Both BighART – and you personally – have won awards, but the organisation may be unfamiliar to some of our investors. Can you give me the “elevator pitch” on what you do?
We’re an arts and social change organisation. We try to bring important stories that lack visibility into the mainstream, so that changes can be made. These stories cover issues as diverse as slavery at sea, slavery in our supply chains, or Aboriginal deaths in custody. To put things in a nutshell, we value the voice of lived experience and we try to bring that voice in front of power and influence. We do that in a way that is not adversarial and that has the best opportunity to bring about change because it helps people to understand the issue more fully.
You’re a co-founder of BighART. How did it come about?
It began on the northwest coast of Tasmania in response to mill closures in a place called Burnie, which is a very industrial centre. The mill closures were putting economic pressure on the town and its families, and there was a spike in juvenile offending and at-risk behaviours. There was quite a bit of victim blaming going on, so we were asked to come in and run a project.
By way of background, I had gone to Sydney College of the Arts and, while I was really interested in the arts, I found it all fairly vacuous. I was interested in social justice, so I combined those two things: justice and voice. By the time the Burnie project came up, I had already done a few proven projects in the Sydney CBD, working with street kids. I was 21 at the time.
The two defining moments in Burnie were that we went from having one offence per week on average at the beginning of the project to one offence in 10 months at the conclusion of the project. We also came in under budget. So, of course, the Federal Government became interested in how we were doing it. Then, tragically, Port Arthur happened and John Howard needed a positive Tasmanian story, preferably something to do with offending. So there we were, a very small, wet-behind-the-ears, Tasmanian start-up not-for-profit that was just becoming incorporated, and John Howard agreed to launch us in Parliament House. That gave us his imprimatur and opened doors for strategic meetings in Canberra.
That’s a long way of saying that we managed to avoid the hopeless Australian arts and culture funding world, in which we actually put people in harm’s way because the funding is so small and the problems are so large. We managed to say to the Federal Government, “Look, if you actually want to do something about this, it has to be long term, it has to be well-funded, and you have to focus on engagement right through to the exit and the legacy that follows.” These were new terms thirty years ago for government departments, which only wanted to fund 26-week projects. Our minimum back then was 150 weeks, so we were, in a sense, demanding proper funding for our work.
Why do you think you got the results that you did?
That’s a good question. It’s easy to think of art as a soft concept. But if you think of Indigenous models, then culture is the whole of life. Arts and culture are really about self-expression, identity, teamwork, achievement, and audience – and if you put those things together, and it is done well, then it provides pathways for young people to re-engage socially and economically.
We think of our projects in terms of the five domains of change. The first is the individual’s journey. If you’ve got a young person who is at-risk, you can come into that situation and say, “Well, I’m going to change this young person and I’m going to do that by raising their self-esteem” – or any other cliched idea that sounds good. But what you’re really doing is allowing that young person to go around or remove the risk. You’re really supporting that person in ways that most young people – like your kids or mine – are supported by their families, extended families and communities. By addressing that help deficit, those young people can start to make choices that shift them in a positive direction.
But for it to really be a successful project for us, it’s not just about the young people shifting in their journey. It’s also about their family and community shifting in response. For example, if you’re an impoverished young woman from a rural town in a family violence setting, then the community will have an impression of you. They’ll know you, your family, your family’s history, and they’ll have a perception of where you’ll end up. You’ll be trapped by the people and culture that surround you. So in order to effect true change, the community needs to shift as well as the individual.
Thirdly, we talk about the domain of the narrative. For young people to tell their own stories and shift the community, they need strong mentors who are going to produce a strong voice. It’s not much good speaking truth to power if the voice and the narrative are weak. You’ll get warm applause – and that’s the end of your worthy project. So you have to have the very best creative minds, mentors and people who can generate high quality work that belongs in festivals.
The fourth domain is when we place the voice of this young person in front of positions of influence – whether that’s people in philanthropy, policy, legislation, opinion formers or the media.
The fifth domain is something that is not recognised very often: change can be quite dangerous. Fanatics want change! One of the antidotes to that danger is that you have to be willing to change yourself. When white fellows go into Indigenous communities, in trying to do their best for the community, they often over-talk and offer solutions. That becomes the very thing that prevents the work from moving ahead. The real challenge is to go, listen, be quiet and learn – to become a recipient of what the community already knows. Otherwise, you end up with something like John Howard’s Intervention, which has taken 15 years to unravel.
Is there a project that you’re most proud of?
There are some projects that have the good fortune of beginning with a vision, and their conclusion matches that vision. The project we did with the Namatjira family is one of those. Albert Namatjira was a revered artist, but when he died in 1959, the copyright to his art was lost to his family. They lived in dire poverty, with their basic health and education needs not met, while the money from Albert’s art went to an art gallery in Sydney. There was nothing illegal about this, but as soon as you talked about the issue, Australians said, “Well, that’s not right. We don’t want that.” People got adversarial about the gallery owner, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to build a story that would allow the gallery owner to say, “Yes, I would love to return this copyright” – and then to have a place to return the money because money just flowing into a community can be dangerous.
So we worked with the family to build a trust, the Namatjira Legacy Trust, that works to secure positive futures for the family and the community. We also made a documentary, the Namatjira Project, which traces the family’s quest to regain the copyright to Albert’s artwork.
That was a very complete project from beginning to end and it was very successful. But not all projects can work like that. One of the mistakes we make with our corporate minds is to be highly solution-focused, when these large, complex multi-layered issues often require a deeper form of thinking. They often require networks of solutions, rather than one linear solution.
