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Arts Admin isn’t just about administration… it’s about culture

1 Jun 2022

As a proud Wailwan arts administrator & producer, it gives me such joy to see mob front and centre representing and excelling in performing arts! But I’m also often thinking about the responsibility we have to model best practice behind the scenes, about the additional cultural load mob are expected to take on when working with white arts institutions, and worrying whether those of working in non-blak spaces are being taken properly care of. 

In May 2022 there was a full display of Blak creativity across Sydney’s stages. Australian Afterpay Fashion week once again showcased both Indigenous Fashion Projects and First Nations Fashion and Design, with Blak models walking in shows across the week and performances from powerhouse women Jess Mauboy and Barkaa. 

Actors Angeline Penrith (Wiradjuri, Yuin) and Sandy Greenwood (Dunghutti, Gumbaynggirr, Bundjulung) have been ripping it up in Belvoir St Theatre’s repertoire season for both Wayside Bride and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. At Sydney Theatre Company Bessie Holland (Worimi, Biripi), Megan Wilding (Gamilaroi), and Stephanie Somerville (Martu) have just closed Blithe Spirit at the Opera House, City of Gold written by Wongutha-Yamatji man Meyne Wyatt and directed by Bardi & Jabirr Jabirr woman Shari Sebbens has opened at the Wharf 1 Theatre, and Jagera Butchulla playwright Kamarra Bell Wykes has just taken out the coveted Patrick White Playwrights Award. Over the other side of the bridge Gumbaynggirr and Turkish sista Brittanie Shipway’s A Letter for Molly has also opened at Ensemble Theatre. At the State library of NSW, Yorta Yorta/Gunaikurnai woman Andrea James won the Mona Brand Award – Australia’s ONLY prize for women stage and screen writers. And in Blacktown I had the extreme pleasure of watching Biripi Gomeroi man Troy Russell’s family story be pieced together on stage for the premiere of his folk-music-theatre show The Last Shot with our own company Moogahlin Performing Arts. 

As a proud Wailwan arts administrator & producer, it gives me such joy to see mob front and centre representing and excelling in performing arts! But I’m also often thinking about the responsibility we have to model best practice behind the scenes, about the additional cultural load mob are expected to take on when working with white arts institutions, and worrying whether those of working in non-blak spaces are being taken properly care of. 

So, I want to share with you some simple phrases I use almost every day to incorporate blak ways of doing and being into arts administration, HR, and finances. I share these not as a criticism of non-Blak arts orgs nor as a manual for how to follow cultural protocol, but as prompts for all of us working in the arts to think deeply about the care and consideration we should give to each other both on stage and off. 

 

Pictured: Yellamundie Festival company welcome. Image by Jamie James, courtesy of
Moogahlin Performing Arts.

SIT IN A CIRCLE

Our office is arranged in a circle. Our board meetings are held in a circle. Our production meeting, table reads, and directors notes are all held (you guessed it) in a circle. How we arrange ourselves physically in a space when we come together to do business is symbolic of how that business will be played out. If I walk into a meeting with a group of people that want to partner with us and I see a wall of people sitting on one side of a table, it immediately tells me that there’s an “us vs them” mentality. Sitting in a circle breaks down that power structure, ensures that everyone can see each other, and is one small way of honouring ceremony, lore, and the old ways of learning in daily practice.  

FIRST PEOPLES FIRST

First Peoples First is not just an arts policy promise, it’s how we do business. It’s how we approach hiring, training, and procurement. When hiring, we prioritise First Peoples practitioners in EVERY role – not just visibly on stage but as producers, designers, technicians, marketers, and administrators. When we can’t find mob with the right mix of skills for the job we look to First Peoples of other continents next, then anglo-colonial settlers, and make a condition of hiring them a responsibility to train Blakfullas up in paid roles with a sunset clause for how long they are employed in the role. Allyship in the arts is only useful if there is an active exit strategy for the allies in Blak spaces.

In procurement, we are always looking for First People creatives or businesses to partner with or purchase from. For design & costuming we incorporate blak fashion designers or clothing brands, our COVID safe hand sanitizer is Blak made, and our event catering is done by Blak caterers (e.g. our rehearsal snacks are The Unexpected Guest, our opening night catering is by Kallico Catering) and we order flowers as gifts from The Floral Decorator.

