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Indigenous performances shunned by arts sector

Indigenous performances shunned by arts sector
August 31, 2016

The Australia Council for the Arts has revealed that two thirds of Australian presenters did not program any Indigenous arts last year.

Launched at the APACA Performing Arts Conference in Melbourne, the Showcasing Creativity - programming and presenting First Nations performing arts shows that Indigenous artists continue to face disadvantage with both presenters and audiences not including Indigenous work in their thinking.

The latest study in a series commissioned by the Australia Council, the study mapped programs by 135 Australian presenters, finding that just 2% of 6,000 works programmed in 2015 seasons was Indigenous. While this is close to the Indigenous percentage of the population (about 2.4%), analysing these results reveals big differences between presenters.

Key findings of the study showed;

• Presenters who are motivated to challenge and build their audiences are more likely to program First Nations works.
• First Nations performing arts are under-represented in Australia’s mainstream venues and festivals. They comprised around 2% of the almost 6000 works programmed in 2015 seasons.
• Almost half of Australian presenters did not appear to program works with First Nations creative control, involvement or content in 2015, including major venues and festivals that presented over 100 works each.
• Some presenters program a comparatively large number of First Nations works. Just 12 presenters (9%) were responsible for more than a third of all First Nations programming in 2015.
• Over one third of works were small in scale with less than five performers. Presenters tend to select either accessible works with a known brand, or smaller works which are low cost to stage. Smaller works can enable presenters to show riskier content.
• Building sector capacity for First Nations creatives to connect to presenters through showcases and networks is critical to growing the presentation and programming of First-Nations works.
• The Building Audiences research found that audiences have a strong image of First Nations arts as ‘traditional,’ but that they are highly motivated to engage with ‘contemporary’ works.
• Many presenters are afraid that they will get the process of selecting, staging, presenting and marketing works to audiences ‘wrong’, demonstrating a real need to build sector capacity.
• According to presenters, audience satisfaction is high irrespective of box office. The artistic excellence or integrity of First Nations works are key motivations for programming.

The study revealed that negative audience behaviour was behind much of the difficulty, suggesting that while audiences like the idea of Indigenous arts they don't actually attend.

While 92% of audience respondents considered Indigenous arts important to Australian culture, only 24% attended Indigenous arts. Audiences perceived Indigenous art as serious and preachy and many expected it to be traditional, although 80% of Indigenous work shown in 2015 was contemporary.

Presenters also advised that they needed more accessible and entertaining Indigenous works.

One respondent advised “People, they don’t wanna go (they think) 'I’m going to pay money and I’m going to get there and I’m going to be told how guilty I should be for being white’.

“Nobody wants to do that. That’s not a fun night out!”

The report identified a need to build sector capacity for cross-cultural engagement in both directions. Presenters need to be able to find work and feel confident programming it. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island artists need to be able to get their work in front of programmers. It also suggested improved representation across the sector in organisatonal and sector-wide leadership.

Suggested initiatives include:

• Marketing skills and opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and arts workers
• Marketing and community engagement skills for presenters
• Increasing exposure and connections between presenters, creatives and communities
• Initiatives to build performing arts centres’ understanding and confidence for programming First Nations work.

Commenting on the findings, Australia Council Chief Executive Tony Grybowski said the study was a significant next step in informing national dialogue about programming and presenting First Nations performing arts.

Grybowski “the Australia Council is committed to investing in First Nations art, and to enable more Australian’s to experience First Nations arts and cultures.

“We know that nine in 10 Australians believe First Nations arts are an important part of Australia’s culture, yet only one in four attend.

“The report findings demonstrate that there is significant under-representation in many mainstream venues and festivals, and that just 12 presenters are responsible for more than a third of all First Nations performing arts programming. There is extraordinary work being made and experienced, but we need to examine the complex reasons why there isn’t more of it and work collectively to address them.”

Executive Director Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Arts, Lydia Miller explains that Showcasing Creativity is the second of two deep-dive research pieces commissioned by the Australia Council, following the Building Audiences report which was released in August 2015.

Miller “the aim of the research is to provide an evidence base to underpin a strong First Nations arts ecology, and a foster a rich and diverse art sector that builds audiences for First Nations arts and showcases First Nations creativity, talent and stories.

Showcasing Creativity is a provocation to the arts sector. It asks for an examination of the assumptions on which programming and presenting decisions are made across the country. It provides the opportunity and an evidence base to inform an important cultural dialogue in the performing arts.

“This study is an invitation to the sector to participate in the conversation about the difficult but necessary question of what equality, representation, and cultural and artistic leadership require of us. The performing arts have such a vital role to play in celebrating, reflecting and keeping our diverse cultures strong; sharing our stories; and connecting us all.”

The Showcasing Creativity research involved national mapping of the publicly available programs of 135 mainstream presenters across Australia, for 2015 seasons. Presenters ranged from small independent performing arts venues in regional Australia, to state-based arts organisations and major festivals. Showcasing Creativity also presents survey results from mainstream presenters, and insights from interviews with producers and presenters. It reports on the level and types of First Nations performing arts programming in Australia’s mainstream venues and festivals; the presenting of works to audiences; and the motivations and obstacles for presenters and producers. 

Click here to view the Showcasing Creativity - programming and presenting First Nations performing arts study.

Images: So Long Suckers - Peter Docker, Emmanuel James Brown and Ian Wilkes, Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company (top - courtesy of Simon Pynt); Showcasing Creativity cover image Cut The Sky, Marrugeku (middle - courtesy of Jon Green) and the Queensland Theatre Company’s Black Diggers (below).






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