Artist turns politician: is this the way to impact arts policy?

Q&A with Bec Mac – a creative running for Council.
Woman dressed in pink standing in from of political campaign vehicle. Bec Mac.

Generally, it is thought that the artist and the politician “speak” a different language, with only the minimum amount of cross-table conversation and collaboration. One creative is planning to change that. Bec Mac (Rebecca Macintosh) is running as a candidate for Brisbane City Council. She has already written an arts policy for the city – a first for Brisbane – ahead of the 16 March election.

That policy was launched last week at Milani Gallery, attended by renowned Brisbane artists Richard Bell, Vernon Ah Kee, Judy Watson, Gordon Hookey and Megan Cope. They are among over 600 artists that Mac has interviewed as part of her project POPS ART.

Many of Brisbane’s artists live in the Gabba Ward, which Mac describes as having, ‘one of the biggest creative economies in Australia’. She says that, leading into the Olympics (which will descend upon the city in 2032), this cultural foundation needs to be better activated. ‘I want to celebrate this, and make it a global cultural tourist destination.’

Mac is running with Tracey Price, Labor candidate for Lord Mayor, adding that ‘women in power is not unusual for Queensland politics’. She plans to join them.

ArtsHub catches up with Mac to find out why – as a creative – she felt compelled to cross the table.

Why run, rather than just vote or help the campaign?

All the work I’ve done, over the last 30 years, is about researching how arts and culture can make cities great, so I have been able to transform this knowledge into a policy really quickly. I’ve achieved a lot of great things in my career, through LOVE TV, where I worked with the City of New York (US) and other cities. And I’ve interviewed 600 artists over the six years that I’ve been doing POPS ART – and all of that is a really great documentation of the creative sector here in South East Queensland, and also Australia.

I kept seeing where the blocks were, and how, as a sector, we couldn’t grow, and I just thought I had the capacity to bring the changes that we need here in Brisbane.

As artists and creatives, do we have to join the table to really make the arts visible?

I think so. From my very recent experience, trying to get the concept of how important arts and culture is for city making, but also for community, is about talking. And, I’ve been banging on about that for so long.

Since I became a candidate, I’ve co-written an arts policy for a city of a million people, which focuses on how arts and culture can transform a city – so I am living proof that if people want to get involved in politics, it actually does make an impact.

What’s your first political memory?

My parents were really social justice orientated. My youngest brother had leukaemia at a really young age, and they spent years volunteering and raising money to build houses for parents. So I’ve been brought up with this idea that you can’t just sit around waiting for things to happen.

To make places better, you actually have to work together to build great things. I’ve always worked from quite an activist angle, and I have used my practice to amplify the voices of others, whether it’s First Nations artists or women or LGBTQI+ people. I think I’ve always had that in me – that my role as a creative is not just to make art, but to also make change through what I do.

When did you first decide to run for Council?

It’s been on my mind for quite some time. I’ve had this running joke with my friends that one day I’ll be the Mayor of Brisbane (laughs). I was in pre-selections last year, and did really well, so the Party asked me if I’d run in the Gabba Ward.

The Gabba Ward is the greenest seat in Australia. Everyone knows everyone, and I thought that is the last thing in the world I want, to step into this role where half the community could hate me. Who wants that when you’re walking down the street? But, I thought, I’m at an age now where I want to do something worthwhile and make a difference.

Do you think we need one more women in politics?

Absolutely. Brisbane Labor is predominantly women… it is maybe seven blokes in there and the rest are women. It’s amazing. I’ve had so many great women who have been mentoring me – I’m talking about Leeanne Enoch and Jackie Trad, who is the past state member here. She went door knocking with me the other day, as has Helen Abrahams, who is a legend in the Gabba Ward.

I’ve always seen, in those women, that they’ve come from backgrounds and they’ve got where they’ve got through the work they’ve done, and great policies and ideas. It hasn’t just been handed to them – and that’s what I love about the opportunity of politics.

Would you encourage other creatives to consider politics?

Absolutely. For too long, we haven’t had a seat at the table. I remember when I first decided to go down this path, I met this guy who was head of the Chamber of Commerce. He said, ‘I’ve never talked to anyone in the arts.’ It was as if we don’t exist in the world, and he’s a lobbyist in Parliament.

We don’t have lobbyists, so we don’t have a voice. We don’t actually get to leverage, and describe, and prove our value, largely because we’re trying to just survive, and I think that’s part of the issue. But I think the more people that can get involved in politics, the better.

I think it’s just really important, with what’s going on in the world – homelessness, available housing – these are the biggest issues being played out, but I think… arts and culture are still really crucial. And we should never feel like it’s a lesser conversation to be having.

You’ve spoken to so many artists across your career, which has given you a great foundation, but have you also canvassed arts organisations and asked them what they need?

I’m applying a lot of knowledge I already have. When COVID happened, I created this project called CHRYSALIS PROJECTS, which was about recognising that artists had no work. Small business was dying and community was being disrupted – and, at the same time, big organisations like Opera Queensland and Queensland Theatre Company, up until then, had struggled to define what an audience is. They are subscriber-based companies, and that subscriber base is literally dying – this happens all over Australia. So how do we build a new relationship with the community? How do we find new audiences? How do we prove the value of creatives into the greater community?

