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Provocation of Excellence

Lindy Hume, Regional Arts NSW Board Director; South East Arts Board Chair and Artistic Director of Opera Queensland

REGIONAL ARTS AUSTRALIA CONFERENCE
KALGOORLIE OCTOBER 19 2014

I know there are many people in the RA and CCD sector who are suspicious of someone like me who works for one of the major performing arts companies, let alone an opera company. We MPA companies are the fat cats, with our flash offices, secure funding and dozens of employees, sucking up millions of dollars of government and sponsorship money on centuries-old art forms that could be better deployed on thousands of smaller, cooler projects in your regions. But bear with me, because I’m hoping to stimulate some discussion today about how Australia’s MPA companies can engage more meaningfully with regional Australia, and vice versa.

I’m probably one of the few leaders of Australia’s 28 MPA companies who actually lives in regional Australia. That’s where I’m most at home and where my heart is, but I love urban life too. I’m drawn to the connectedness rather than the separateness of the different worlds I inhabit. And my hope for the future of the arts in Australia is a more integrated arts ecosystem.

I spend a lot of time making and curating art in cities. In the last two years I’ve directed shows in Houston, Leipzig and Wellington as well as Brisbane. But my home and creative inspiration for the last 10 years has been 80 acres just outside of Cobargo (pop. 400) near Bermagui on the beautiful far south coast of NSW on the traditional lands of the Yuin Nation, the nation of the Black Duck. One of the things that drew me to the role of AD at OperaQ was the opportunity of getting to know Queensland’s amazing regional landscape, and developing some strategies to engage with those communities.

This is the title of a talk I gave about this time last year at Arts Qld’s Articulate Conference in Rockhampton. I seemed to touch a nerve of recognition when I shared my concern about the very obvious disconnect in the language used to describe the arts in regional Australia V Metropolitan centres. The language we use shapes our identity, our society, our culture. Language matters.

I had stumbled on this curiosity quite accidentally when I was asked to speak at the VCs Awards for Excellence at SCU in Lismore in 2013. Because I was speaking at an excellence awards night for a regional university it seemed logical to talk about excellence in regional arts. I’d never given it much thought before this, so in preparation I picked up the former federal government’s Creative Australia document (can you believe that was 2013 – just a year ago?) which had just been released, in which I knew the concept of Excellence was front and centre, to see what it said about excellence in regional arts.

As I worked my way down to the back of the document where section on Regional Arts was hiding, the language became noticeably less aspirational the further back one travelled. It dawned on me that at the front end of the document, which dealt with mostly Metro pursuits, the word Excellent was used a lot – up to 5 times on some pages – but in the section that specifically talked about regional arts, the word wasn’t used once. For regional arts there was a completely different vernacular. Suddenly we’re talking about “resilience, inclusiveness, cohesiveness…the arts linking and unifying people from different backgrounds and circumstances, fostering understanding and building a common sense of purpose.”

And yes we know all that, and we love it, we live it – but what about Excellence?! This omission implied to me that there was a lack of faith in the possibility that regional artists can also produce excellent or even great art. Then I became obsessed and went hunting in other policy documents. Sure enough the words “quality” and “excellence” were used equally sparingly elsewhere.

I began to form the view that regional artists were being talked down to.

And if that was the case, I wondered why. Why is the word excellence so problematic? Already here in Kalgoorlie I’ve heard it being described as a problem word, a divisive word. Is the concept of excellence seen as somehow unrealistic, or too high-falutin’ or elitist in our egalitarian regional communities? Is the pursuit of artistic excellence a bit arty farty? Self-indulgent? This week I heard someone describe an aspiration to excellence as “a bit of a wank”. Do we deserve it less than our metro cousins? Or is excellence simply less important to US than our other, more inclusive, cultural values?

My aim at the Articulate conference in Rockhampton a year ago was to reclaim the word in the regional arts context, and challenge the benign, bland, say-nothing maternal policy language that’s habitually used to describe cultural, intellectual and creative life in regional Australia. I wanted to rally our sector to seize the national cultural narrative, in which the spectacularly underfunded-yet-over-delivering regional arts sector continues to play poor cousin to the “excellent”, “elite” metropolitan arts.

So, here in Kalgoorlie a year later, has anything shifted? Well, yes, actually, it has a bit.

There’s been a definite shift in the national policy mindset and language at Federal level. The Arts Minister is genuinely passionate about regional arts and, if the jostling for regional credibility that I observed at the recent MPA meeting in Canberra is anything to go by, regional is definitely the new black. Now that we’re officially a “Culturally Ambitious Nation”, the word “excellence” is getting more of an airing in the discourse on regional arts.