OUR BABIES BELONG IN BOARD ROOMS

There’s an inherent conflict for me in the professionalisation of the arts – between the late nights and long hours required to do the work and the way that family and community is central to Blak identity. Parental or carer status should never inhibit someone’s ability to work for our organisation. In practice this means I have held a board member’s baby so that they have two hands to read the profit and loss statement in a meeting, or hung out with the bubbas in the foyer or auditorium while their adult is on stage. We pay a childcare allowance for an artist to be in the rehearsal room for the full day, or we employ family as additional childcare so they can still be together. Having our babies in every space is our way of raising the next generation of storytellers. On that note…

FAMILY COMES FIRST

If someone is faced with the dilemma of needing to choose between family and work, we always tell them family comes first. 

I’m going to tell a yarn here and just a heads up I’m talking about unwell family members and sorry business… A few years ago on Christmas morning my Mum had a severe heart attack. She was in ICU for a couple of weeks and hospital recovering for a few more. It was a scary time. I was working for a non-Blak organisation at the time and when I updated my boss on what was going with my family they would say “no worries, take all the time that you need… but let me know when you can get that report done.” Can anyone pick the conflicting message in that response? 

It was one of the worst working experiences of my life – being expected to work while my Mum was on life support. And although I know not all workplaces function this way, I see it as symptomatic of the predominant culture, a culture that puts productivity above everything else.  

By comparison, last year my colleague – who carries that deep sense of responsibility and obligation of having an organiser role in a big blak family – had a family member who was sick and about to pass. They texted me asking if they could work from home for two days, so they could drive to their hometown to organise the funeral. That town is a two day drive away, so I know what they were planning was to drive 8 hours, then work, then drive another 8 hours, then work. 

I called them up straight away and said “what are you doing”. They say “what?” And I said, “family comes first fuck ya. Don’t worry about work. Go do what you have to do, I don’t want to hear from you unless it’s to tell us what you need.”

They went really quiet. And then told me – they’d never worked somewhere before that “got it”. They’d been worried to tell us for days what was going on, because they didn’t want to lose their job from not being there. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard white employers or colleagues say to me “they were great at what they do, but they weren’t very reliable”. 

Death is both a disrupter and a connector for our peoples. As the converted audience of this column will already know, the overall death rate for Indigenous Australians is almost twice the rate for non-indigenous Australians, and we have significantly higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and mental health issues than the rest of the population. So, illness and death and the care that comes with it is just part of our lives. I never want someone I work with to be described that way simply because of their family and community obligations, and I never want them to feel like they have to put their family aside for work. And so we say, family comes first. 

SUPERANNUATION IS ELDER CARE and PROPER PROTOCOL STARTS AT THE BUDGET

What I mean by this is – we use financial systems available to us to build in proper protocol and care for people. Much like how I’ve mentioned earlier that we pay for childcare and training, no-one should be out of pocket when working for us. When budgeting for a project we refer to the Live Performance Award and the Performers Collective Agreement to set fair and equitable wages, we plan for travel allowances and additional travel, food allowances and additional catering, additional staff to greet our audience and care for elders in our spaces, and very importantly – appropriate fees for elders and cultural knowledge and language keepers. Bringing cultural and community knowledge to the table is a separate creative job, equal to that of a Playwright, Performer, or Director.  We also take superannuation very seriously, it’s not just money for retirement or a gammin scheme to buy a house, it is planning for a person to become an Elder. Many sole traders in the arts are usually entitled to superannuation and don’t realise it, because the assumption is that if you are invoicing for a gig you are not an ‘employee’ (check the ATO’s employer vs contractor tool) or that you’re not being paid enough to be eligible (from 1 July 2022 the $450/month minimum is abolished). If an arts project or company that has access to funds does not have all of this in the budget, then the creative work is not being built from a solid culturally informed foundation. 

And finally, the two phrases I probably say the most are IT TAKES THE TIME THAT IT TAKES and NOTHING IS SO IMPORTANT THAT WE SHOULD FORGET TO CARE. 

Particularly in the arts, when our most recognisable slogan is “the show must go on” these feel like pertinent reminders to keep in the front of our minds. No deadline is too urgent, no person is too famous, and no organisation is too powerful, that their priorities should come above the needs and safety of our people. 

I acknowledge that these are not just my learnings, but the influence and life’s work of several colleagues, including Lily Shearer, Dr Liza-Mare Syron, Merindah and Hannah Donnelly, Rachael Maza, Lydia Fairhall, Eva Grace Mullaley, Aunty Donna Ingram, Alethea Beetson, Dr Sandy O’Sullivan, Peter White, Dalisa Pigram, Sinsa Mansell, and Rhoda Roberts, to name a few. 

Cover image: Troy Russell & John Blair in The Last Shot. Image by Jamie James, courtesy of Moogahlin Performing Arts.

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