A project initiated by

Footscray Community Arts Centre

"We’re not apologetic about how political we are, and we look forward to the day when things that are deemed to be quite progressive or political are accepted as the ways we tell stories in the arts and how the cultural landscape is reflected in Australia.”

Footscray Community Arts Centre (FCAC) was founded in 1974 to provide opportunities for communities in West Melbourne to participate in arts and culture. In 2011, following a 10-year capital redevelopment project, the FCAC site was reimagined, doubling its capacity. It now offers two galleries, two theatres and six visual arts studios, all dedicated to community engaged practice and showcasing work that reflects the social, cultural and political commentary of the communities and artists who are accessing it. Jade Lillie, FCAC’s director and chief executive from 2012 to 2017, was interviewed for this case study and has since moved on to a freelance and writing career. FCAC is now led by Martin Paten. FCAC employs 25 staff, and approximately 300 artists per year; its annual turnover is between AUS $2.5-3m, of which roughly 40% is earned income, and the rest received through a mixture of state and federal government funding, and philanthropic trusts and foundations.

Mission: leading the way in community-engaged arts practices

FCAC was founded by a group of artists and activists whose fundamental principle was “access for all”. In the four decades since, says Jade Lillie, its artistic director and chief executive at the time of researching this case study, it has been “consistent about being a place for communities and artists to participate in and drive arts, culture and creative expression. Our main mission is around communities being valued as makers of our culture, with creativity and self-determination as the key drivers.”

Although the principles haven’t changed, the local demographic has. FCAC is based in Melbourne’s West, which Lillie describes as: “one of the fastest growing regions in the country, and one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse. It has 130 different cultural groups and 150 languages, and 8% of the Victorian Aboriginal population live here, which is a relatively high percentage on the 3% of the population in Australia being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.” In the past, “Melbourne’s West was known for its working-class roots and industry and is now a place that is reflective of who contemporary Australia is”.

A defining feature of FCAC’s work is the question: “Who is telling whose story? For example, we’re not engaging in any work that has First Nations content unless it’s written and directed by Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander artists. The community has always been the driver and the focus of the work here, and as a high-quality, community-engaged contemporary arts centre we’re not afraid to say to the arts and to leadership that Australia is not reflective of its communities and we need to change that now. You’d be surprised how many people can still accept work being on an open stage that has no person of colour in it, let alone being led by a person of colour, or written by a person of colour. So one of the things we’re trying to do is actively intervene and reframe the cultural ‘norms’. We’re not apologetic about how political we are, and we look forward to the day when things that are deemed to be quite progressive or political are accepted as the ways we tell stories in the arts and how the cultural landscape is reflected in Australia.”

“We’re not engaging in any work that has First Nations content unless it’s written and directed by Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander artists. The community has always been the driver and the focus of the work here.”

Community engaged, not community arts

Aware of the ways in which community arts are dismissed by the art sector, Lillie differentiates activities at FCAC from the stereotype of “a mural on a toilet block, a mosaic project, or a community theatre show – all of which is fine and has a fine context, but it doesn’t have to define who communities are in the practice of art-making. We’re trying to reimagine what that space is: we strive for excellent engagement, and we strive for great outcomes, because we want to say that with communities and others at the centre of art-making, amazing things can happen.”

“We’re trying to reimagine what that space is: we strive for excellent engagement, and we strive for great outcomes, because we want to say that with communities and others at the centre of art-making, amazing things can happen.”

With the focus on engagement, “the driving factor of the work is the relationship”. Some of the key relationships FCAC has with the communities of Melbourne’s West are with refugee and asylum seeker services, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. In 2016, FCAC made a constitutional amendment, “to ensure that the Indigenous Advisory Group, our Elders and Residents and Indigenous Cultural Programs accord to FCAC as an organisation. So it’s clear that we talk about First Peoples first and make that a priority.”

This was a major step considering “we’re in a context politically in Australia where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities do not have a treaty with this government, and are not being adequately recognised as the Traditional Owners and leaders. One of the things that we can do on a micro level is say that we will: and to do that, providing constitutional amendment to ensure this is maintained. We acknowledge that all of the things that FCAC is committed to and does, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people were doing on this land before anyone else arrived, as the first artists of this country, the first activists of this country.”

