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After much speculation, and a lot of philanthropic money, Australia is getting a new think tank especially for arts and culture. It’s called A New Approach, and historian and community arts worker Kate Fielding is its first program director.

“I’ve got to say one of the things that is most exiting about this project it that, as the name says, it is a new approach and that’s quite genuine,” she told Crikey in a phone interview. “The foundations funding this work are interested in exploring what a new approach would look like, they’re genuine that they don’t have a preconceived notion about what that will be, and I think that’s quite exceptional, I think that’s quite courageous.”

“The opportunity is there, the challenge is there, and it means actually proceeding with care to work out what it is that this should be. This is a project that would look to see what could be possible.”

Fielding’s background is in the humanities. “I trained as a historian and as a writer, and I worked in public history and then I made a big move to Western Australia to a remote community where I worked in a community cultural development role, and from there I started to move across into governance,” she explained.

“I really love governance and really loved working on the boards of different organisations, I’ve worked on the boards of several arts organisations and also in regional development.”

“So for me, my interest in arts and culture does have that basis in practice, having had that opportunity to see what an impact arts and culture can have in regional and remote communities, the value they can contribute, that’s what’s made me passionate about culture.”

To say Fielding faces some challenges is understating matters. Herding the cats of culture has long been notoriously difficult. While the arts and culture employs more than 310,000 Australians, many politicians are sceptical or even hostile about its value. In part, this is because there has never been a proper lobby group or think tank to represent culture.   

“So, we currently don’t have an independent voice for arts and culture in Australia, we don’t have an independent voice that will talk broadly about the suite of arts, culture and creative industries — that’s a real gap in our national conversation,” Fielding agreed. “We have some fantastic peak bodies that speak for aspects of the sector, we have some government agencies that do some research, but we don’t have an independent voice that will address big picture issues around the sector.”

This all sounds fine and grand … but what will A New Approach actually do? According to Fielding, it’s still early days.

“I’m really not to going to make statements about what it will be, while we’re still in the process of developing it,” she said. “A couple of weeks in, we really are in the scoping and planning stage, it’s not appropriate for me to comment,” she maintained.

Fielding comes to the job straight from the board of the Australia Council, where she saw the destructive effects of government policy up close. Former arts minister George Brandis’ quixotic crusade to set up an “Excellence” fund stripped more than $100 million from the arts funding body, forcing it to cancel major funding rounds and throwing much of the arts sector into chaos. Current minister Mitch Fifield then wound up the Excellence program and put much of the funding back, resulting in more confusion. It was a graphic illustration of policy failure.

What will she do if the government cuts arts funding again, Crikey asked.

Fielding wouldn’t tell us, taking the conversation off the record at that point. It’s an interesting evasion, given that the Coalition has cut funding in three of the last four federal budgets.

But she would speak in general terms about her approach to policy. “My hope is that we can take a broad approach to policy,” she told us. “I don’t want to be limited to saying we must have a cultural policy and that will be the sole policy focus. Arts and culture do fall across many parts of government, so I’m keen to take broad approach to that policy.”

For those in the industry looking to read the tea leaves about what A New Approach will do, it was a slightly frustrating. Fielding repeatedly refused to be drawn on specifics.  

One conclusion we can draw, however, is that Fielding is consulting widely — not just within the often incestuous world of the arts, but outside culture too.

“For me one of the important conversations is with people outside the arts and culture sector,” Fielding said. “Part of the opportunity is to really engage more broadly with the Australian public about the value, the impact of arts and culture. I’ve been having those conversations with people outside the sector to see what questions it raises for them.”

A New Approach has $1.7 million in funding locked in for three years, so in one sense Fielding has plenty of time to develop her new approach. But with the next federal budget only months away, her first test as a spokesperson could come quickly.

Peter Fray

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