts and culture. This evening we are off for dinner at a seafood restaurant. After some good food, a lot of laughter, and tremendous discussions it’s the end of another day in the tropics.
Once again I’m back on a plane heading to the Torres Strait Islands off the top of Australia, a cluster of more than 200 islands between Australia and New Guinea. Two hours later we land on Thursday Island and the balmy breeze envelops us. There are approximately 14 islands that are inhabited in the Torres Strait, and Thursday Island is the administration hub for the region. Over dinner, I brief my colleague about the forums we will present tomorrow at the Torres Strait Arts Industry Forum. People will travel for many hours by boat to attend. Hosted by the Torres Strait Regional Authority, the official welcome is conducted by the traditional owners of the Kaurareg native, who are custodians for Thursday Island. I will give my keynote address on Monday and then on Tuesday a range of speakers will present on topics ranging from the role of language to the intergenerational transfer of cultural knowledge.
Lydia Miller is executive director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts at Australia Council for the Arts. ISPA Melbourne, running from 30 May to 4 June, has a focus on First Nations performing arts.
This diary first appeared in the May edition of IAM. To subscribe click here.