Are we ready for cultural climate change?

What should we take with us from COVID? In a year when everything changed, Shantel Wetherall looks at how we could embrace another major shift in our thinking, akin to that needed to engage effectively with the global climate emergency.

With the dust yet to settle on 2020 many of us are still trying to take stock of what’s happened before we can consider how to move forward. Those tasked with trying to imagine what creative recovery looks like are doing so knowing that people and organisations they love are still struggling. High stakes like these could stifle anyone’s creativity.

Is there a risk in a COVID-devastated industry, that our wish to restore what was lost could draw us into an inward-looking cycle that may eventually be our undoing? 

I don’t have all the answers, but we need to begin by trusting that we are capable of expanding into the gravity of this moment and asking the big questions. 

I’m hopeful that we can recover in a way that represents fierce optimism and the highest estimation of what this industry can do for our community. To make this possible our conversations about change need to go deeper and address the areas where urgent social issues are manifesting in our organisations. It is not enough to simply co-opt the language of a movement, or to fill our websites with stock images of BIPOC faces, if the underlying structures remain unchanged and the systems continue to create a hostile environment.

We must set out with absolute clarity that much of what we had pre-COVID was deeply flawed and should not be rebuilt as it was. We need to build it better, by making sure everyone is included. I think viewing this time as one of cultural climate change can help us make this recovery exciting, equitable and sustainable

The climate change analogy is more than an evocative phrase, it describes the irresistible, all-encompassing shift we are in, the opportunities that may be overlooked through fear and the existential threat that failure to adapt poses. Our industry can move away from extraction if we commit to and invest in regenerative practice, equity is an essential foundation for this.

Yet many of us don’t know where to begin and many decision-makers are still asking to see ‘evidence’ of a business case before committing to take the necessary steps to turn the dial on equity and inclusion. 

The urgent need for our industry to become more equitable has been the subject of lengthy campaigns, much research and years of skilled advocacy. As the impact of the perfect storm that was 2020 ripples through the sector, we have a unique opportunity to build on those foundations and turn the renewed interest and engagement we are seeing into enduring change.

The reality is that the pre-COVID Australian’ Arts Industry was far from perfect. ‘As at 2 April 2018, CALD Australians were under-represented across every leadership role in every cultural sector, organisational type and jurisdiction included’ in Diversity Arts Australia’s Shifting the Balance report. With most organisations in the arts sector having no identifiable CALD leaders at all. That report was published in 2019. Any recovery that restores that status quo is not going to work. 

I believe wholeheartedly in the possibility of healing, an industry starting from where we are is going to have to embrace transformation as an integral part of that process. It isn’t just the right thing to do anymore. It is necessary for both credibility and sustainability. 

The Movement for Black Lives brought the glacial pace of change in Australia into sharp focus. We are uniquely placed to show the nation what is possible and to date, we know that in many areas we are still struggling to deliver. Calls for inclusion have become demands for equity and they are coming from every direction. Staff, partners, artists and audiences of every race are activated and expectant.

The need for change has been laid bare by a digital transformation that has completely opened up the way art and culture are produced, distributed and consumed globally. 

Disruption opportunity

The results of the digitisation of culture and widening of access to means of production have never been more evident than during COVID lockdown. As many traditional institutions had to close their doors, digital platforms flourished. Drawing their widest audiences to date and presenting them with a richly diverse selection of the world’s culture. Revealing the breadth of talent and practice and raising the bar in audience expectation around diversity and access. 

This has irrevocably broken the idea that traditional institutions are an essential part of how we access culture. The audience has moved beyond blind acceptance of monolithic whiteness. How will our sector catch up and inspire them now? 

If your departure point in a quest towards equity is asking for evidence of why it is necessary, you are not equipped to reach that destination. There are better ways. 

Moreover, I can’t explain how violent it is to be in a room in 2020 where the merit of letting you in is being debated. Our LGBTQI colleagues felt this acutely in 2019 and your CALD and First Nations colleagues are being exposed to similar anguish as organisations debate the way forward.

Moreover, the academics who instigated the conversation about the ‘business case for diversity’ 25 years ago publicly disavowed that approach this year, distancing themselves from the way their work has been put into practice. That framing is redundant, you don’t have to prove how being inclusive will improve ‘results,’ financial or otherwise, to justify changes that you know are necessary. Failing to accept the dynamics at play and the risk of doing nothing is in many ways akin to climate denial. It is not a question of should we transform now, but how?

Things will never be the same again. Some may want to grieve, but we mustn’t fail to embrace this opportunity. We need to scan more broadly and empower those who have demonstrated that they have the vision to restore our hope. Power needs to change hands, expect to see the rise of leaders who have honed their skills on the margins.

There are so many green shoots and long-established, thriving ecosystems that already exist outside the superstructure. Many are First Nations led organisations and others are small-medium orgs, collectives or ‘community groups’. They have built tried and tested models that speak of continuity borne of adaptability. They should be seen as centres of excellence, that we should look to now more than ever. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience this first hand as a participant in Multicultural Arts Victoria’s TAKEBACK!, a new multi-platform arts project examining and dismantling the racialised gaze as part of Darebin Fuse Festival. The project is Directed by Candy Bowers and the entire BIPOC support team (Mama Alto, Neda Rahmani, Yumi Umiumare and Hyra Usman), have deep lived experience and career-long commitments to inclusion, as-well as expertise in their respective fields.

This intentional choice to prioritise cultural knowledge has created a safe and generative environment. The experience so far has been truly exceptional in facilitating my practice and renewing my hope for the future. It is a disruptor and a wonderfully refreshing example of what can be done with the right commitment. 

So much remains to be imagined, but one thing I know to be true: The art won’t stop. The question is how will we continue to expand the landscape? If the institutions we love are to endure, they must have vision and purpose that extends beyond self-preservation. They must acknowledge this momentous shift, address the harms they have participated in and ensure their futures are grounded in reciprocity and service to communities past, present and future, with clear goals and a commitment to public accountability.

That is a regenerative process. The truly creative recovery is one that everyone can believe in, participate in and uplift above the swelling tides.

Shantel Wetherall
About the Author
Shantel Wetherall is a writer, producer and host. Her practice focuses on women, culture and change and prioritised the voices and experiences of Black women. She is the producer and host of Hey Aunty Podcast.