Despite official statements of support, Australia’s great wealth of multicultural artists and arts remains marginalised. Boxes are ticked but an enormous cultural opportunity has been passed over. Who has the will, imagination and position to make a change? Begin at the top, says Justin MacDonnell. (Music Forum Spring 2012)

About eight years ago, the eminent Brazilian musician, Gilberto Gil in launching his first comprehensive policy as Minister for Culture in the Lula government said: ‘In order to make a difference, we must first re-imagine the nation.’ By that, I believe he meant that we have to stop thinking about the nation in only one cultural dimension and challenge ourselves as artists and arts workers to think of it in many dimensions. For a while recently, we too had an eminent musician as our arts minister. Sadly, he proposed no such vision. If the recent discussion paper is anything to go by, one does not live in hope that the forthcoming Australian cultural policy will be any bolder in this respect.

Some years ago I was guiding a well-known Australian festival director on his first visit to Latin America. We were in São Paulo and had seen quite a few performances in theatres large and small. Sitting in the lobby of our hotel, I asked about his impressions. He talked excitedly about the work, the artists, and the ideas. I asked if he noticed anything about race. ‘Well, he replied, other than in popular music, most of the people in the street are black and most of the people on stage are white.’ Obviously Brazil is a complex place and personal appearance does not necessarily tell you all. Nonetheless, closing that gap — between the stage and the street — had to be part of the national reimagining that Gil was urging.

Accordingly, right up front I want to make the following points:

  • Most of what has been achieved in the multicultural arts area in Australia has been at the margins not in the mainstream.
  • Change to this will be brought about largely through commissioning and developing new work. That is true of any artist. It is doubly true of CALD1 artists.
  • That, in turn, means that only those major institutions that have the resources and capacity to do so can really achieve that change and with very rare exceptions they are not even trying.
  • The Australia Council has banged away about all this for years but because the major arts centres and festivals etc are primarily State funded, the solution lies largely out of its reach.
  • All this needs a change of governance landscape in those institutions. That will start to reshape policy and, over time, practice, through executive selection and then management decision making.
  • Clearly, trying to work it the other way i.e. from bottom up has failed and failed dismally.
  • Having a token multicultural programming or marketing officer while no doubt desirable in itself is not the answer, it is tokenism because it is powerless, it is invisible and it does not inform the big picture.
  • We need wholesale change in leadership and management culture in the arts vertically and horizontally.
  • The main barrier is being kept on the edge and not being drawn to the centre

In October last year I hosted the visit to Australia of the Director of a new arts centre in Bogotá, Colombia. He came to Sydney for a week and then to the Melbourne Festival. While in that time he saw some of our major companies and new Australian productions ranging from cabaret to chamber music, I was hard pressed to find work that reflected our increasingly culturally diverse society although there was to be fair much diversity of other kinds available.

In the end, I asked the then CEO of Kultour to put together a lunch of artists and arts workers in this area. It proved to be a high point of my guest’s visit and excited him enormously to meet and talk with them. He found the projects on which those artists were engaged intriguing and somewhat to my embarrassment asked me afterwards: why is it that this is not more on display?

Happily, out of that has come a plan to curate a program of works by such artists to be included in the Australian season which he is planning in his country for 2013. My point, I suppose, is to stress how difficult it can be for visitors to experience more than ‘mainstream’ work. And I was not a little perplexed that it took someone in a leadership position in a foreign arts centre to see the point, when so many of his peers in Australia seem to miss it.

So I ask: if Australia is genuinely a multicultural society, as we claim and as our population statistics clearly demonstrate and if we truly believe that the arts hold a mirror up to life, why are our arts and cultural institutions, including the agencies which fund them, so little reflective of our diversity?

As a nation we need to ask: How are the theatres, festivals, concert halls and galleries, arts hubs and cultural centres reflecting our diversity and multi-culture? Is it just token, or does diversity really have a culturally significant ongoing role to play to enrich the arts? Why, in particular, are major performing arts presenters charged with the responsibility of offering a spectrum of arts experience to the public, still dominated by Eurocentric high culture? And how can we change that not by diminishing their importance or curbing their appeal but crucially by widening the spectrum of what is presented, so that they have multi-culture at their programming and creative development heart not just at its edge?

