Artists are our most important cultural leaders. How might we help them thrive?
An interview with Adrian Collette, CEO of the Australia Council for the Arts
By Alexia Jacques-Casanova
“It is the artists who lead us culturally, and your success at running an arts organisation highly depends on your ability to tune in on what those artists are saying.” Adrian Collette, CEO of the Australia Council for the Arts is a strong believer in the the power of artists to teach us to challenge our perceptions on life and society. In the past few years, he has witnessed the wider representation and celebration of First Nations Cultures in his home country; a much-needed evolution which he sees as deeply influential. “It is actually leading us to think differently about our governance models and the way we live our individual and collective lives.”
Collette’s job, like many other arts administrators, is to help those cultural leaders get their message across. But how exactly might arts advocates be good Robins to the Batmans of the arts?
Let them be bold
I asked Collette what he thought of the subtopics “Being Bold” and “Taking Risks” that Agenda chose for the upcoming CTA conference about Cultural Leadership. “In the world of arts, being bold and taking risks is the lifeblood of it, isn’t it?” he says laughing. “As bureaucrats or advocates for the art, we are constantly trying to create order out of disorder, but eventually, we have to respect the will and necessity for artists and arts organisations to be bold and take risks.” Staying tuned to the artistic processes of the people they serve is something that Collette and his team strive for, even if those artistic expressions sometimes “threaten” their own agenda with their audacity.
Get your hands dirty
Is it essential for arts administrators to have had hands-on experience in the arts? “It is highly beneficial,” says Collette, “because no matter how well-intentioned you are as an administrator, at some point you will become bureaucratized if you don’t move in and out of the field.” Having held the position of Chief Executive of Opera Australia for 16 years after working in publishing for a decade, Collette has had his fair share of hands-on experience. It is important for him to ensure he and his team don’t loose touch with what it is artists and arts organisations actually do.
Take audiences on board
For Collette, there are three constituents arts advocate need in their work. The first two — the artists/arts organisations and the government — are the ones most arts administrators usually focus their attention on. Yet Collette believes that the third and most important constituent of this equation is the public; and for him and his team, it is also their greatest challenge. “If you ask people if they engage in the arts they are likely to say ‘no, no it’s not for me’ because they are thinking about Fine Arts museum and Opera, but if you ask them if they are reading a book, or listening to a band or whether their child is taking a dance class, they will say yes.” Collette and his team are convinced that it is part of their mission to shift the public’s perception of what investment and engagement in the arts actually is. In doing so, the Australia Council for the Arts hopes not only to show people that they are already taking part in the arts, but also to start articulating the “public value” of the arts, that is to say, its impact on social inclusivity and cohesion.
Adrian Collette will be giving a welcome speech at the Communicating the Arts conference in Sydney, which the Australian Council for the Arts is supporting. If you wish to start an informal conversation with him during one of the many social events happening during the conference, it might be useful to know that he is an avid reader: “if I am not reading a book, I am not nice to be around!”