Set up in 1992 by two friends as an experiment in finding new ways to illuminate stories of, and campaign against, social disadvantage, Big hART is still led by co-founder Scott Rankin as creative director and CEO. Its first project took place in north-west Tasmania; since then its work with communities has proliferated across Australia, mostly in remote and rural contexts. As an infrastructure-free company, it has no fixed address; although it has offices in Melbourne and Sydney they are both temporary or hot desk situations. Staffing is also flexible, with a core team of 12-14 expanding to as many as 50 full-time, part-time and contracted freelancers for creative development projects. Its turnover averages at $3m AUD annually, of which less than 10% is received as cultural funding from the Australia Council; primarily Big hART balances private benefactors, corporate giving and fundraising with foundations, alongside box-office earnings.
Mission: making art, building communities, driving change
As a campaigning arts company with a particular concern in cultural rights, Big hART seeks to work with “any group that’s being pushed to the periphery, so their visibility, or the visibility of their issue, is low,” says Scott Rankin. “We’re interested in bringing hidden stories back into the narrative, so that they are influencing ‘the narration that becomes the nation’.” The shorthand description for how Big hART works is: “We make art, we build communities and we drive change.” That art happens in the local context but also within mainstream Australian art culture: “We produce for the Perth festival, Sydney festival, the Sydney Opera House, the National Gallery of Australia. But we’re just as happy delivering a show in a dry river bed for an audience of 150.” The art is always a movement towards the bigger social change that Big hART wants to achieve – expressed in “the flow of change, rather than the terminology of impact”.
“We produce for the Perth festival, Sydney festival, the Sydney Opera House, the National Gallery of Australia. But we’re just as happy delivering a show in a dry river bed for an audience of 150.”
All Big hART’s work responds to “a community need”, and when it decides which needs to respond to it asks the following questions: “how hidden is the issue and how difficult is it to fund – because if it is a truly hidden issue then usually funding won’t be flowing to that area. Currently we are interested in slavery at sea: it’s very hard to fund, so that becomes a critical project for us to work on.” Nor does Big hART have the same “belief in the geographic community” found among other community arts practitioners, instead seeking to connect with people across Australia’s expansive geography who share the same need. For instance, since 2010 it has been working in Roebourne, where “there’s a very high incidence of family violence. So we think about other places around the country that are family violence hotspots, and that is a community even though geographically they’re a long way away. It’s applying a dramaturgical eye to an issue or a community”, again with a view to shaping national rather than local change.
The oath of do no harm
A fundamental principle guiding Big hART’s work is “the oath of do no harm. In higher needs communities it is quite difficult to deal with things like the consequences of lateral trauma or the self-sabotage that will be present in the identity of the community. Often the scarcity culture that drives funding also accidentally drives short-termism and then actually doing harm. We say clearly that our projects will be expensive, they won’t be under three years in length – some of them run to eight years in length – and we won’t allow ourselves to rust on to a community. It’s very important in high-needs communities that you don’t build dependency: from day one we are looking for the exit.”
“We say clearly that our projects won’t be under three years in length – some of them run to eight years in length – and we won’t allow ourselves to rust on to a community. It’s very important in high-needs communities that you don’t build dependency: from day one we are looking for the exit.”
Big hART characterises success through the application of “five domains of change. The individuals who are participating in the project need to be able to make new choices about their social trajectory – and the community has to shift in response. If that happens, that creates flows of changes, or flows of consequences. The people who pull the policy levers that dictate some of the difficulties for that community need to be made highly aware of what has worked and what hasn’t worked, to be able to shape policy or national change. We have to get over the mediocrity of representation: for instance, if a young person who is recidivistic and dealing with homelessness is being represented, their work has to stand up both in their local community and in national forums artistically. If those four things are in place then we’re better than doing no harm. Lastly, there has to be a willing knowledge transfer rather than territorial inhibiting of the sharing of knowledge. So if the projects are working and there are successes then it needs to be documented and shared, beyond evaluation, in a relational way with other workers in the field and beyond the field. Those five planes of change – individual, community, national forum, art and knowledge transfer – are what we call success.”
Of the many “long-term projects that are multi-layered, dramaturgically complex and have an end point” that Big hART runs concurrently, Rankin talks in particular about three:
This project began in 2009 to challenge the exploitation of the art of watercolour painter Albert Namatjira. “In Australia, we use aboriginal art to generate billions of dollars through tourism; Namatjira is an iconic name – but his family live in poverty in central Australia, because a white gallery owned the copyright to his pictures. So there’s a family that’s hidden and a central issue of social justice in trying to help them to get their copyright back, which speaks to a bigger issue of relationships between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.” Big hART built a multi-strand campaign around this story: “We began with a year of listening, building trust so the family would see that we were going to do justice to the story, then we put on an award-winning touring theatre performance with the family telling the story, and toured art exhibitions with the family selling their work, so there’d be an immediate economic benefit to them. Eventually this travelled to London and, at the family’s request, we negotiated an audience with the Queen, specifically to drive a media campaign in Australia. Along the process we filmed a documentary to be released in film festivals, developed a watercolour app for iPad and iPhone so that people could engage from a digital perspective, and delivered 970 workshops in schools. Ultimately, the people who held the copyright gave it back to the family for $1.” That project is now in its “legacy phase”, with the copyright the basis of the Namatjira Legacy Trust, which funds watercolour activities to support the family and wider community.
