Friday 08 December 2017

In more than three years as Director of the British Council in Australia I have found there’s a question that comes up regularly: Why does the British Council work in Australia?

It arises because the UK and Australia relationship is among the closest in international affairs. Why have a cultural relations agency here if there’s already plenty going on?

We say that in any relationship it is important to keep track of what is changing and respond quickly - that is if you want to keep the relationship close. We focus on finding the change and building programmes that turn change into opportunity.

Back in the 1940s we did high art. We brought some of the UK’s most significant cultural leaders to tour here in large scale exhibitions, concerts and Shakespeare productions.  It was the time when Australia looked to the UK as a leading cultural voice. In education, we offered scholarships to give Australians access to UK universities.

Then we shifted focus, because Australia grew more confident using Australian voices in cultural expression, while in the UK the 1960s indelibly transformed popular culture and high art. We brought cutting edge productions and artists to Australia at a time when the arts were growing rapidly and audiences were keen to see new, challenging work.  We worked on shared research and science projects.

We shifted again as we recognised emerging Australian artists wanted more international connections. We sent many to work on projects and development in the UK. Meanwhile, Australia consolidated its position as one of the UK’s most important markets for cultural exports – the UK sometimes exporting work by Australians back here (from Clive James to Tim Minchin). We offered exams testing for Australian and International students seeking British qualifications, and brought East Asian and UK Higher Education leaders together in Australia to look at innovation.

Increasingly we are moving to peer-to-peer work to drive our programme, projects to bring artists, producers together to collaborate and learn from each other’s experience. Leadership development is also a strong theme.

The UK shares many of Australia’s challenges and opportunities as migration changes the demography of our cities; as both local and national cultures diversify; as we both deal with the continuing impact of colonisation on Indigenous and settler communities. It makes sense to share and learn from each other.

We are proud of the continuing impact of the ACCELERATE Indigenous cultural leadership programme which has taken 35 mid-career producers, artists, musicians, curators, writers and directors through a tailored programme to develop their capacity to move into senior positions. It has changed individuals and organisations in both the UK and Australia – watch out for more creative work and change-making from ACCELERATE alumni in 2018.

We train early career scientists in performance and storytelling and send the national winner to join peers from more than 30 countries to compete in the FameLab science communication competition at the Cheltenham Science Festival (Applications for 2018 are open now). 

See the current This is the Voice exhibition at the Museum of Applied Arts and Science (MAAS) in Sydney. It is  a fabulous cross media  exploration of the human voice in all its diversity as a tool of expression and communication and  is based on curatorial collaboration between the Wellcome Trust and MAAS.

Recently we have been consulting in both the UK and Australia about where we should focus for the next three years. We have some pretty clear messages from Australian partners that we should use our global networks and experience to support artists working to create a more diverse offering on-stage and screen, and behind the scenes too.

Here there’s more change coming fast as rapid growth of immigration means nearly a third are born overseas and there are more and more connections with Asian cultures. The UK is focusing on the talent and leadership coming from its immigrant and Indigenous communities. Both countries are exploring how to deal with the challenges and opportunities in rapidly changing city environments. There is more to do to keep the relationship close!

I will be retiring from the British Council at Christmas, and our Head of Arts and Partnership Helen Salmon will be stepping in to take the British Council in Australia to its next phase. Helen came to us as a public arts producer from The Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, she has served on Australian arts boards and is well established in the UK after 15 years in British theatre, most recently on the senior management of the Royal Court.  

It has been a deep pleasure to work at connecting artists, audiences and researchers across the world, particularly working with my colleagues in East Asia as we look at how Australia fits with our work across the region. Our small team in Australia shows resilience, commitment and practical skill in realising our ambitions to build friendly knowledge and understanding. Lastly, I have worked with UK and Australian partners across our programme that understand and invest in cultural expression in areas from education policy and science to digital art making. They are a powerful reminder of how there is a shared purpose in developing friendly knowledge and understanding across the world.