Of course, I recognize that there are many smaller organisations that are working hard and well to redress this imbalance but they too are largely marginalized.

I would argue that the lack of visibility of sectors of the community in mainstream public art expression is not just an accident or something over which we have no control. In every case, someone or some entity has made a conscious choice about them or has failed to make a choice. The Jesuits by whom, for good or ill I was educated, were very keen on the notion that we can do as much harm in life by those things we neglect to do as those we actually do. The lack of presence of CALD artists in the mainstream is not in my opinion based on prejudice but rather on neglect: Out of sight, out of mind.

Look for instance at our major arts centres: at governance level there are virtually no CALD Trustees. Perhaps as a consequence there are almost no CALD senior executives. As a result, I suspect, no one is raising the multicultural issue at these levels, no one is asking: why are we not doing this? That must change. And State governments especially have it in their hands to change it. They appoint the Trustees. They could change the landscape at a stroke.

A few years back I was doing some research that required me to talk to the ‘multicultural’ agencies in each of the states. It was fascinating to get a sense of what people in state government charged with such responsibilities were thinking and the policies and practices they pursued. I wasn’t too surprised to discover that Victoria was ahead of the rest and that in the arts that State was also leading in new ways of drawing what I call ‘the stage’ and ‘the street’ together.

But I learnt more. For instance: that in making appointments to the higher levels of the Victorian police force it was mandatory to have on the selection panel a person of CALD background. Not because there was an expectation that all appointments should or could be diverse but to remind the non CALD on the panels of that need. I wondered how many major arts organisations in this country regularly do the same. Few I suspect. They are big on tick the box in their annual reports but in practice in recruitment is it really before them all the time? (And by the way in saying this, I don’t underestimate the problems of such recruitment. God knows, some weeks it’s hard to get anyone to apply for an arts job).

The end result of these gaps in governance and management profile is that all too often when diversity is considered there has been simply a default to what I think of as the Lonely Planet approach to diverse programming. As a result we seem to have something akin to artistic theme parks in which there is just enough of the exotic to get the punters in but not too much to scare them off. And so we see some of our major presenters booking a Brazilian artist on the grounds that there are so many thousands of Brazilians living in Sydney and they would want to see a Maria Bethania or Caetano Veloso just as if Olivia Newton-John or Kylie were to come to Milwaukee the presenter would count the number of Australians living there before making the programming choice. Really?

Programming has come to be about ticking the box. It is about boldly backing the already successful or what others have already taken the risk on. It is sadly not about looking outside and seeing what the world looks like and asking how we can engage with it. It is hardly ever about making or presenting new CALD work.

But don’t get me wrong, this issue is not just about Boards and programming, It IS also about marketing. One of the many dilemmas we face in this area is how to market the difference, whereas what we constantly try to do is try to market the sameness. And more and more, make no mistake, arts presenters are being driven by their marketing departments. Why should they be any different from our political parties?

So to sum up I suggest there may be two ways of approaching these barriers in the Australian context: virally through infecting the mainstream host with ideas and practices which will change its cultural genome over time; and symbiotically by mutually grafting practice, experience and sensitivity between two or more partners committed to the growth of a new cultural identity. Both have their place.

The creation of new partnerships and pathways will be central to both. There are some models, as yet quite fragile and limited in scope, which could be used for future wider application. In each case, their value lies in connecting the grassroots expression through a process of creative development and collaboration with one or more means of ‘mainstream’ exposure.

However, without that continuum and without real and profound leadership change and, though that, new platforms, I fear we will make little progress.


Justin MacDonnell. Originally published in Music Forum, August 2012, Vol. 18, No. 4, 52-53. Entered on knowledge base 20 May 2013. The article is based on an address given at the Groundswell Multicultural Arts Forum in Sydney on 19 April 2012.


  1. Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Artists↩︎

Justin MacDonnell has had a 40-year career in the arts, holding major positions in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. From 1992, he built a broad cultural exchange network between Australia and Latin American countries. He is Executive Director of the Anzarts Institute, which has conducted three studies or reviews relevant to the situation of multicultural arts in Australia.

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