The provocation of Excellence

The E word might be more often used these days, but it’s still surprisingly provocative, even controversial. Imagined as immutable and absolute, the rigours of arts excellence are still seen by some as the enemy of inclusiveness.

Since Rockhampton I’ve also discovered that consensus on a definition of the word itself as it relates to the arts is elusive. My friend the fabulous violinist Brendan Joyce thinks the word is damaged. As Robyn Archer wrote recently “The word is filled with so many unknowns…I know what I mean when I use the word…”, she says.

Me too – I know what I mean. What does the word mean to YOU? It seems it’s quite a personal thing. Last week I asked some colleagues to help me out with their definition of “excellence”, but this didn’t narrow it down either: Here are some of their thoughts:

MATT – theatre/opera director

‘Excellence’ is when the curiosity of an audience is evoked to experience an alternate point of view. An experience that invites a regional audience to imagine the world differently may differ greatly to an experience that inspires an urban arts festival audience – but both experiences display ‘excellence’ if they can transport their audience. 

ROD – regional creative producer

One word – integrity. There are a number of “excellences” that have to combine in any artform. Components can be excellent when a work isn’t. 

DAWN – arts publicist

Excellence is not perfection, it’s more that no-one involved was ever happy with good enough, they pushed themselves as far as possible. From an audience’s point of view, it’s something that slightly changes you, resonates with you and lingers.

BRENDAN – musician

In a way, ‘excellence’ is a damaged word…There is so much focus on ‘excellence’ — high achievement, fast playing, beautiful playing, technical facility — but none of this type of excellence is attained in any real and lasting way without integrity. 

 ANGELA – director

It is transforming and described with no qualifiers

GREG – singer/academic

I align ‘excellence’ with the act of ‘striving’. It’s different from ‘brilliance’ which can be an inherited attribute, not necessarily requiring a lot of work … although when this is wedded to ‘excellence’, can result in ‘magnificence’.

 SCOTT – Conservatorium director

Unashamedly elite. We cringe at this in the arts, but don’t hesitate to use the word in most other human endeavours. In the arts, excellence is a striving to “make it better” – to be great and good.

My personal favourite is the one I shared in Rockhampton too, former Edinburgh Festival director Sir Brian McMaster’s, from his 2007 review Supporting Excellence. McMaster was well aware that the use of the E word in the title of his Review was a linguistic retro-shift with important cultural implications. Here’s how he introduces his First Chapter: Encouraging Excellence, Innovation and Risk-Taking.

“I want to address the vital question of language. There is a fundamental mismatch between the way we talk about culture and the values we attach to it.  The language we use has become tainted and the terms we use – ‘art for art’s sake’, ‘the right to fail’, ‘risk’, ‘innovation’, let alone ‘excellence’ – have all acquired accretions of meaning in recent years that have blunted or distorted what we want to say. Excellence itself is sometimes dismissed as an exclusive, canonical and ‘heritage’ approach to cultural activity. I refute this. We need to be clear from the outset what we mean when we say ‘excellence’, ‘innovation’ and ‘risk-taking’.    

Excellent culture takes and combines complex meanings, gives us new insights and new understandings of the world around us and is relevant to every single one of us. It is why culture is so important to societies that flourish. If culture is excellent it can help us make sense of our place in the world, ask questions we would not otherwise have asked, understand the answers in ways we couldn’t otherwise have understood and appreciate things we have never before experienced. The greater its power to do these things the more excellent the cultural experience.  

The best definition of excellence I have heard is that excellence in culture occurs when an experience affects and changes an individual. An excellent cultural experience goes to the root of living.  

This idea may seem abstract, but in fact it is quite concrete. We have all been to performances which have been good technically but stopped short of being excellent. We can train artists to a degree of technical ability so that their work is of high quality. Excellence is another quality altogether.”

Excellence is really hard

Yes, Excellence is hard. Hard to get to, even harder to maintain. And I think that’s why it’s still provocative in some constituencies where there is a feeling that concepts of “excellence” and “community engagement” are mutually exclusive. Indeed excellence is, by nature, exclusive. Few will achieve it.

Excellence isn’t achieved without significant sacrifice. It demands full focus and discipline bordering on the obsessive and until technical skills reach maturity, it can’t be pursued casually. Close enough isn’t good enough. Excellence may be found in rough work, but not lazy or unresolved work. It may be found in original and complex work, but rarely in superficial or derivative work.

I think Excellence is also provocative because it IS a value statement. It says I want this work to be better – better than “adequate” or “pretty good”, and SO MUCH better than “mediocre”. It’s an artist saying I want to be the best I can possibly, possibly be – and I won’t stop until I’m as close to that as I can get, and even then I’ll keep pushing.