FCAC also runs a professional and industry development programme, Generate, “based on questions that we’re constantly asked around things like working in First Nations cultural contexts, ableism and access, ethics and self-determination, trying to get people to think more deeply about that and learn some of those skills”. It’s another strand of relationship-building, and Lillie argues that “we have changed the way that the arts and cultural sector think about community-engaged contemporary arts practice, so that community is at the centre of what you do, and all the other things fall around it”.

“We have changed the way that the arts and cultural sector think about community-engaged contemporary arts practice, so that community is at the centre of what you do, and all the other things fall around it.”

Inclusion – and exclusion

FCAC’s programmes are multidisciplinary – “there’s not an art form that we’re not engaging with” – and are designed to foster inclusion, particularly among groups otherwise at the periphery of cultural life. A small sample that Lillie mentions includes:

  1. West Writers

This programme was “designed with writers and producers to provoke the literary sector in Australia to challenge whiteness and cultural norms. We believe that the stories and artists and voices from Melbourne’s West are reflective of contemporary Australia, but are not represented, so it’s also about nurturing those writers through that process.” Writers meet weekly for five months to be mentored, critique each other’s work and encounter guest speakers, and are invited to participate in, for instance, the Emerging Writers Festival and Melbourne Writers Festival.

  1. Emerging Cultural Leaders

An annual programme, this invites “15 emerging cultural leaders who might change and impact the next generation of cultural leadership in Australia, making it more reflective of the communities we are, to develop together”.

  1. Call to Create

Through this programme, community groups can pitch ideas to FCAC, which the programming team can “work them through to bring them into the programme”. One such group is tilde, a trans and gender-diverse film collective which runs its own festival. “We were able to provide a cultural tenancy and creative development space, a producer that they could be in contact with, and a venue for their film festival.”

  1. Artlife

A multidisciplinary programme, Artlife supports people with perceived disabilities, who work with contemporary artists in visual arts, performance and experimental music. A number of creative ensembles have emerged from this programme, including a contemporary music group, the Amplified Elephants, who have toured to Japan, Switzerland and the UK.

Although all of the programmes at FCAC welcome young people, Lillie notes that “we don’t have any specific programme engagement with young people. Our communities of focus are clear, so that’s about Melbourne’s West, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, people with perceived disability, and arts and cultural workers. And our approach to all of those spaces is quite intergenerational and intercultural.”

What it isn’t necessarily is fully inclusive. As Lillie explains: “You won’t come to FCAC and hear someone with views that are considered to be discriminatory on stage, or experience someone who believes people with a disability aren’t as welcome as they are. In that sense we are quite exclusive, with a focus on ensuring creatively and culturally safe space.”

Challenges

On average FCAC submits 50 to 60 grant applications per year: “We’re constantly having to find new ways to resource the work that we do, and the ways that funding and investment happens in the non-profit sector mean that you rarely actually have time to really focus on the work, because you’re focused so intensely on keeping an organisation resourced. It is a challenge that requires constant attention, and affects inner capacity. We want to say yes to everything, but people can’t work 24/7: so another challenge is finding the balance, because what you say no to becomes a very important decision.”

“We want to say yes to everything, but people can’t work 24/7: so another challenge is finding the balance, because what you say no to becomes a very important decision.”

What next?

This interview with Lillie took place in the weeks before she left FCAC to pursue research and writing. Its new artistic director and chief executive is Martin Paten, previously Director of the Castlemaine State Festival, Australia’s leading regional arts festival, who joined with a strategic plan for 2017-2020 already in place as “the guiding force” for the next few years of activity. Among the measures it includes is “a two-year partnership with one of the major performing arts companies to commission new work by First Nations and culturally and linguistically diverse artists who’ve never been commissioned for the main stage before”.

At the same time, Lillie argues, “FCAC has not really changed in 40 years, and it’s not about to start now. It’ll change its look and feel, but it won’t ever become something that we don’t recognise. Every day artists and members of the community tell us what a difference we make: we create a space where they feel like they belong, and where they feel like they are respected and supported to make work that is important to them.”

Disability Pride.Photographer: Jody Haines (courtesy of FCAC)

Leave a comment