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Regional Art Stories Ignitor of possibilities: An interview with National Regional Arts Fellow Kath Melbourne

Kath Melbourne wears many hats as a facilitator, strategist and regionally-based arts consultant. She is also a 2021 recipient of a National Regional Arts Fellowship – a program for artists living and working in regional, rural and remote Australia.

Regional Arts Australia’s communications co-ordinator Anwen Crawford recently interviewed Kath Melbourne about her Fellowship program as a Change Maker in Residence. Read on for Kath’s reflections about community, organisation and change in the arts, particularly in the challenging context of COVID.

Regional Arts Australia: Firstly, could you introduce yourself and your work, and what you are aiming to achieve during your Fellowship residency? Have your aims and approach for the Fellowship changed because of the lockdowns during 2021?

Kath Melbourne: I’m Kath Melbourne, a consultant and advisor based in southern Tasmania. I work locally, nationally and globally with clients and collaborators in the creative industries ranging from individual artists, small to medium not-for-profits and global corporations.

What they all seem to have in common is that they are doing things a little differently and navigating a world with a status quo that doesn’t always like being ruffled.

Something they also have in common with me…

At the beginnings of COVID the new consultancy really took off. I think it was the combination of a kind, empathetic approach, combined with a nous for finding the opportunity in chaos and the resilience to hold difficult conversations and emotions, steering them into possibilities.

What started to emerge from this diverse client base was an understanding that I was working across such broad cross-sections of the arts ecosystem and many were making assumptions and crying out for solutions that the other could provide. I started to form a picture of how change in one impacted the other and where these intersections occurred.

I also knew that I needed time off the fast paced treadmill of work to dive into these thoughts and the kind of support that allowed me to discover, deepen my practice and adapt in what was a very fast-changing arts environment. The RAA fellowship program looked perfect so I applied.

Regional Arts Australia: What has drawn you to the venues and organisations that you are working with during your residency – The LongHouse Hobart, the Phoenix Institute in Cobden and The Turtle Island Institute in Ontario? How do you conceive of the relationship between individual practitioner and organisation – or is this relationship different with each engagement?

Kath Melbourne: Yes, totally, each relationship is different, as are the organisations.

To be honest the idea of an in-person residency had to be reconsidered when the second wave [of COVID] hit. The other thing that I have come to understand is that Change Maker in Residence isn’t the right title for this fellowship, for various reasons, the most important being that the primary change-makers in this situation are those on the ground, not someone that ducks in and out. I’m the ignitor of possibilities, the navigator charting the way and the provider of supplies to make that make the journey feasible, but it’s the people living breathing and supporting their communities every day that are the change makers in residence.

The Longhouse was an organisation that literally lay on the tidal lines, which was the place where fresh and saltwater mixed, an emerging organisation at the intersection of so many aspects of community and culture, and tackling the meaty issues with a holistic First Nations-centred approach. I have working relationships across several individuals and organisations that intersect in that space and have been lucky enough to contribute to its evolution at times.

The Turtle Island Institute is founded by an incredible human being, Melanie Goochild, a Biigtigong Nishnaabeg First Nation woman from Northern Ontario. I was drawn to her writing and approach as it was a no-apologies form of collaborative practice that not only came from a place of great intelligence and integrity but also thought deeply about complexity, leadership and systems change.

For me personally, COVID also brought with it the cemented discovery of the blood that runs through me, a yearning for understanding that many people have when there is adoption in their immediate family and a desire to understand those out-of-place but deeply innate parts of you. This journey brought me to Canada and some steps towards understanding my relationship with blood country and its relationship with me. So part of this decision to reach out to the Turtle Island Institute was deepening this understanding.

The Pheonix Project in Cobden emerged from the bush fires as a place in the centre of its community that offered connections without a beer glass. Like many emerging organisations born from the grassroots of community it continues to balance overstretched resources with increasing need. Our work together continues to evolve, it is centred upon support, connection and mentorship –– something so crucial to those fantastic creative humans working in remote Australia.

Regional Arts Australia: Given the huge impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on arts communities here in Australia and worldwide, and when a lot of people are feeling an understandable desire to "return to normal", could you reflect a little on the role than change can play in the arts, and how it might be positive as well as negative?

Kath Melbourne: One thing that COVID revealed to many was how deeply broken many of our systems are: their inequities, their incompatibility with Country and their lack of capacity to bend without breaking. To return to ‘normal’ in search of safety, driven by exhaustion and fear, is to dismiss what we have found here in this place. I’m not just talking here just of the privileged realms of decision-makers and institutions but also of the discoveries we have made about ourselves, our survival, our tenacity and our limits.

I think there’s probably only three of us left now that believe this is an evolution that rolls forward and not backward, but I’m still rooting for the underdog in the fight.

Regional Arts Australia: Given the fight, what inspires and energises you in your practice on a day-to-day basis?

Kath Melbourne: Daily supporting practices where being present, particularly in nature, still the mind for enough time for solutions to come to the surface for the most difficult of problems.

Encounters with eagle, magpie, kookaburra, dolphin, bettong, black cockatoo. The smell of wildflowers. The sound of crashing waves and still lakes. The important reminders from our relations that answers don’t just come from spreadsheets.

Great conversations with intelligent humans that focus on possibilities, they also energise, especially when your day- to-day is about solving difficult problems.

Kath Melbourne