Rethinking Regional Arts Victoria

Late last October, the Regional Arts Victoria leadership team spent a couple of days in Healesville as part of our annual critical reflection program. While our past sessions had focused largely internally, this time was different. We anticipated the seismic changes to the national arts ecology that were about to be precipitated by changes in government policy. We examined forensically the impacts of key artform and industry development organisations losing their core operating funding. We discussed, openly and sensitively, the implications on artists, on artistic career pathways and life cycles, on audiences and venues, on education, on community and cultural development, on advocacy and leadership, on urban, outer-suburban and regional development, on collaboration and competition, as well as on physical and mental health. And we began to rethink the role, the purpose and the vision of our organisation.

Since that time, we’ve started to put some of this thinking into practice. Our General Manager, Joe Toohey, led the creation of a new long-term funding model for a key component of our Education & Families work, securing $500,000 in Catalyst funds to help power our other philanthropic partnerships into a sustained ten-year program. This redressed an untenable situation experienced the year before where, for the first time across our five decades, we were unable to secure long-held philanthropic relationships for our high school program. Ironically, intense competition caused by the removal of Australia Council funds to create Catalyst was responsible: philanthropic bodies with whom we’d enjoyed long-term relationships of success every few years (rather than creating a dependence on one to invest in our work long-term) were all, quite rightly, favouring the artists and small arts organisations no longer able to access those public funds. We rethought the model, reassessed our options, and have now removed ourselves as a funding competitor on education programs for high school students.

Around that time, I attended a symposium in regional France called How Institutions Think, and it turned out to be a very timely set of provocations: Has the arts organisation become institutionalised? What does it enable? What does it colonise? What’s in its blind spot? What has been the impact of arts, education, funding and other public institutions on the nature of artistic practice itself? As I began to immerse in thinking this through for our Australian context, the national conversation rapidly shifted: the Australia Council was about to announce its Four-Year Funding recipients, and an election had been called, mobilising us all to look out for one another while contributing to that national conversation constructively.

The Australia Council outcome shouldn’t have been surprising, given its well-publicised shift in focus following the cuts, and yet it was. Until organisations who weren’t funded had names, it would be difficult to compute. At last October’s strategy session, we looked closely at the list of organisations currently funded by the Australia Council, separated out the Victorian ones, and discussed scenarios of impact for our state. As the state’s organisation focused on supporting local artists, facilitating local projects, getting arts experiences into schools and venues large and small, and inspiring transformative cultural change at the scale of entire small towns, our hundreds of members and hundreds of thousands of audiences were about to be affected in a big way – and the focus of our developmental work would need to shift in response.

Then came the Creative Victoria outcome, which, after the work of the Creative Industries Strategy, was also a surprise. Learning we had not succeeded in presenting the case for an increased investment to meet the growing demand that faces us was disappointing, but Regional Arts Victoria was not alone in that regard. Other key practice development organisations also received only modest one-off increases, which in real terms amount to an annual decline from 2011 when our non-indexed level was set, to 2020 when this quadrennium ends. Rethinking our focus suddenly became critical.




Years ago, when Arts Victoria was about to establish the Organisations Investment Program, I gave good thought to how best to foster the arts across the state. I proposed a way of considering organisations as either focused on the creation and curation of new work, or interpreting cultural heritage or contemporary culture, or developing practice and building capacity, or servicing organisations themselves:


Organisations creating and/or presenting new work. Includes galleries, venues, single artform organisations. Organisations interpreting cultural heritage, tradition or contemporary culture. They might hold permanent collections, or focus on the presentation of a particular artistic tradition. Organisations combining artist, producer, audience and industry dev’t in one complex program. Agile and responsive. Artist engagement iteratively incorporated into services and program. Peak body organisations with a specialised focus. Their work is characterised by leadership, advocacy, member professional development.
Predominantly servicing and presenting artists. Taking artists and artforms to new places. Partnering with gov’t to achieve shared cultural and audience development goals. Partnering with gov’t to create and sustain the arts ecology in creatively interconnected ways. Predominantly servicing organisations. Supporting best practice, capacity building.


Those organisations in the third category are the primary partners in the implementation of arts and cultural policy, as well as leading its development. Governments need to think differently about how they invest in such organisations, but no strategic effort is made to partner effectively; there is a one-size-fits-all approach to organisational funding which does not reflect the sophistication of the arts, and in failing to do so, successively undermines that sophistication. Organisations are still funded on models predicated on the establishment of an arts ecology, rather than the development of that existing complex ecology. Peer assessors – selected because they have no active involvement nor conflict of interest with any of the hundreds of applicant organisations – face the gut-wrenching task of determining funding based on currently granted amounts, and as was reported following the Australia Council decisions, there were tears.

With demand so demonstrable and impacts so measurable, an increase in public investment is obviously needed. Unfortunately, cuts at the federal level and lack of indexation at the state level have made governments the key partners in the contraction of the arts, rather than the key driver of innovation and development.

Several times at advocacy forums this year, I’ve found myself noting with great disappointment that government is the key disruptor of the arts. If we look at the constructive disruption in other industries that’s stimulated by new thinking or technological advances or shifting demographics or other paradigm shifts, such impacts on the arts pale in comparison to the havoc that can be wreaked by unannounced, unsubstantiated government policy change. Lack of indexation is a sleeper: it cuts a company’s core operations every year, reducing its capacity to leverage core funds to secure new funds, ironically undermining the purpose of those funds by making organisations even more reliant on government funding. The only option is to rethink the organisation – and to do so openly and sensitively, mindful of the internal and external consequences of significant change.

What are the key focus areas of the practice development organisation? How can we support practice development that strengthens regional arts? How can we build capacity so that artists can approach venues and schools and present workshops or undertake residencies locally, regionally? How will we meet increasing demand from artists, organisations, schools and venues in the growing outer-suburban region? How will we remain responsive? How can we disrupt constructively? How can we avoid institutionalising the organisation?

Across the coming two years, Regional Arts Victoria will work closely with the six communities leading Small Town Transformations, as well as developing and presenting Artlands 2018, focusing the national spotlight on Victoria’s regional arts. Each of these is a massive endeavour on top of our work across membership, creative arts facilitation, education and touring. This work is all about strengthening local artistic leadership: supporting artists in taking more prominent roles in their communities to foster a culture of confident, resilient creativity. As we’ve found for years with our internal critical reflection program, we will facilitate the critical reflections on practice that can sustain that confidence and resilience. Importantly, we will investigate ways in which local reflection can keep infusing our organisation to be inspired by art across the state. And in doing so, we will infuse a rethinking of our organisation into its very fabric, sustaining an open and confident culture.

In 2019, Regional Arts Victoria turns fifty – and it’s a milestone we’re going to commemorate with all the wisdom, vision and style we would expect of a fifty-year-old. Where will Regional Arts Victoria be in another fifty years’ time? What will inspiring the arts across the state have come to mean by then? It’s exhilarating to imagine that the decisions we make now will make possible new thinking and new work that’s beyond our imagination… and that’s what it means to work in the arts. Let’s do this together.