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Collaboration and the creative economy: The British Council in Australia

Chloe Wolifson

The British Council in Australia plays a vital role in fostering cultural leadership and helping local creative talent to make a mark internationally.
Collaboration and the creative economy: The British Council in Australia

Celebrating 100 years since Welsh writer Dylan Thomas' birth, the British Council partnered with the Melbourne Writers Festival and Wales Arts International to present a unique celebration of music and spoken word. Image courtesy British Council.

Australians working in the creative sector have long been aware of the British Council, with many knowing someone who has been the beneficiary of their flagship Australia-UK exchange programs. The British Council in Australia draws from its parent organisation’s research into the creative economy, and plays an increasingly pivotal role in fostering cultural leadership locally and in the East Asian region.


The British Council was founded in 1934 as the United Kingdom’s global organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. Established in Australia in 1947, it is one of our oldest cultural institutions. Originally providing opportunities for UK artists to reach Australian audiences, this has developed into a mutual exchange benefiting both countries and their surrounding regions.

Director of the British Council in Australia, Helen O’Neil, came to the role in August 2014 and is excited about the Council’s ongoing work and vision. O’Neil explained that, “the British Council is working to ensure that in Australia we understand contemporary Britain’s diversity and dynamism,” concentrating its activities where Britain has shown itself to be the front-runner – primarily its fundamental work on the creative economy and cultural leadership.

“Britain realised its strength in the creative industries well over a decade ago, so it’s got a depth of experience which Australia and other countries can benefit from,” said O’Neil. In particular, “Britain has spent more than a decade [researching] solutions to the issue of how you create confident leaders who can lead the cultural sector in times of enormous change.”

The British Council in Australia understands the significance of such knowledge to the state of the arts, and seeks to implement it locally as well as regionally. They do this by working with partners to develop a number of support programs rooted in creativity and cultural leadership. These range from Indigenous arts leadership program ACCELERATE, through to programs in inclusivity arts, science, and English language education.

“We think carefully about what both sides will gain from a program”, said O’Neil, and this consideration of mutual benefit is part of the reason for the British Council’s ongoing growth and success. Exchange programs are designed “around people’s particular career goals. We know the cultural areas they’re going into and give them good leads. The British Council has a really strong head office that helps us tailor the programs.”

It goes both ways. “The UK has long been planting people in creative clusters all around the world, including here. You find a lot of people who have come to Australia from Britain, who first left their country on British Council-funded tours. They’re now Australian and they bring that cultural legacy and exchange with them, and the council is very proud that it’s been able to facilitate this outward-facing attitude in British culture too.”

It’s not only UK-Australian relations that are benefitting from the British Council’s work with creativity. Not an organisation to shy away from innovation and the benefits it brings, the Council is expanding its collaborations with its Asian neighbours. “The East Asian region for the British Council covers 14 countries. In Australia the British Council has traditionally worked in the arts, but around the region is involved in a number of projects which are based around issues of the creative economy. That means you can bring together people from Burma, Jakarta and Sydney around common themes.” The freshly-launched ELEVATE program is one exciting aspect of this burgeoning regional collaboration.

Another globally celebrated aspect of the British Council is its English language education program. O’Neil explained that this is a relatively new aspect of the Council’s work in Australia, and will contribute to the strengthening of networks around our region due to the fact that, “there is so much interest in English language and the culture based on it, and Australia is obviously part of those networks. It is a mixture of those different cultures and approaches that makes the collaboration interesting.” The Council has begun hosting exams for UK tertiary institutions here in Australia, and is also working on a Global Education Dialogue conference to be held in Canberra in 2015. The conference will bring together high-level academics and education policy makers for a series of talks around education policy.

English language education is not the only area outside of the arts that benefits from the British Council’s networks and knowledge. “We always bring an element of culture and creativity into everything we do,” O’Neil said. “The work we’re doing in science is about helping scientists perform and communicate, and it has got a very strong cultural base to it.” Science communication competition FameLab held its inaugural Australian final earlier this year, proving that Australians across industries can reap the benefits of a creative economy.

The British Council also undertakes continuing work with partners in the Australian arts sector. In 2013 the Council worked with the Melbourne Writers Festival to support the inclusion of Scottish participants, and O’Neil noted that, “this year Welsh writers and musicians came out and held sold-out sessions. That [involvement] builds up a picture of regional contemporary Britain.”

Recently the Council partnered with Creative Scotland to bring Scottish artists to the 19th Biennale of Sydney, including crowd favourites Jim Lambie and Douglas Gordon. On the other side of the coin, the Council has worked with Melbourne’s festival of young and emerging artists, Next Wave. In the most recent iteration this took the form of support of a three-year collaboration between Next Wave and Birmingham’s Fierce Festival. O’Neil stated that these partnerships, in support of both emerging and established artists, help to “make that mix of what we see in contemporary art more diverse.”

Another of the Council’s successful ongoing partnerships is with Sydney’s FBI Radio. The Selector is the British Council’s own radio program showcasing the best of cutting edge UK music, and it plays on FBI every Wednesday afternoon (and is available to a global audience online). “We have a number of different audiences which reflect where Britain is making waves,” explained O’Neil.

O’Neil believes that “In a country like ours where a lot of people have come from Britain, it is really important to give everyone a picture of contemporary Britain.” When a culture has informed and shaped Australian identity to such an extent it is vital to maintain a contemporary dialogue. For O’Neil, it comes down to “mutual exchange and collaboration,” and no organisation is better placed to enable that exchange than the British Council.

About the author

Chloe Wolifson is a Sydney-based independent art writer and curator who works across artist-run, commercial and public domains.