Finding the vocabulary for the future: Wesley Enoch on cultural leadership in crisis

In these pandemic times, cultural leadership is changing. Associate Professor Lizzie Muller sat down with Sydney Festival Director Wesley Enoch to discuss how we're changing with isolation and cancellation, and what the role of the arts can be in our recovery.
Finding the vocabulary for the future: Wesley Enoch on cultural leadership in crisis Sydney Festival Director Wesley Enoch looks towards a post-COVID-19 world. Photo credit: Victor Frankowski. Courtesy of Sydney Festival.

Lizzie Muller

Friday 24 April, 2020

Sydney Festival Director, and Noonuccal Nuugi man Wesley Enoch is a provocative commentator on cultural leadership. He believes artists should be more vigorously involved in politics and community. In this interview, recorded as part of UNSW Art and Design’s lecture series on Cultural Leadership, Enoch addresses the practical and aesthetic forms of leadership required during the COVID-19 crisis, and how the pandemic may change the way art is valued and experienced long term.

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Lizzie Muller: We’re going to talk today about the kinds of cultural leadership we need during and after this pandemic. Let’s start by talking about your own response as Director of the Sydney Festival.

Wesley Enoch: In January 2021, if we are through the worst of it, then our goal at Sydney Festival will be to reflect and strengthen the artistic culture of this country, and to return some sense of predictability or trust for our audiences to come back into the world. We’re taking a responsive approach and are planning several possible scenarios, but a key point is that the festival will be all-Australian in 2021. The idea is that we will need a stronger economic and social/cultural response to this as a nation. Hopefully by January we'll be in a much better position to think about recovery and next steps. We need to put all our resources into supporting artists to create work for audiences.

Muller: What responses are you seeing from the artists you’re working with to the COVID-19 crisis?

Enoch: Artists are about finding the vocabulary for the future. If you just keep reiterating the trauma that we're in sometimes you don't find the ways out of it. As I'm talking to artists, often what they’re saying is: 'Let's not do things that promote or give voice to the negative. How do we find instead an idea of the core things that we need to hold onto?' Through telling stories, through reflecting the needs of a community, art can hold us all together as we live through these tensions. Many of the artists I'm talking to are focused on their relationship with the audience and with communities.

Through telling stories, through reflecting the needs of a community, art can hold us all together as we live through these tensions.

– Wesley Enoch

Muller: You’re describing two forms of cultural leadership there. On one hand the strategic and practical work that an organisation like Sydney Festival can do to support the wider sector, and on the other the aesthetic work that art does in helping us imagine the future and pulling community together. Another form of leadership currently in play is the role of culture in supporting public health. It was a strange situation in the early days of the pandemic where the boldest leaders closed quickly, whilst others took a 'the show must go on' approach – which wasn’t actually in the best interests of the public.  

Enoch: Yes, one of the biggest issues I think with leadership across the world right now is that emotion and feeling has transcended facts and expertise. We’ve seen over the last 20 years a denigration of the expert. Leadership often relies on ego and bombast, driving decisions through the cult of personality rather than the analysis of expert opinions and evidence. That’s when you get things like Boris Johnson shaking hands with COVID-19 victims.

Muller: It’s interesting to hear someone who works in the arts defending facts and expertise against emotion – which you might normally think of as culture’s primary domain. Is now the time for artists to connect emotion with expertise, science and evidence?

Enoch: Yes, artists need to defend facts, to protect expertise and help communicate it. More than ever we need skillful people who can communicate what’s happening. But also, the experts – the elite – need to be connected to community. This is true for politicians, artists and scientists. I see it as a pyramid. If you only pay attention to the tip and you don't think about the huge base, then you create a vulnerable structure that can be easily toppled. If you connect expertise to the strong base of community and society – then the elite is supported by the base. Cultural leadership is about moving constantly between these two.

Muller: You told me previously that you believe after this crisis there will be a great thirst for collective experience. There will be a desire among people who have been individualised by lockdown to come back together again. Can you talk more about how this crisis may change the relationship between culture and society? Where are we going to be after this in terms of our cultural atmosphere?

Enoch: I think we'll be in a place of extremes in many ways. I don't think of extremes in a linear way. I think we have a circular relationship to extremes. They talk about laughter and tears in the theatre – the ability to go from one extreme to the other. The nature of all thinking is that that two extremes are not contradictory; they co-exist because of the way the human mind and human experience works.

I'm very interested in this technological upgrade we're all getting. We are finding technological ways of doing things together but apart, and that might become more of a norm. But I’m interested in how collective this experience is. The idea that we are alone in our houses, but we are all together in a united purpose – that is a very strong community feeling. We're engaged, unexpectedly, in a bigger conversation about what our community means.

We will be talking about the economic impact and the technological advances that are happening now for a decade or more. We will also be talking about the values that are being expressed.

The idea that we are alone in our houses, but we are all together in a united purpose – that is a very strong community feeling.

– Wesley Enoch

Muller: It’s interesting to consider values. I think people are valuing the arts and culture more now than before physical distancing. Only a few months ago we were wondering how the word 'art' could be disappeared from the federal government departmental title without any public backlash. Lockdown could be a wake-up call not just in terms of how much we value being together, but also how much we need and value the arts. However, as many have pointed out, the Australian Government’s economic response shows that the arts are still not valued at a political level. What do you think the government should be doing to show leadership right now in terms of culture?

Enoch: Straight away the government should just double the Australia Council's budget. That’s about sustaining the sector through the next six to 12 months. For longer term recovery we need to look at all levels of government. Local government is very important, and we need to create a network of arts policy that goes from the federal, the state to the local so that we get a sense of what each jurisdiction can effectively enact. Any stimulus or economic measures need to support the whole ecology, from the top to the bottom.

Muller: You’ve also talked about the long-term impact on the arts of a Universal Basic Income.

Enoch: I love the idea that your food and shelter – those basics in the hierarchy of human needs – are covered. For me that's an interesting premise. What happens when an artist – or anyone actually – doesn't have to think about food and shelter? What do you turn your mind to? What do you start to say? I would love to see that kind of basic provision.

As a community, artists have felt traumatised through funding cuts. We are in a punitive relationship with poverty, and we can't work from a place of confidence if we feel traumatised. Government must address that, but we must also release ourselves from that trauma and say: 'Okay, what do I have to do as an artist to make sure I can sustain myself?' I want government to create conditions in which these conversations can happen. And I want artists to take up the responsibility of making our own platforms.

We need to make ourselves indispensable to community through action. There will be at least a decade-long recovery, people will need the arts to get through it. We need artists to help people stay buoyant and thoughtful and connected. The arts community needs to be psychologically ready to do that work.

About the author

Associate Professor Lizzie Muller is a curator and researcher specialising in audience experience, interdisciplinary collaboration and the future of museums as sites of knowledge creation. She teaches on the Master of Curating and Cultural Leadership at UNSW Art and Design. Lizzie has curated exhibitions in Australia, UK, USA and Canada that combine science, technology and art. She collaborates with numerous industry partners including the Australia Council, ArtScience Museum Singapore and the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.