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Regional Art Stories Words with Executive Director Ros Abercrombie

Just over eighteen months into her role at Regional Arts Australia Executive Director Ros Abercrombie reflects upon her time at RAA and how the organisation intends to move into the future, with RAA's Communications Coordinator, Alana Hunt.

Alana Hunt: Can you start by telling me about the core ambitions detailed in Regional Arts Australia’s new strategic plan that are setting the current direction of the organisation nationally?

Ros Abercrombie: 2019 was a pivotal and transitionary year for RAA, opening new opportunities for this historic organisation to re-amplify the voice of the arts in regional and remote Australia. With the publication of our 2020-24 strategic plan in November 2019 we are positioned to be a more contemporary and relevant organisation for arts in regional and remote parts of Australia.

RAA is a not for profit peak body that is the national voice for arts in regional Australia. We seek to ensure the arts in regional Australia are recognised as essential and work to address the need for the arts and creative industries to be critically positioned across multiple policy platforms; including Digital connectivity, Education and Employment, Health Services and Drought Relief, Tourism and Agriculture, Water and the Environment.

We work to:

  • Raise the profile of Arts in regional Australia
  • Advocate that regional Arts are considered in the development of National Policy
  • Increase resources for the Arts in regional Australia
  • Demonstrate Best Practice

Our advocacy work leverages dialogue across the three tiers of Government and we seek to change the narrative both from within and beyond our organisation. The time is right for the arts and creative industries to take a lead role in regional development, for the arts to be understood as essential in the make-up of future liveable regions.

Over the coming years RAA will implement a broad, consultative and new-thinking approach to all aspects of the organisation considering practice, research and advocacy side by side with strategy, governance and partnerships to facilitate a framework for an industry wide creative ecology.

AH: What have you needed to do to adapt RAA’s programs and general way of working since Covid-19 reached our communities?

RA: Our priority has been to provide support for our team, our members and our program administrators who are based in different states and territories. Early on we established a page on our website through which we provide links to support, fact sheets, media releases and key details about the arts and covid-19. We understand our role as a connector and have tried to find ways to join the dots and keep information moving. This is ongoing.

In one sense the operational adjustment for our organization was less than for others. We have managed with a ‘virtual head office’ since early 2019 with the cloud and zoom being business as normal. The change has been the volume that has joined us in the zoom world!

The other significant change has been the reduced travel, I was flying regularly to meet colleagues, artists, organisations, present at conferences and see work. This change has been welcomed and definitely good for RAA’s carbon footprint. The various online platforms have provided an opportunity to effectively and efficiently connect and this has opened up conversations nationally in ways that weren’t possible before. I do miss seeing work, live performances and exhibitions though.

As part of our core business RAA manages the Regional Arts Fund (RAF), on behalf of the Australian Government. In collaboration with the RAF Regional Program Managers and the Office of the Arts we have kept all existing RAF grants active during Covid-19 and have facilitated variations and postponements. We have been able to support flexible timelines for project delivery and acquittals and have maintained all regular grant rounds.

In June we were delighted to announce the recipients our new National Fellowship Program which supported 5 individuals in the development of their practice.

In terms of our own programming, like everyone we have had to stop, turn left, turn right and reposition. Sadly, we had to postpone Artlands Junction that was due to be held in Lutruwita on palawa country (Launceston, Tasmania) in September 2020 but are delighted that we are now planning for that to take place 1-5 Sept 2021.

Our annual Canberra gathering is still on hold as we wait to see what the coming months bring. We have been able to introduce work on two new programs during Covid; Local Insights and Artlands Conversation Series.

Local Insights is a series of vignettes from artists and communities around the country. They provide insights from regional Australia's cultural landscapes amidst Covid-19. By asking the same three questions from different people in each town we hope to paint a picture of the diversity that regional Australia has to offer, and how the different ways people are coping with the current circumstances.

The Artlands Conversation Series is an exciting new initiative that we have been planning well before Covid and had intended to launch after Artlands Junction. Now we have just flipped the time line and are presenting the conversation series leading into Artlands Junction.

We are committed to maintaining strategic and collaborative relationships for the benefit of arts and creative practice across the country. It seems increasingly apparent that there needs to be far greater partnership between governments, industry, not-for-profits and commercial businesses and the creative sector and we are advocating to work more effectively across industry and policy sectors to build a stronger, diverse and sustainable arts sector. We have recently experience through both the 2019-20 Bush Fires and Covid-19 that there are advantages in co-advocacy and cross industry representation particularly when coordinating information sharing and immediate support and importantly as we navigate recovery and a renewed and reimagined creative sector.

Our network has been extraordinary and the partnerships critical.

AH: Bearing in mind the impacts of drought, fire and now the health and economic impacts of Covid-19 what are the most pressing matters you are hearing from arts communities across regional Australia.

RA: As you mention regional Australia has been hard hit with drought, bush fires, floods and now Covid-19. We have a long road ahead of us, with some modeling suggesting our sector will not return to normal levels of activity until the final quarter of 2021.

The Creative Industry has been united in outlining the specific impacts as well as the industry

interdependencies across tourism, accommodation and hospitality, each relying on events and venues for their success:

  • loss of income — sole traders, casual, contractors, seasonal, gig economy
  • loss of revenue — ticket sales, box office, bar, retail, membership,
  • loss of opportunities — short, medium, and long term
  • loss of touring — local, national, and international
  • domestic tourism — festivals, sales, accomodation

An important characteristic of our sector that needs emphasis, is that our connections are not just between employer and employee. We have liaised with our state-member organisations to understand the immediate and long term needs of the affected communities they serve. Their answers universally point to the importance of integrating arts and culture into the immediate, medium and long term economic, social and cultural recovery process.

