I’d Like to Begin by Doing the Right Thing…

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George Brandis
Arts Minister George Brandis. Not pictured: the knife he took to Australia’s arts budget.

I recently returned from Sydney, Australia, where I was invited to speak at the annual conference of the Australian Performing Arts Center Association. It was a great event held over four days in a converted railway carriage factory near downtown. The conference was attended by a mix of facility managers, artistic directors, organizational administrators, funders, government agencies, promoters and artists. The conversations were lively, and I greatly enjoyed the irreverence of the Australians. They’re like a more fun version of Canadians. (I’m Canadian — I can say that.)

There’s also a great controversy playing out in the Australian arts sector right now, and it was fascinating to hear how leaders of the sector are responding to it. Last May, the Conservative federal government removed A$104.7 million from the Australian Arts Council budget “in order to create a new national program for excellence in the arts.” That’s about US$73 million — half of its total budget was wiped out! This was the brainchild of George Brandis, the Arts Minister (and Attorney General!) who seems to have been nursing a grudge against the Arts Council and who now (some say) sees the opportunity to create a slush fund to support large, politically connected arts organizations. In the meantime, layoffs have begun at a number of smaller organizations, and there is tremendous anxiety over what may happen to the cultural sector overall. Australia is a vast country, but it is not densely populated, and the arts play a critical role in connecting far-flung communities and cultures towards a national identity.

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Even more fascinating was the way in which all the major speeches and presentations at the conference began. At first, I didn’t understand what people were saying, assuming that my jet-lag had me hearing things. Then I started to listen a bit more closely, and I realized that speakers and presenters were beginning their talks with a reference to Australia’s aboriginal heritage. I started writing these down. Here’s the first one I managed to transcribe:

I start with our protocol of acknowledging the traditional owners of this land. I acknowledge that we are meeting today on the lands of the aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, and I pay my respects to their elders and ancestors.

Then another one:

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I would like to begin by paying my respects to the traditional aboriginal owners of this place, and acknowledge and honor their ongoing custodianship and care for it.

And another one:

First of all, I’d like to acknowledge that we are gathered here on the lands of the aboriginal community, lands we have enjoyed for the short period of time that we’ve been here.

I was blown away. How amazing that people would consistently acknowledge the aboriginal communities that first inhabited Sydney, and to pay respects to them as keepers of the land. And so, like all curious folk, I started googling and discovered the practice is referred to as a “Welcome to Country” or “Acknowledgement of Country.” It is intended to recognize the unique position of aboriginal people in Australia’s culture and history, and to show respect to those first settlers.

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I noticed that some of these introductions were a bit more heartfelt than others, and I began to wonder how authentic these introductions were from the perspective of the aboriginal community. So I dashed off to a conference session on the state of aboriginal artists and their progress in Australia, waiting around afterward until I could pigeonhole one of the participants, a well-known aboriginal theatre director. I asked her how she felt about the practice and what those introductions meant to her. She replied that she heard some lack of sincerity in some of the invocations, but that overall they were well received and should be continued. As she said: “Doing so is simply good manners.”

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Aboriginal childrenMy next thought was: could you imagine that happening back home? The short answer is no, but there’s a longer discussion to be had about why that seems so unimaginable. There are still huge challenges and many points of tension in Australia regarding its aboriginal heritage. There are disputed land treaties, “stolen generations” of children taken from their homes to live in Christian schools, and a range of negative social problems that are damaging the aboriginal culture from within. Yet, in the midst of this, a small but powerful practice has been adopted that communicates understanding and offers respect to Australia’s first settlers. And the arts community has been at the forefront of that effort. How cool is that?

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The thing that I find most striking is that even in the midst of a funding crisis, Australia’s arts community has chosen to take a leadership role in addressing a fundamental societal challenge. Some artists and organizations are doing more, but what’s impressive is that they’re all prepared to do something, even if it only means some version of the Welcome.

I hope this story leads others in the North American arts community to wonder what we could and should do as leaders of our society. Could we take a strong and unified stand on some of the pressing challenges of the day? How about race relations, income inequality or climate change? Isn’t there something there we could do? Of course there is.

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And here’s the kicker: I bet that if we take a leadership role in addressing the toughest issues and challenges of our time, the effort of doing so will be far outweighed by what we get back in terms of support. If we behave like leaders, we will be recognized and supported as leaders. Simply put, we have to give more to get more.