Who Are We? by Tandi Palmer Williams

The largest population of creatives, outside a major city. The ‘home of festivals’. A mecca for alternative lifestyles. The location of the first ever Welcome to Country. A collection of hippy towns. Australia’s LA. The antivax capital. The centre of cannabis culture. Cults, hillbillies, farmers, influencers. Designers, musicians, surfers and artists.

Incohesive, inspired, broken, resilient.

I’ve heard all of these things – and more – about our region since we began mapping its creative sector in 2023.

Many of them are true or partially true, but they are not the whole story.

Arts Northern Rivers’ sector mapping project, ‘Who Are We?’ intends to discover the full picture of our arts and culture sector. What art is being made here? By whom, for whom? What do artists need – and what do audiences want to participate in? In the wake of recent disasters, how can we have a coordinated approach to investment in our sector? What story do we want to tell?

As Director of Patternmakers, Australia’s research agency for culture, creativity and community, I have travelled the country investigating topics like the accessibility of music venues, the future of classical music, the power of youth arts. Projects have taken me to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and The Unconformity in remote Western Tasmania.

Lately my focus has been regional Australian arts ecologies – inspired partly by my own family’s move from Sydney to Mullumbimby in 2021, and partly by the National Cultural Policy’s focus on ‘a place for every story, and a story for every place’.

As social demographer Bernard Salt said last year, there’s an increasing excitement around regional areas – and as property prices rise in major cities, more artists are living and working regionally.

I believe the Northern Rivers holds a particular importance in Australian cultural life. I see how artists from inner Melbourne and upstate New York are drawn here to recharge. How visitors come here to our festivals to feel alive, and touring companies gravitate here to connect with ready audiences and test new material.

There is something in the water here – or perhaps it is the water itself. I’m beginning to realise one thing almost all artists in this region share: is a love for our environment.

Despite our abundant creative output, our region faces significant challenges. I learned through Northern Rivers Community Foundation (NRCF)’s Vital Signs that 1 in 5 residents lack access to the internet. The Black Summer bushfires burned 39% of all land in the region. The flood and storm events of 2022 displaced 10,000 people: the most expensive disaster in Australian history.

It’s a strange feeling as a researcher to turn the microscope to one’s own creative community – and send a survey to friends, family and neighbours. I feel both privilege and the pressure of the situation. It’s an important one to get right for so many reasons.

We spent 3 months working on the questionnaire – informed by a stage of consultation and meetings with our lively Working Group. It was piloted at two arts events and tested online for errors in language and logic.

So far, over 360 people have completed it, with more responses filtering in each day. I want to reach 500.

Overwhelmingly the survey has been welcomed by artists and creatives, which I do not take for granted. Not everyone enjoys doing surveys.

On two occasions gathering responses, artists have told me that they conscientiously object to the gathering and digitisation of data. Another artist told me they secretly enjoyed doing it – because they don’t often get time to stop and think about our sector, and even their own goals. A good excuse to pause, think, and conjure future visions.

I think of them as a necessary evil: to be used sparingly, performed rigorously and applied only when absolutely necessary.

We are a region of ideas. We create, collaborate, celebrate. But the decisions about how our region’s arts are supported are often made with insufficient understanding of how culture works, or incomplete information about who we are. Decision-makers do the best they can with what they have – but what if they had a better picture?

What if Council community plans were all connected? What if we planned our infrastructure strategically with a region-wide perspective? What if we got organised and worked out where we agree – and where debate is needed?

It’s my belief that surveys should only be done when absolutely necessary – and that time is now. If you have something to say about the arts, we are listening. Let’s share the whole story.

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Words by Tandi Palmer Williams © 2024

Tandi Palmer Williams is an expert in connecting audiences with culture, creative and community causes. She is the Managing Director of research agency, Patternmakers, who Arts Northern Rivers is working alongside to conduct our current survey of the creative industries in our region.

Have your say. Take the survey here.

All survey participants will go in the draw to win one of three $200 Mastercard giftcards.

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