Australian actor Cate Blanchett. Picture: AFP
Every Brilliant Thing rehearsal room.

How our actors build our global image

The Australian, OCTOBER 19, 2022

Britain has the British Council, the French promote culture internationally through their Institut Francais; Germany has the Goethe Institute; the US has Hollywood.

But Australia, which punches above its weight in so many international arenas, does not have a stand-alone institution dedicated to building connections through culture, with that role left to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

And it was DFAT that this year joined with the British Council for an inaugural Season of cultural exchange, an exercise we argue rewards repetition – and not just with the UK.

Prima facie, Australia and the UK know each other so well that some would argue there’s no need to offer distinctively Australian work to British audiences. That’s an assumption we decided to test with the Season through the theme “Who are we now?” at major cultural events such as the Edinburgh International Festival, part of a broader UK/Australia Season running for several months in both countries.

The exchange program extended beyond Edinburgh to all corners of the UK and showcased the rich and varied diversity of not just Australian cultural life but of Australia itself.

The assumption about the countries’ shared understanding is particularly interesting at a time of great geopolitical change, a good time to give British audiences some surprising and challenging work, we decided. Not to mention an opportunity for our performers to do their thing in front of an audience in the UK more than double the size of their own.

As actor Cate Blanchett – who was a Season ambassador – says: “Art breaks down the borders and boundaries of our imagination, poses questions, expands reality, and by sharpening our feelings into ideas offers pathways to insight.”

This inaugural UK/Australia Season was the largest and most ambitious cultural exchange ever undertaken between the two countries, taking to the UK more than 200 Australian artistic works including Counting and Cracking, a play from Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre.It was a programming choice of considerable risk given its 16 actors (the eldest in his 80s) play four generations of a family, from Colombo to the outer Sydney suburb of Pendle Hill. Worthy of the not inconsiderable effort, Counting and Cracking is a story about Australia as a land of refuge and is a world away from thankfully now historic and inaccurate portraits of “Australiana” formerly sent overseas. It’s a play that reflects the new – and indeed the actual – Australia.

The strong response of audiences and critics – The Financial Times said the play “offers a gentle but insistent plea for humanity. It’s impossible not to listen, rapt” – suggested the return on investment to Australia will be significant, from assisting artists and arts companies; but also benefiting Australia as a whole.

The Season has significant range in its programming: while Counting and Cracking is a rich and nuanced picture of who we are now, Songlines, the awe-inspiring First Nations exhibition from the National Museum of Australia that opened our UK program, addressed where we came from by drawing attention to our country’s still incomplete reconciliation with its First Peoples.

The cost of the Season was not insignificant and philanthropy was crucial. Without a generous group of patrons, each of whom believe in the importance of cultural diplomacy, the Season would not have been possible. It is proof (were more needed) that leveraging private support in partnership with government is a tried, tested and fruitful model.

Cultural diplomacy is an invaluable and cost-effective way of promoting Australia and what we stand for. It amplifies intangible national attributes such as our “global brand” and perceptions of our nation’s integrity, reputation and general attraction.

Federal Arts Minister Tony Burke announced recently that the fifth pillar of the government’s forthcoming national cultural policy will be focused on “ensuring our stories reach the people at home and abroad”. This is a long overdue aspiration from the minister and one that fits perfectly with the thinking behind the UK/Australia Season.

Our extraordinarily talented creative industries are an immense asset in our efforts to build international connections, support our economic and diplomatic objectives, and project our values. It is an asset that hides before us in plain sight. Cultural diplomacy is a vital arrow in Australia’s diplomatic quiver; the question is: how do we leverage it effectively? Should we try to replicate the program with other nations? Is an agency for cultural diplomacy akin to the British Council or Institut Francais suitable for Australia? There is much for Australia to gain, we believe, by considering closely these questions.

David Gonski is co-chairman, patrons board, UK/Australia Season; Michael Napthali is its director (Australia).

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