2: Project O
Initially tested in Tasmania, and now operating in four geographically distant communities across Australia, Project O focuses on “young women in rural areas where there is high unemployment, who are experiencing family violence and the repercussions of that” – repercussions that include low rates on the “digital inclusion index, which will mean that you are much less likely to be successful in creating a career path in the digital 21st century”. Although isolated from each other, Big hART sees them as “a community of like-minded women with interesting opportunities. We work with them to focus, not on the deficit of the issues that they’re facing, but the asset of their aspirations, which we facilitate and mentor.” This includes “teaching some digital inclusion skills to increase their sense of urgency and ability to take action, and building in opportunities in the local communities where they live for them to speak up, to run events, and understand what the media is”. Among those events is a “colourathon: a sponsored colouring-in marathon, through which the young women raise money, not for themselves or their immediate generational peers, but for very young children who are ending up in local women’s shelters. So it’s focusing away from the deficit to the asset of their abilities, and giving them an experience of self-entrepreneurial activity that does something for someone else, breaking the cycle of what people have been experiencing.”
3: Blue Angel
Research and development on this project began in 2005, but Rankin admits: “We are struggling to find the levels of funding that we need because fair shipping is a global issue.” In 2013 the first pilot of work took place, including exhibitions, short films and an interactive storytelling performance in a purpose-built harbour-side hotel in Tasmania: “The audience could stay the night; each room had a trunk with artefacts in it that told the stories; the seafarers themselves would sit down for dinner with you; and as you moved through the various spaces the story of what it means to be in working conditions that are 17 times more dangerous than mining built up.” The purpose of the project is not just “to get the general public to understand the predicament of men and women at sea who are perpetually indentured to low-paid labour” but to encourage “people in port cities to become part of the network that tells this story, so that it becomes easy to convince the legislature to make changes to maritime policy, by using the cultural shift method of the public wanting a new resolution to a story that they weren’t aware of”.
It’s not just Big hART’s distinctive approach that makes its work hard to fund: Rankin argues that “there are very few transformational or innovative, forward-thinking donors in Australia: it’s all fear-based, project-based giving. Philanthropy is culturally foreign because it’s a new country and because people are scared they will end up with nothing.” This is exacerbated by “structural inhibitors: our processes need to run for more than one cycle of government, and Australia is notorious for lobbing off the heads of its leaders, so getting continuity and corporate memory in government to be able to sustain that level of funding is very hard.”
Big hART’s work is further affected by “issues around hysteria, which are driven by two things at once: the increasing ocean of information that is coming at us, and the decrease in empathy from the mediated relationships through flat screens that’s happening in the very wealthy West. That leads to the phenomenon of clicktivism, cheap change: it’s not actually taking action, and it makes it difficult to get to real change with the public, because they think they’re doing something when they’re just clicking a like.”
Its insistence on working in the places funders overlook means that Big hART exists in a precarious financial situation: “We’re never more than three months from bankruptcy. In a way it’s not bad for us to have the same insecurity in the structure of the capital or in our capacity as a company as the people we work with” – but at the same time it does affect “our capacity to mitigate against the risk of doing harm”. A solution Rankin is working on at the moment is to construct “a highly commercial work”, whose earnings on tour could be “put away into a corpus, as a way of making sure we do no harm by having to withdraw from communities too early”.
Big hART’s other major plan is more dramaturgical: “We’re moving from projects to streams. When we look at the issues that are present in almost all our projects, they are streams of issues: streams of inhibitors, streams of forms of disadvantage, intersections of issues that you could look at as individual projects in locations or individual projects about one thing. But the streams overlap and that’s a more finessed approach to the kinds of complex systems that the people we work with find themselves in. A good example of this is the digital inclusion issue: you might be dealing with young offenders, with people who have a disability, with young women in rural locations – but there will be this stream of digital inclusion that crosses the top of those projects.” Rankin admits this “puts us out of sync with traditional funding rounds”, but hopes “it puts us more in sync where smart thinking and smart action will be in a decade’s time”.
Image: Intergenerational workshop in the remote Western Australian community of Roebourne. Photographer: Francis Andrijich