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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

'Yes We Can': The absence of 'cultural leadership’ in a time of crisis & the future of the Arts

Giving his victory speech in his home of Chicago in 2008, President-elect Barack Obama held the world spellbound, summoning the resolve that had seen generations of Americans through adversity, with the slogan ‘Yes We Can’; first made famous during Cesar Chevez’s 25-day fast in Phoenix, Arizona in 1972.

And throughout the world today, there is still much to be concerned about and much to overcome. This is a time when we justly expect to witness the steadfastness of our leaders, who give voice to our resolve, and steer us through to a better place. We look to our political leaders. We look to our medical and scientific leaders. We look to our economic leaders. We look to our community leaders.

And because we have come to believe that art is so important to our culture, it follows that in times of crisis we look to the arts as the embodiment of our culture and its portends for our future? But who exactly do we look to for leadership in the arts?

Having a broader conversation does not detract from the highest priority of dealing with the caronavirus health crisis Photo: The Guardian

While many prominent commercial and public gallery, theatre, opera and dance company directors, art professionals, and prominent artists of all types are quite justly appealing to us to financially support them, their pleas strike me as constrained to say the least.

To distract us and lighten our mood or simply stay connected, many are seeking to entertain us (with mixed success) in our isolation, or as in many cases buy art, purchase tickets, or just donate money. And while we all no doubt want our arts institutions to survive and thrive into the future, now is also a critical time for our arts leaders to focus on delivering leadership; to offer more than 'happiness'.

This is a time for much-needed creative insight, for sharp cultural analysis, and for inspiration.

Nowhere to be seen: Paul Fletcher, the Federal Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts Photo: The Sydney Morning Herald

I fear our arts leaders, notably those leading our public institutions, have been held captive to government for so long that they have formed a psychological alliance with their captors – a Stockholm syndrome of sorts. An incapability, or fear perhaps of, speaking out.

At the heart of this I believe lies a failure on their part to define their importance in real terms, to establish the relevance of what they do for the people they aim to serve - often seeming unaware of what is going on around them and little informed on contemporary issues (with a scattering of exceptions).

In the end, there appears to me a disconnection between our cultural organisations and our society - a lack of understanding or clear expression of the place cultural organisations should have in contemporary society - leaving little place for critical thinking, imagination, creativity (including the better use of resources); particularly, when things get tough.

Is this enough?: NGV Director, Tony Ellwood, has spoken on the the importance of a strong community in light of Brian Donnelly’s work in KAWS: COMPANIONSHIP IN THE AGE OF LONELINESS Photo: The Sydney Morning Herald

Our arts leaders need to be more aware of what is going on around them and better realise the role they are to play in it. There is little point filling their event calendars with exhibitions, performances, concerts, talks, promotions, and kids’ activity days, if they are not clear as to what they are doing, who they wish to connect with, and why they are doing it.

Their ‘mission’ should be to become more effective, meaningful and relevant to our communities – in essence, more active as both individuals and as experts. The urgent need of our arts leadership is to create the space for and the ideas to ground a meaningful conversation. Not to provide childcare.

The quality of our society depends on the existence of these spaces and the generation of ideas, not what we sometimes call safe spaces, but spaces where there can be a healthy confrontation of ideas and some degree of discomfort. We need ultimately a clearer view of the realities that surround us.

Moments and periods of crises can present moments and periods of great achievement, if artists and arts professionals are also able to see them as opportunities, opportunities to give purpose to what they do, to craft advantage, to listen, to acknowledge fear, and to speak out.

After all, ‘Yes We Can’ is just a slogan unless with action it resolves into the acclamation, ‘Yes We Did’.

NGV's Kaws exhibition 2020 Photo: Dean Sunshine


Main Photo: Barack Obama, Chicago 2008 Photo: The Washington Post

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and arts writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia


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