Where do you think your interest in social change comes from?
It’s quite a personal thing. I used to think – well I still do think – that I had a wonderful childhood, growing up on a boat in Sydney Harbour with my two sisters, my parents, my grandmother and two ducks. The water police and the Maritime Services Board would come around and say,” You can’t live on a boat, you can only holiday on a boat.” And my father would say, “We don’t live on the boat, we live in that boatshed.” So we’d move into a boatshed. Then the Council would come around and say, “You can have a holiday in a boatshed, but you can’t live in a boatshed”, and my father would say, “We don’t live in this boatshed, we live on that boat.” And we’d move back to the boat. That went on for 21 years. It was a wonderful childhood in one way, but it was also precarious. It was a form of homelessness. We got checked out by the police and that added a precarity and a lack of connection. We could never have guests over and we never had birthday parties or anything. I think that sort of triggered an interest in social justice.
Also my mother was interested in early childhood play and its importance. She ran a small toy shop in the city selling specialist wooden toys she’d developed for children living with autism. She and my dad were interested in things that were unusual at the time. They were very unsuccessful people in financial terms, but they were very successful in terms of their values.
I grew up wanting to be Nijinsky, the Russian dancer, or Francis of Assisi because I loved his political nous. I loved that he could live in a leper colony, yet still speak to the highest powers. Instead, I started writing comedy for people like Glynn Nicholas and those guys were very successful. When I got royalties from those shows, I put them into things like BighArt.
What lessons have you learned over this time?
I think the non-profit sector needs to draw on some of the characteristics and values of the for-profit sector. And the for-profit sector needs to begin to act more like the non-profit sector and absorb some of its assets and values. Fortunately, you can see that starting to happen more and more in both sectors.
For organisations like BighART, that means taking responsibility for our destiny, rather than putting our hand out again and again. And one of the ways that we can do that without getting any mission creep is by monetising certain aspects of what we do. Admittedly, it’s easier for us to think like that because we are used to the box office and people being willing to pay for the quality of our art. But I think there are more layers that could be utilised by the non-profit sector – and one of them is taking responsibility.
Speaking of taking responsibility for your destiny, can you tell me a bit about the Skate Project and Skate of Mind, which Future Generation Global is funding?
Have you ever gone to a skate park and listened to the skateboarders and the ball bearings in their wheels as they do tricks? It becomes very rhythmic, especially if they’re really in the zone. When there are two or three of them skating together, they produce poly rhythms. It’s like they are percussionists. Then if you look at the shape of their bodies as they defy or use the G-force, they’re actually like dancers.
When we began to look at skating, we saw that skate parks are often pushed out of the centre of the city. The welcome mat is taken away from young people and they’re told, “Don’t skate here!” This beautiful art form is associated with vandalism, graffiti and crime when, in actual fact, skate parks are very safe places. Skateboarders look after little kids when they’re skateboarding and there’s a real sense of community. It’s a very desirable youth culture, yet it gets pushed out by adult policymakers. So we became interested in bringing skate parks and young people back into the centre of our city and country town lives.
That was the initial focus of the project, but then we started seeing skating as an art form. We thought: “What if young people could skate in time and be amplified with mics on their ankles and their boards? What if they could be tracked by projectors so that they are painting with light while they are doing these amazing tricks?” We started to develop this concept in a warehouse and we thought, “This will actually work.”
This all happened at the same time that we realised we had to take responsibility for our future as an organisation. So we started creating a show that was youth-focused, that used no spoken word or language, that could play anywhere, that had a small cast which worked like a machine, and that was easy to put on in different places. We believed the show could be a honeypot, drawing young people to it. Think of something like STOMP, which I think grossed about $1.5 billion in its first 10 years, in ticket prices plus merchandise.
Then, if you put on your empathetic lens, and you ask yourself what is really happening with a skateboarder, you realise that they are in a rite of passage. They are doing this activity because it’s methodical, it’s moving them in some way and it’s locating them in a peer group. The type of grip tape type they use, the type of socks or sneakers they wear, the pants they wear – there are different versions of these subcultures within the culture of skateboarding. It is also bringing some mental health stability to young people with borderline ADHD or other diagnosable conditions. Skateboarding itself, the rhythm of it and the ritual of it, is a very calming thing and I suspect a lot of young people are self-medicating on skateboarding.
You put those two things together and you have a model that could be financially highly valuable because of the box office, but the profit goes to not-for-profit activities. We decided to train some skateboarders in Mental Health First Aid. Now we’ve got this honeypot drawing young people towards better mental health literacy and better communication around asking for help. The project can be responsive and go anywhere, and there’s follow up online or via text. I think what we are doing is shifting the culture around mental health in very funky ways.
You’ve spoken about how difficult it is to raise core funding, so what will the money from Future Generation Global mean to you?
We’re approaching $100 million raised. Almost all that money has been raised through project funding or grants funding, which involves the application itself, the acquittal and then about three reports a year. When you’re doing that hundreds or even thousands of times, you find that some of your staff can’t work in the field because these obligations are so time consuming.
With Future Generation Global’s funding, it’s great because it’s locked in for three years. That is unusual. It’s also rare to be in a relationship with the funders. Mostly, funders just give you the money and tell you to get back to them with the reports. It’s very unusual to find a funder who is interested in your core costs and your ongoing sustainability, as well as your impact.
For more information, visit BighART’s website.