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Something seems to be missing in the Australian art world. French Street theatre company performing at the Santiago a Mil International Theatre Festival - Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

Australia’s arts community has a big diversity problem – that’s our loss

The revelation last week that, for the second year running, every actor nominated for a major acting award in this year’s Oscars is white has prompted furious debate. The president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has promised to take “dramatic steps” in order to bring about “much needed diversity”.

That’s a conversation that Australia needs to have as well. The arts are how we tell stories about ourselves, and inform our sense of who we are as a nation.

Yet the most recent comprehensive survey of Australian artists – conducted in 2009 – shows that only 8% of professional artists in Australia are from a non-English speaking background, compared to 16% of the general population. That data comes from 1,030 practising professional artists, selected from the membership lists of a range of arts organisations.

So the arts community is much less diverse than the rest of Australia. If there is one thing that the arts sector should rally around, it is improving its own capacity to embrace cultural diversity, both in its own ranks and in what it projects to the world.

We were commissioned to write a new Australia Council report, Diversity of Cultural Expressions, published in October 2015, which aims to do just that.

Dealing with diversity fatigue

Worldwide, the diversity agenda received a significant boost with the adoption of UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions in 2005.

This Convention positions “diversity” as a key theme for cultural policy in the 21st century. Australia became a signatory of the Convention in 2009, but Australia has been trying to engage with diversity for far longer.

Ever since Australia officially became a multicultural nation in the 1980s, there have been attempts to shore up the representation of cultural diversity, including in the arts.

But repeated failures to reach diversity targets have led to “diversity fatigue”. People are tired of hearing about it and it not happening. We need new, more vigorous and pro-active ways of promoting and nurturing diversity from the ground up.

Smaller, less established arts organisations are the indispensable laboratories for new and innovative artistic work, advocates say. What is less often noted, however, is that it is precisely in such smaller organisations that cultural diversity is most creatively explored and expressed.

Over the years, the Australia Council has funded a whole range of small, experimental projects and initiatives, which are the hothouses of a rich, vibrant and diverse national culture.

Three ways to boost diversity of cultural expressions

The DICE report examines a number of these projects closely, and shows that they play a hugely important role in three different ways: community, industry and artist-mediation.

Community-based projects aim to support underrepresented minority groups to participate in cultural life, either as artists or as audiences. An example of such a project is the Visible Program developed by Multicultural Arts Victoria, a mentoring program for musicians from refugee and Indigenous communities. The focus here is on enhancing cultural democracy.

Industry-focused initiatives centre on organisational development through advocacy, networking and capacity building. An example of this approach is Kultour which, since its beginnings in 2001, has become a national organisation dedicated to touring innovative multicultural art productions across all art-forms. The focus here is on building cultural sustainability.

Last but not least, artist-mediated projects emphasise the creativity of the artist, in generating new work that imaginatively extends the diversity of cultural expressions. A case in point from a few years ago is TransLab, an initiative of the Australia Council’s Theatre Board, which supported new intercultural performance through extended research and development residencies. The focus here is on fostering cultural innovation.

Of course, cultural democracy, cultural sustainability and cultural innovation are interrelated objectives. They can be achieved by the patient nurturing of creative talent from all sorts of diverse backgrounds to achieve what the arts community calls “excellence”.

At the heart of the arts

In today’s interconnected world diversity is no longer a peripheral add-on to an otherwise monocultural centre, but a central dimension of the entire domain of culture and society. If the arts sector has not yet come up to speed with this inescapable 21st-century reality, how can arts policy step in?

To begin with, promoting cultural diversity in the arts should go way beyond “ethnic showcasing” and the narrow area of “multicultural arts” set apart from the cultural mainstream.

Diversity is not a deficit, but absolutely central to exciting and innovative arts. The projects and initiatives documented in our report show that policy does not have to be big to be effective.

Small to medium art companies have an important role to play in this process.

Clarity of purpose and sustained intercultural dialogue through well-targeted programs across the variety of art forms may be more important than large-scale initiatives. Supporting emerging artists can generate ripple effects to show that truly relevant and energetic creative art will come from working across cultures.

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