South Australian arts in South East Asia (where the bloody hell are ya?)

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By Grant Hall, Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

The Conference for the Association of Asia Pacific Performing Arts Centres at the Adelaide Festival Centre presents the SA Government with an opportunity to outline its plans to increase SA’s artistic and cultural presence in the Asia Pacific and South East Asia regions.

I currently live most of each year in Vietnam, but also spend a good deal of time in my hometown of Adelaide in South Australia. Whenever I live in Adelaide I work within the arts industry, and over the years I’ve worked with a variety of arts and cultural organisations including the Nexus Multicultural Arts Centre, the Fleurieu Peninsula Biennale, Learning Music Australia, Country Arts SA and the Adelaide Festival Centre, where I undertook a fellowship in arts leadership.

Each year I try to attend at least one South Australian Overseas Trade Mission, because they present a great way for me to build the types of international collaborations and partnerships that League Cultural Diplomacy is built upon. This year I was a delegate on the mission to South East Asia, joining the party in Ho Chi Minh City, which is just down the road from me, and last year I went to India. I highly recommend the missions and believe they are very important in helping to develop the South Australian economy.

The South Australian Government has engagement plans in place for a range of nations and regions and usually the plans discuss the way that arts and culture can form a basis on which to build good international relationships, grow as an export industry or attract foreign investment, tourism and students. When South Australia’s elected and honorary representatives speak  at international trade functions, these sentiments are frequently echoed.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that there weren’t any arts workers as delegates from SA at the functions I attended on the two trade missions that I was involved with. I knew that many SA arts workers had attended the trade missions to China, but it’s my understanding that only one arts worker was a delegate on the most recent South East Asia mission.

An article in The Adelaide Review claimed that about fifty arts workers from South Australia were at the recent Edinburgh Festival in Scotland as part of a $200,000 initiative of the South Australian Government, with SA Premier Jay Weatherill describing it as being “all about growing markets, boosting tourism reach” and “attracting inbound artists, creative producers and programmers to visit Adelaide during the Fringe and Festival of Arts”.

That’s great! This is exactly the type of initiative South Australia needs to invest in, because if SA doesn’t diversify its industries in the face of a diminishing manufacturing sector, the state will risk becoming an economic basket case. The state’s arts and cultural industries produce some fantastic artistic and cultural product which can attract foreign money (through investment, tourists and students) and such products can also be exported across the world, bringing much needed income and jobs to the state.

Australia’s most important relationships, however, are with the countries nearest to us within our own region. As an emerging market, South East Asia potentially presents the largest future international market for South Australian arts and cultural product. But despite the ability of the South Australian arts industry to build relationships in the region and the opportunities that such a large marketplace within our geographical proximity presents us with, the potential for the SA arts industry to find success within the region isn’t being realised.

In the lead-up to my involvement in the trade mission to Vietnam earlier this year, and having gained the written support of a number of South Australian artists and arts organisations, I approached the South Australian Department of Premier and Cabinet, through the Department of State Development, to request some non-financial assistance for an initiative which would open the doors to increased exports of South Australian arts and cultural product to Vietnam. Despite the demonstrable support from the SA arts industry, the initiative appears to have fallen between the cracks of the bureaucracy. As a former public servant I’ve experienced how bureaucracy becomes ‘the art of making the possible impossible’, to quote the favorite phrase of countless jaded public servants. Not that I’ll be letting a few ignored emails and other bureaucratic hurdles stop me!

Bringing the arts and cultural industries into regional engagement plans and international trade strategies, in a practical rather than a merely rhetorical sense, need not be expensive. Mostly, the Government needs to incorporate the arts and cultural industries into what they are already doing. When the Government brings a trade mission to South East Asia (or anywhere really), make sure there are a sufficient number of delegates from those industries. When government-to-government meetings take place, make sure that the role of culture and the arts is discussed and that initiatives are agreed upon and implemented to drive real engagement, and pave the way for increased export levels of arts and cultural product.

The government doesn’t need to do all of the work by itself, there’s a private sector who can take on various tasks and there is also a diaspora of South Australians in South East Asia who would love to be involved in such initiatives, not to mention that the various Asian communities of South Australia have great links back to their homelands which can provide an enormous source of valuable support.

Later this month the Premier will be a speaker at the annual Conference for the Association of Asia Pacific Performing Arts Centres at the Adelaide Festival Centre which will, according to the official website, “bring together some of the most experienced cultural leaders in the Asia Pacific along with other international experts to discuss and examine key issues affecting Asia Pacific Arts Centres and Festivals”. It’s brilliant that this event is taking place in Adelaide and that so many arts workers from the Asia Pacific region will be coming to South Australia and the people who had the foresight to bring this event to Adelaide should be commended. As demonstrated by the Adelaide Festival Centre, most notably by it’s OzAsia Festival, arts centres have an important role to play in building strong international relationships. Having great relationships with our region’s arts centres is key to realising the potential of the South Australian arts and cultural industries within the region.

Many people within the South Australian arts and cultural industries will be hoping to hear the Premier speak specifically about how his government intends to grow South Australia’s artistic and cultural presence within our region and the specific details of the initiatives his government will implement.

I certainly look forward to hearing about it!

Related:

photo credit: Full House via photopin (license)

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