Everyone is experiencing this pandemic in some way, there are some shared experiences and some levellers and regionally at least there are a diversity of experiences, a diversity of narratives. Access, inclusion and the ‘digital divide’ are significant issues we need to continue to address. We must work alongside our First Nations colleagues to support communities, knowledge, landscapes, ecosystems and Indigenous cultural sites that have been impacted affecting much of Australia.

Over these last 7 months I have been reminded how diverse, extraordinary and challenging artistic practice in regional Australia is. I have observed a national arts sector that demands a critical dialogue and is asking its representative organisations to understand the complexities of the regional cultural landscape and to provide leadership across all levels of government and business.

There is a place for the arts to show leadership within the regions and to recover and heal from events like what we are currently seeing.

AH: In what ways has RAA been able to communicate or advocate for these concerns to both government and the wider arts sector?

RA: We provide national reach and impact to resource and promote the artistic practice and creative engagement in regional Australia in collaboration with our members—the state-based Regional Arts Organisations and Regional Program Administrators.

Information exchange has been vital and RAA has been present on several weekly industry round tables and cross industry working groups. We have collected data and granular case studies from across our network and presented those to the Office of the Arts and the Ministers advisors. This culminated in July when I was invited to give evidence on behalf of RAA at The Senate Select Committee on Covid-19.

RAA has a critical role as a provocateur in contemporary regional culture with a renewed currency to facilitate ideas and engage across the sector with national reach.

Our strategic approach, is deeply collaborative, ethically positioned and unapologetically ambitious. We take our remit seriously to represent, advocate for and champion creative practice in regional, rural and remote Australia. As such we need to stay engaged, to remain relevant and committed to keep pushing boundaries, to challenge each another, to try new things and leave space for the unknown.

We will continue to support, advocate and lobby at all levels of government and business for a thriving arts sector as a vital thread that helps make regional and remote Australia a better place. To continue to champion the significant contribution arts and culture can make in ensuring our regions remain strong and vibrant and to set future directions for the sector and across other sectors and cross policy.

I see immense potential for ongoing exchange and learning and for opening future connections and opportunities locally, nationally and internationally.

I have learnt during the past 7 months that leadership is far better when you work side by side and support one another and visibility is vital.

AH: In April 2020 RAA received an additional $10 million in funding to distribute across the Regional Arts Fund nationally. What do you hope the long term impact of this funding will be?

We welcomed the announcement by the Morrison Government that the Regional Arts Fund would receive a $10 million ‘Recovery Boost’ to assist artists and arts workers affected by the impacts of Covid-19.

The RAF is one of the most successful programs supporting arts and culture in Australia, distributing funds to arts and community capacity building projects and professional development for regional artists, arts workers and arts organisations.

The RAF Recovery Boost funds are being delivered through the mechanisms of the RAF. The program has been designed for best practice recovery and responsiveness to the needs of each jurisdiction (State and Territory needs) and moving across three stages move from Relief to Recovery and Renewal.

The renewal programs has been designed for longer term support, providing up to three years of funding to projects that have strong partnerships, demonstrated long-term outcomes with a sustainable future positioning focus. These projects will be strategic in nature and can be slow-practice process-driven and are an opportunity to think beyond ‘snap back’ and to consider the opportunity for renewed practice, adaptability and learning processes.

Ultimately we are aiming to strengthen the fabric of the creative ecosystem across regional Australia with sustainable, long-term support that can inform and strengthen a robust creative sector. Our thinking is to find ways to support artists and organisations in their practice and to facilitate engagement. We are not so much concerned by specific project outcomes. We want to encourage process and exchange and find ways to support a creative ecosystem that is interconnected and integrated across art form, across communities and across landscapes. A creative ecosystem that is constructed, contested and reimagined. One that is part of a continuum of economic and cultural politics and practices.

This dynamic interrelation is a deeply felt, multi-faceted experience that acquires and generates layers of meaning and needs to be understood across policy agendas in all the variety and richness as part of a whole process. The arts are vital in the recovery and renewal process, and integral in planning and delivery of both the bush fires and Australian Covid-19 response. This investment in valuable, regionally led programs provides timely support and recovery to affected regions, industries and communities.

AH: What programs, advocacy and priorities are on RAA’s horizon for the next twelve months?

RA: RAA is committed to maintaining a strategic, collaborative relationships for the benefit of arts and creative practice across the country.

Our priorities for the next 12 months are to facilitate partnerships that strengthen artistic and creative practice to improve opportunities for the presentation of regional artists, organisations and regional communities. To work more effectively across industry and policy sectors in order to build a stronger, more diverse and sustainable arts sector.

Our programming supports high quality practice through professional development opportunities and cross sector projects. They are designed to reflect and respond to emerging trends and the needs of regional artists and arts workers and to connect creative projects with critical conversations on key themes—from health and well-being in the arts to innovative practice across industries, Indigenous practice on-country, developments in technology, education and skills development on a national and international platform.

Our programs currently include:

  • Creative Regions National Summit
  • Industry Round Table
  • Artlands (biennial regional arts gathering, next event; 1-5 Sept 21)
  • Artlands Conversation Series (Sept 20—August 21)
  • National Regional Fellowship Program (annual program)
  • Mapping the RAF (ongoing)

We have recently launched the Artlands Conversation Series, a curated program of critical conversations. Like Artlands, the Conversation Series will reflect and respond to emerging trends in regional practice, providing a narrative of art as social change and the articulation of cultural identity.

The digital platform will allow for diverse audience engagement, greater accessibility, continuity, and connection across the nation. The programming is reflective and responsive. Sessions may generate other sessions, provocations can be picked up and explored further generating opportunities for deeper exploration.

The program will run September 2020 to August 2021 and with eight sessions across the year.

Our advocacy is in everything we do – watch this space!

Ros Abercrombie 2