CHRYSALIS PROJECTS was about doing that by matching Opera Queensland with a restaurant, so that [the organisation] can perform in the community. We solved a problem for them because we introduced them to this whole new audience – we employed artists, we activated a street and we brought the community together.

The next project, which we’re going to launch in April, is working with the shop Avid Reader, which is a famous shop here in Brisbane and West End. Through COVID we reached out to Avid and said ‘what do you need?’ and they said, ‘we want to diversify our customers’. We have worked with artist Vernon Ah Kee to develop a mural. It lists Brisbane authors’ names and First Nations Brisbane authors on surfboard-style shapes that are aluminium and will clad the building – so it’s a public art piece now.

It’s about making meaningful work in the community with incredible artists and organisations, and just twisting it all on its head, so that the community understands the value of that kind of engagement. That is what I want to bring to politics, and this policy is getting those projects out into areas that have no relationship to arts and culture.

The night-time economy is a big part of new city policies – how does it play out for Brisbane?

Here in Brisbane, we are 20 years behind in how we run our 24-hour economy. Most restaurants close their kitchens at 8.30pm. You can’t get a meal after nine. There’s only one supermarket open 24 hours. And this is a city of a million people. At the time of the Brisbane elections, Tasmania is estimated to be 660,000.

Thirty percent of our workforce are night-time workers, so they don’t have anywhere to eat, to drink, to catch safe public transport, to go to the toilet. It’s quite inconceivable that this city has been left in this weird vacuum.

We really want to open it up – the Olympics are coming – and arts and culture play a big role in that. We’ve got to build capacity in our hospitality industry and in our arts and creative sector. The big game changer, I believe, is opening up to a 24-hour city. You can see the appetite for this, and I feel really excited to be able to build these ideas. Whether I win or not, it’s great to have arts and culture being discussed like this.

Can artists be ambitious?

The Gabba Ward is one of the biggest creative economies in Australia. My plan is to make it one of the best cultural destinations in the world. And, just to back that up, recently there was an exhibition at the Tate Modern (UK), which was called A Year in Art: Australia. Of the 15 artists selected, seven were from Queensland.

People don’t know this – that Queensland artists are globally recognised – and so we need to own, celebrate and amplify the power of the art-making that’s happening here, and is very misunderstood and misrepresented, here in Australia.

What’s the hardest part about campaigning?

It’s so similar to working in the arts: I’m a volunteer; I have to make my own money and everyone I’m working with are volunteers. It’s tough. But there’s a lot of synergy in that. Things like door knocking can be awkward, and sitting at bus stops talking to people – but, weirdly, I kind of like it. You actually get to connect with people and understand what’s going on.

What’s been the big lesson in running for Council?

It’s similar to everything – at the end of the day, you’re the bottom line.

You can only expect so much from others, or imagine that people are going to give you something. And this is my big lesson from working in the arts – no one’s going to give you anything. You actually have to work yourself, and you have to back yourself, and you have to dig deep inside and really pull it out to make anything happen in this world.

Pop up interviews in New York City in pink mobile studio Bec Mac.
Bec Mac interviewing Jennifer Brown, the Executive Director of Flatiron Plaza NYC about how they transformed this space into something special for the city. A LOVE TV production. Image: Supplied.

Politics and the arts is very right brain/left brain. I suspect you’re facing a lot of blank stares. How do you break down that wall and pull those two worlds together?

It’s what we do as artists. We are so good at communicating, and I think that’s why I’m getting such big cut through. And that translates really well for communities that aren’t into galleries and theatres, to see that culture is part of your everyday life.

For example, with LOVE TV I spent 20 years interviewing people about love and place. Ultimately, the big thing is that arts can build social cohesion. And the more that we can come together and tell stories and hear each other’s stories, the more we can build a better, more cohesive society, which is based on understanding rather than division.

My LOVE TV is now my mobile campaign office. As a candidate, you are a volunteer and have to raise your own funds, so using my creative ingenuity I reskinned it as The Bec Mac Mobile.

Have you had to shelf your own practice for a while?

Everything. It’s a bit awkward, everything’s on the line here right now. But I’ve been able to run my own brand. That’s been really good, because people think parties are big machines, and they are.

Any closing campaign messages?

We’re at a bit of a crunch time in the history of humanity, so we need to start finding solutions to complex problems. And I think the arts and culture can really help with that.

Read: Artists to political candidates: ‘Inspire us’

Who is Bec Mac?

Mac’s commitment to advocacy shines in her involvement in important projects including the 2017 Senate Inquiry into Fake Aboriginal Art, collaborating with First Nations artist Richard Bell on his Venice Biennale 2019 project, and leading the Arts Against Gender-Based Violence initiative in partnership with Micah Projects. She has also initiated projects centred on disability and caring, including documenting stories of lived experiences for the Brisbane Zero Campaign against Homelessness in 2022. 

Her most celebrated creative projects include POPS ART and  LOVE TV Your Story, Your Place, Your City, a collection of TV interviews in a mobile studio.

She has lived in the Gabba Ward for 12 years. The Brisbane City Council Elections will be held on 16 March.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina