Kumuwuki: Youth Arts Policies

by Jane

Pitched by Jim Lawson, the director of Young People and the Arts Australia (the national peak body for organisations and practitioners that engage children and young people in the arts, and the Australian member of ASSITEJ), Youth arts policies do not run on a standard gauge track took a brief look at the various policies relating to youth arts in Australia. Youth arts is work by, and work for, children and young people, with young people typically being defined in Australia as people under 30.

Lawson spoke about how these conversations are also about the “wave of change in youth arts, and perhaps the waves of change that are happening nationally.”

In Australia, he said, “youth arts is now an incredibly sophisticated incubator of the arts and artists”, and spoke about the great success Australian companies that are making work for young people are happening. In particular, many of theatre companies making work for young people are touring internationally, as both myself and Cameron Woodhead have recently written about.

Lawson said “the development of policy for young people in the arts has developed for some states and not others”, and these policies don’t only exist at the state level, but local governments can also have very dynamic youth arts policies.

He noted the Australia Council’s youth arts policy is now ten years old, and some states are even older. “Certainly a lot has changed in ten years.”

While policies can sometimes be derided as just being talk, said Lawson, and “there is a lot to be said for actions speaking; while policies may be just talk, I think it’s vital.”

YPAA is currently based in Victoria, where no formal youth arts policy exists, but they have previously been based in Queensland where there is policy.

The arts culture + me [PDF] action plan “demonstrates extraordinary breadth and purpose”, and includes the following platforms:

Creative spaces
Enabling children and young people to access safe and welcoming spaces to experience, create and present art in all its forms.

Creative producers and participants
Encouraging and enabling children and young people to experience the arts in active ways as creators and participants, and promoting their creative achievements.

Creative citizens
Providing opportunities for children and young people to develop their creativity as an essential life skill by connecting the arts, training and education sectors.

Creative pathways
Supporting children and young people to develop their arts practice and build careers in the arts.

Creative generators
Strengthening the network of professional arts and cultural organisations to support children and young people’s participation in arts and culture now and in the future.

“Clearly policy has huge impact on the ground, and I believe policy will give support to areas of practice,” said Lawson.

“Artists will always lead the way, policy can only ever catch up […] but I believe that policy can hopefully help share that vision more broadly.”

Elizabeth Spencer is the Manager of  Programs at the WA Department of Culture and the Arts, and gave an overview of the policies that exist in WA. Speaking to the standard gauge metaphor, she spoke about how the standardisation was set up for connectivity, and is now used by 60% of the world. When we’re talking about this then, she said we need to ask “if 60% of the world use it, then what are the other 40% doing?”

“As young people’s policies have evolved, things have become rather standardised. […] There is a danger these funding policies become for these urban artists, and then what happens to the other 40%?

The trouble with policy, Spencer said, is “often it’s lead by drivers, and those people are the innovators and they drive a change and then that change can quite easily become standard.”

“I don’t think that youth arts policies should ever become standardised, I think youth arts by its very nature does break boundaries.”

In WA, youth is defined as people aged 0-26. There can be tension within this definition, she said, because a dancer in their mid-twenties might be considered quite established, while a writer into their thirties might still be considered emerging.

WA’s youth arts policy was established in the late 90s, and at that moment there were very few youth arts officers in local government. Now most local governments in WA have a youth arts officer, the Australia Council has more targeted programs for emerging artists, and the digital landscape has transformed.

Because communication is so much faster, Spencer said, young people can quickly organise a secondment internationally or nationally. There is a danger, though, in assuming that regional people have access to these modes of communication, and then “sometimes the gap widens between the urban based and the regionally based artist.”

Spencer spoke about several plans and policies in WA which embrace youth arts. These included: Creating Value An Arts and Culture Sector Policy Framework [PDF] and the Young People and the Arts Action Plan [PDF].

Trishia Walton is the Chief Executive of Carclew Youth Arts, the peak funding body for young people in the arts in South Australia, a state without a written arts policy. She appropriately named her speech: when is a policy not a policy?

Carclew House was established as a centre for children in 1972, when through lobbying and campaigning Don Dunstan committed the grounds to youth arts. Says Walton, “the commitment has remained and there is a fundamental principle in South Australia about the value of youth arts.”

Walton spoke about “a fundamental conflict in what we do” at Carclew: in supporting people who deliver work for young people, and supporting work by young adults. “That creates quite a bit of tension in the breadth of work,” she said, “and how we talk about the work that we do.”

She spoke about Carclew’s Direction:

All South Australians have a rewarding lifelong relationship with the arts.

Carclew Youth Arts leads the creative development of South Australian children and young people through innovative arts programs and policy.

Carclew operates with a memorandum of understanding with Arts SA which “clarifies funding pathways and reduces confusion.” One of the fundamental differences between the organisations is the level of support Calrclew offers in the writing of applications, and the assessment and feedback towards drafts. Once artists receive funding through Arts SA, they can’t  return to Carclew, as they are considered to be ‘successful’ in their career pathways.

“In a state without a written policy there is a strong, strong commitment” to youth arts, said Walton, and this is demonstrated in the strength of art made for young people through Windmill, Slingsby, and Patch.

Walton spoke of the major issues facing the sector now, which include: primary reliance on state and federal arts funding – vulnerability of the youth arts sector; accessible project funding reduced in South Australia due to Arts SA funding realignment; diverse income steams, strategic partnering, alignment with state and federal priorities and alternative program delivery will inform future viability; challenge is to build the youth arts sector’s capacity for sustainable planning and income generation.

Coming back to speak, Lawson noted some significant issues now facing the sector. In Queensland, there have been “significant and savage cuts” particularly to the education and not-for-profit sectors, which places Youth Arts Queensland in a difficult position, YPAA was also informed last week they have had their national funding cut [PDF] as of December 31.

Despite these issues the sector faces, he said, “it’s an issue that won’t go away, youth arts. So even if that shifts, there will still be people knocking on the door.”

Of South Australia, he said, supporting youth arts is embedded in the culture. “There is kind of not a need for that policy.”

He spoke about how we could potentially work better as a nation in youth art, asking what would happen if we “worked in harmony and drew on the gems?”; “What if this included policies from local government that work, particularly in regional areas?”; How do we construct a policy that addresses the fact that many artists are transient and leave areas?.

He spoke of a “new wave of sophisticated incubation is taking place”, and the opportunity and risk offered with the NBN.

“Policy is always catching up: how can it stay relevant?”, asked Lawson, before adding we need a “giant wave of sustained engagement: the time is now.” With the upcoming release of the national cultural policy, the national curriculum, and the Australia Council Review, there is no better time to be having these conversations.