No artist just suddenly wakes up excellent one day. To achieve true excellence artists need the stimulation of ideas and concepts, the motivation of brutal feedback and tough love editing. To quote Robyn Archer again: “It is the result of experiment and failure along the long and painstaking path to Excellence…”

Collaborative Excellence

Excellence is hard whether you’re in regional or metropolitan Australia. It’s just as hard for MPA companies as it is for regional artists. But we’ve found, working alongside regional artists on two projects this year, that collaborative excellence – each partner pushing each other forward – can be a great adventure and produce unexpected, beautiful results.

Here’s some video from ABANDON, co-created last year by myself, Raewyn Hill, then AD of Townsville-based dance company Dancenorth and the amazing Scottish classical accordionist James Crabb. In Townsville we brought 5 dancers and 4 opera singers together to re-imagine 15 baroque opera arias by Handel with contemporary physical theatre. It was a regional adventure in the pursuit of collaborative excellence. All of us were way out of our comfort zones – singers learned complex choreography, dancers learned to count like musicians. We, the creative team of 3 headstrong control freak leaders – learned to listen and shut up when the other was working.

Now ABANDON, our little Townsville-born show’s been nominated for a 2013 Australian Dance Award in the Outstanding Achievement for a company category alongside Sydney Dance Company, The Australian Ballet and Chunky Move. We think that’s pretty excellent.

It’s a great example of the kind of connections that more regional artists and companies could be making with MPA companies. By sharing our resources we were able to create a new work that was greater than the sum of it’s parts, a work proudly owned by both companies. I believe our MPA status empowers us to empower others. Like museums and galleries, the majors are part of our country’s “hard” cultural infrastructure. That infrastructure has enormous capability and can be deployed in so many different ways.

Here’s another example: When I joined OperaQ in 2012 it was clear that after about 20 years of touring regional QLD, FIFO touring clearly wasn’t resonating with local audiences anymore. Attendances were feeble, we had no relationships with the communities, and it was increasingly hard to justify the enormous expense of touring such long distances with our huge truckloads of scenery, lighting, backstage technicians, singers and musicians.

Feedback from the centres was that we needed to properly engage with the community, which meant radical change to our approach to regional activity. Project Puccini represented that change.

Instead of scaling down, we scaled up. We wanted regional audiences to experience red-blooded Italian opera, in Italian, with fabulous singers, orchestra, excellent production values and a full chorus of 48 (36+12), and we decided that these would be sourced from each local community. We deliberately set the bar high by choosing Puccini’s La Boheme, one of the greatest operas of all time. Act 2 of la Boheme is short, but it’s one of the most complex chorus scenes ever written. Lots of people said we were crazy. Sometimes we thought we were crazy too.

To create eight choruses across the state we needed to identify 384 participants who we could train to the performance level expected in Act 2 of Boheme in a professional production by a Helpmann Award winning director, under the baton of one of Australia’s best-known conductors, alongside some of Australia’s finest singers and musicians from QSO.

Eight hundred people auditioned across Queensland. We collaborated with partner organisations, councils and performing arts centres. In addition to the participant’s 12 week rehearsal program, we held skills-building workshops, created an online learning centre and noticeboard and brought the 8 local chorus directors to Brisbane for a weekend of training with our Music Staff.

Excellence is hard.

But sure enough, each of those eight choruses exceeded expectations – they were in tune, in time, in Italian, they looked fabulous and their enthusiasm just exploded of the stage…

Play Project Puccini 

I know it’s not about the numbers, but the numbers are very nice, and they have big implications. At a time of global downturn for opera, we comfortably doubled our box office from the last tour. We sold 2000 more tickets to the show in regional Queensland than we did in Brisbane.

We knew we’d tapped into something really special, and the research the OzCo has just released about Art in Daily Life, which backs this up:

Creative Participation has risen amongst regional Australians, from 39 percent in 2009 to 49 percent in 2013, 2% more than those living in cities. 10% in 4 years – if that rate continues, we’re looking at around 60% participation rate by 2018. And the art form that saw the greatest increase in participation from 4% to 9% was singing!

But the real proof was in the response from the communities themselves. Sharing the journey on social media was a huge part of this story. There was always a bump in ticket sales following the flurry of social media during the final rehearsals, mostly selfies when people got into their gorgeous costumes, wigs and makeup.

We’ve captured the moment in lots of different ways:

We commissioned Griffith University to do some independent research into the impact of PP. Our internal goal was a 75% response from participants that overall their experience on the project had a positive effect on their life. Preliminary results indicate the response is 98%. And overwhelmingly, the thing participants valued most was the close contact with the professional artists and musicians.

