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09 MAR, 2018

Creating Inclusion through the arts

An extract of a talk by Phil Smith from the 'Lets Hear It For the Girls' event hosted by WINDO as part of International Women's Day, 2018

Thankyou WINDO for the opportunity to speak tonight. I've been asked to speak about culture. For those of you that know me, I've always got something to say. But I am cautious talking about culture. On one hand it's an exclusive term that is about intellectual excellence in human achievement > literature, architecture, scholarly work, arts, humanities. These are things I love and disciplines I'm always happy to chat about.

But when someone uses the term in that context, culture its usually about status and position and power. Culture is often used to stratify society with power and to exclude.

I can't speak about the profoundly deep meaning behind the term 'culture' as used by our First People. So on the other hand, I prefer to think about culture in a localised context - as the values of community and importantly their subsequent behavior. Culture is what ‘we’ value and what ‘we’ collectively do. This version is more objective, inclusive and grounded in people's lives. So that’s me on culture.

But because I’m an advocate for the arts sector what I really I want to talk about tonight is the arts. As we all know, the arts is concerned with beauty, meaning-making, understanding, empathy and expression. It’s not exclusively linked to culture. But because the arts mostly require an audience or an observer to give it meaning, it's generally linked back to the human condition, to community and to culture. So invariably art is how societies values/its culture are developed and expressed.

However, the arts are facing a crisis.

As Diane Ragsdale points out in her brilliant 2016 talk ‘Transformation or Bust’ the arts have gone from a prehistoric era, through the Enlightenment up to the Victorian Era’s where arts/culture were largely free to explore beauty and the meaning of existence - ‘Arts for arts sake’. Since then the arts sector has been (perhaps willingly at first) co-opted into first solving the social crises following industrialization and multiple world wars. And somehow the arts sector now has to justify its existence in an economic framework.

In that context we find politicians forcing arts groups into a ‘fight to the death’ over increasingly meagre amounts of public money. When Qld Senator George Brandis (and local rate payer I believe) as Federal Arts Minister stripped $105M from the Australia Council, the arts community realized how vulnerable it was. Local women like Sue Davis, Judy Pippen, Bridgette Chilly Davis and others confronted him about it at a meeting in Buderim in 2015. It made no difference at the time.

But all was not lost.

Ultimately Brandis did the arts community a favour. In 2016 I was privileged to attend ArtsFront a national conversation (organised by Qld's Feral Arts) and driven by women largely in response to the Brandis cuts. Artsfront was about the arts community seizing leadership and establish a nationa arts vision for 2030. At that forum the arts sector were asked to 'decolonize' our thinking. We were challenged to examine our responsibility - as those who are concerned with meaning and empathy - to champion inequality oppression and marginalization. Artsfront is now an emerging grassroots national campaign about the role of arts in community.

The arts community will walk alongside First Nations people. We also stand with the woman’s movement and will continue to create space for you and use our practice to bring meaning and understanding to what you do. This fabulous 100+ year cultural movement.

But I’m an arts advocate. I believe in using creative tools of self-reflection and provocation to bring action and change.

So by coming back to my inclusive version of culture, my challenge to you tonight is to ask yourself - ‘what is your relationship to art’? What role do the arts play in your daily life? What opportunity is there for the arts to express your values or what is important to your community?

By being here this evening you have answered that in part. You have made a decision to support culture and the arts. So I’d like to thank WINDO for bringing the two together. This is an expression of the Sunshine Coast’s cultural values of fairness and empathy.

But by reflecting on the role art plays in our lives - as makers, a connectors or a arts-supporters - we can all better understand and call-out good and bad culture in ‘this place'. If we act through this, we will develop more arts voices, like the fabulous local performers here tonight. In with increased engagement in the arts we will build a more inclusive and empathetic community here, which will be necessary as we face of the huge cultural change that is ahead of us. So I invite you to reflect on culture and act through the arts Sunshine Coast! And let us all continue the transformation of our community into a empowering place for women and a fair place for us all.

And happy International Women's Day!