WESLEY ENOCH IS a remarkable man. He has an enviable ability to cut through: to see the whole picture, reduce complex problems to their key components and find solutions. And then capture it all in a pithy one liner.
An alert careers counselor might have suggested that these were attributes that would equip him to become an important playwright, and maybe even one day the artistic director of the Queensland Theatre Company. But it is unlikely that such a position, especially given its importance at the cultural heart of establishment Brisbane, registered on the list of realistic possibilities for a young Aboriginal boy, from a poor outer suburb, no matter how much his personal history rich with Indigenous, European and Asian forebears embodied modern Australia.
Yet, after studying theatre at Queensland University of Technology, establishing his own theatre company, writing award-winning plays, working with the best here and abroad, that is his job. Now he is shaping and directing the agenda of one of the most important cultural institutions in the country, broadening its agenda, ensuring that forgotten stories get told, that the sum of histories that make up modern Australia find a voice – classics and new, settler and indigenous.
He does not flinch from uncomfortable truths, but he is not rash, and so his insights and observations are highly valued, and sometimes passionately discussed. It was these attributes that meant he played an important role in the discussions that informed the development of the 2013 National Cultural Policy.
On one hot Melbourne day he was in a group of about twenty artistic and cultural leaders discussing how best to reframe thinking about the place of arts, creativity and culture in public policy. The conversation moved from the core areas of support for artists and organisations, to the possible outputs and outcomes – creative, institutional, economic and social – that might be realised. 'Don't ever underestimate that there are sometimes cultural solutions to intractable problems. When the law, economics and other systems fail, cultural and creative activities can work,' he said. 'I know, it happened to me.'
At the time I scribbled it down, and underlined Cultural Solutions, a good topic for Griffith Review.
CULTURE IS COMPLEX. It is everything – language, heritage, art, social relations, education, identity – and at the same time, it is annoyingly intangible. It is the essential glue that binds us, it enriches and informs our lives every day, it is something we make and something we participate in as a human right, and while its public value can be assessed it resists conventional measurement.
Getting this right is important for individuals, for communities and for the country as a whole. It is one of the hoary mantras of management consultants that 'culture eats strategy for lunch', and while this applies to companies, it is just as true in smaller family and community groups and at a large scale in states and nations.
Culture is value laden, and in a globally connected, settler society like Australia where there are many layers of identity, an increasingly rich understanding of history and heritage, an extraordinarily talented and well trained cohort of artists, educators and creatives – this will inevitably be a vibrant and contested domain. But culture is not singular – the temptation to impose a one correct view is ideological and dangerous. States that have adopted exclusionary definitions of culture have not generally prevailed, or been noted for their openness, resilience and innovation.
This is why culture is recognised as one of the four pillars of a successful society – the other three are political, economic and social institutions; the capacity and well being of people; and the land and its resources. Culture is a pillar, but it also binds the others, to participate in its creation and expression is a human right.
ARTISTS HAVE AN important role to play in the development, expression and communication of culture. They are the research scientists in its lab, making meaning, drawing connections, asking difficult questions, bringing joy and pride through the brilliance of the works that they create.
We are well accustomed to the excellence of the professional arts, to the success of the commercial arts, to the importance of training and providing opportunities for emerging artists and other creatives. Australians are hungry consumers of cultural activities, eager to attend, to participate to offer an opinion. The Australian Bureau of Statistics recently estimated the economic value of the creative and cultural sector as being more than $87 billion, about 7 percent of GDP, and employing just under a million people.
Sometimes the important work that is done by professional artists and others to join the dots in an applied way – to work with communities and individuals on creative projects that enrich their lives, that provide new ways of engagement, that make abstract concepts tangible – is overlooked. This work can be of the highest professional standard, it can explore new modes of engagement, it can operate in an ethical and respectful way and it can deliver measurable outcomes that help solve the intractable problems that the institutions have not been able to reach.
Creating Australia is the peak body of the producers involved in Community Cultural Development charged with a mission to advocate the cultural work that engages with the nitty gritty. This is important because it broadens and deepens the reach of culture and its artistic expression, bringing it in to the lives of those who may otherwise have felt excluded. It is local, personal, fun and at its best excellent and transformative.
As Senior Australian of the Year and former Liberal MP Fred Chaney said at the end of a 2011 meeting with the key producers in this domain, 'Concepts float past most people's ears and hearts and minds. Stories that capture the concepts you're trying to get across very seldom miss the target. You are custodians of incredible, powerful stories. You don't need to explain the theory once you hear the story. I don't think you should underestimate the power of people just knowing what it is you do, how you do it and what the outcomes are because we are all faced with stories of failure in the areas in which you succeed every day.'
This edition, and the linked e-book, Cultural Solutions: Notes from the Front, showcase this work and put flesh on the bones of the cultural richness around us, and its capacity to provide solutions to intractable problems, by exercise of disciplined, empathetic and engaged creativity and connection.