Project Puccini was media gold, generating over 600 individual media stories across all local, state and national media platforms. Every local paper ran a cover story on the day of the show. But in Mt Isa the North West Star went all out, running a front cover, and a six-page colour spread of a workshop that QSO musicians and conductor Guy Noble did with the local community orchestra. On the same day 900 kids watched an hour-long version of the show, then 600 locals glammed up for the show that night. 1500 people to an opera in one day in Mt Isa – now who’d have thought?

The tour finished last month but we’re still getting amazing feedback. This week Mark Fawcett who runs the Mackay performing Arts Centre posted a blog on the Arts Qld website on the effect the project has on his community. Mark wrote:

The lasting legacies are a changed perception of opera, the best operatic attendance we have had in over a decade, community pride, skills development, cultural development, self-belief, community inclusion, and much, much more.

And a nice PS: Four of those excellent regional choristers have just sung their first professional gig – we signed them up for our recent co-production with Brisbane Festival of Philip Glass’s The Perfect American. Next year we’re working with the Toowoomba and Gold Coast chorusses on big free opera events with our friends the Queensland Music Festival. So the story continues…

IMAGINE…

Looking into the future, I imagine a richly integrated cultural landscape where MPAs, Key Organisations and regional artists and communities work together to share the rewards of collaborative excellence.

I’m amazed that only three of the MPA companies have been here at this hugely important national conference (all respect to my MPA colleagues from Opera Australia and Black Swan State Theatre Company). We don’t live on separate planets, people! We ALL play a vital part in this amazing national cultural ecosystem and there’s a lot more that connects us than keeps us apart. There’s so much wisdom on both sides to be shared, so much to be gained by sharing insights with each other. Yet we so rarely talk to each other – or even meet! It’s crazy!

So I’m making it my personal quest to make sure there are reps from as many majors and Key Orgs as possible at the next RAA conference in two years time.

But in the meantime…consider this:

MPA companies like OperaQ are actively looking for more creative ways of engaging with regional communities, so its a perfect time for you to engage with your MPAs. Our funding agreements with governments are tied to commitments to regional activity and we’re all aware that the days of FIFO touring are drawing to an end. Some MPA companies, like Bell Shakespeare and Bangarra have had deeply integrated national regional programs for decades. Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet have huge touring schedules. Every MPA company engages in regional activity – and some are more progressive than others. But watch this space, you’ll be seeing more MPA companies collaborating with regional communities, regional artists and companies.

So if you have a collaborative project or a brilliant idea to pitch NOW is the moment.

In Conclusion…

Being ambitious for excellence doesn’t mean being less authentic, less local community-spirited or less regional – on the contrary, keeping your regional voice is vital!

One of my great inspirations is the truly excellent Kneehigh Theatre, based in Truro in Cornwall, a town about two-thirds the size of Kalgoorlie. Kneehigh’s work reflects the region in which they make it; and it’s made them world famous. This is how their artistic Director Mike Shepherd describes the company and its work:

(Please note – in Kalgoorlie my time was running out so I didn’t include this quote, but it’s beautiful and inspires me enormously.

“We are based in a collection of barns on the south Cornish coast, at the top of a hill where the road ends and a vast horizon stretches far beyond Dodman Point. … there is barely any mobile phone reception and nowhere to pop out for a quick cappuccino. These elemental spaces add a physical and vocal robustness to our performance style.

Kneehigh are an ever-changing ensemble, a kind of strange family, many of whom come from, or have chosen to live in, Cornwall: the extreme South West tip of the British Isles – outsiders, left-handers – engaging with the world with a sense of community and identity. 

Cornwall is our physical and spiritual home. We draw inspiration from the landscapes, history, people and culture. I returned home to Cornwall 30 years ago to make theatre. It was a place where you could make things happen.”

Like Mike from Kneehigh, I see my home in regional NSW as a place where I, as an artist, can make things happen for the world stage.

As Artistic Director of OperaQ I want our regional audiences to experience the most excellent work and for regional artists to be inspired by working alongside excellent artists and musicians.

As a member of the regional arts community I see a future where the idea posited in the OzCo strategy that Australian arts have no borders means that imaginary and historical borders between the community and regional arts sectors and the “mainstream arts” will also vanish, that state borders mean even less, and a more organic cultural ecosystem – old growth, new growth – emerges and flourishes.

I share Brian McMaster’s view that the highest quality and the broadest audience can go hand-in-hand.

I share Brian Ritchie’s view that we’re on the cusp of a new dawn in the arts in Australia, and that regional artists will be playing a larger, more dynamic role, that we have the right to demand respect and our share of the intellectual, financial and acknowledgement pie.

The excellence pie too!

I’m optimistic and excited about that future.
Thank you.