Some brain expanding questions

After my keynote at the Kumuwuki/Big Wave Regional Arts Australia conference in Goolwa, I did a series of talks, discussions and workshops on adaptive resilience in Brisbane (with the help of Arts Queensland and State Library Queensland), Melbourne (with the help of Arts Victoria and the City of Melbourne) and Sydney (with the help of the Australia Council). All these were promoted by Board Connect and Positive Solutions, so especial thanks from me to the people there for sorting things from travel to there actually being people there for me to talk with. You can, should you be that way inclined, listen to an audio recording of the talk and discussion in Brisbane, on the Board Connect site.)

I wanted to write about some of the questions and challenges that came up in the discussion and workshop elements of these events. All were interesting, and there were other themes I may return to here, such as whether ‘board’ and ‘staff’ are internal silos to be broken down, but these were some I found most useful or stimulating.

1. How do you know when your community is not resilient?

Things I would suggest you watch out for: depression and disconnectedness, lack of volunteering and social connection between people, once vibrant groups dwindling, lack of resources to make repairs, renewals and refresh the environment, short-termism. (The question was about places and communities rather than the arts per se, but I’d say much the same applies there.) You also get lots of empty shops no one wants to fill even with charity shops. (Or ‘op shops’ as I understand they’re called in Australia.)

2. Is the idea of resilience an expedient one?
3. Do people think you are doing the devil’s work talking about adaptive resilience in this way?

These go together as they have the same intent I think – testing whether building your resilience is actually playing into the hands of people who want to cut public investment. Whilst it may do, I do think there is some dependency or entitlement behind the thinking – perhaps a sense that funding legitimizes arts activity in a world that still sees it as not quite normal? For me adaptive resilience drives a greater degree of self-determination as well as bouncebackability. So the ubiquity of the term is timely rather than expedient. And some people have always thought I was doing the devil’s work, I think…

4. What is the role of empathy in adaptive resilience?

This is such a good question it deserves a fuller response, but I want to do a bit of looking around before that. But this is the question that has made me think most. Identifying and understanding another’s situation, feelings, and motives – one definition of empathy – does run through various definitions of resilience. It could be argued it’s there in my frameworks in the notion of shared purpose and values containing diverse viewpoints, in the emphasis on collaborative networks, on understanding audiences and funders, to name but three. You may be strong or powerful without empathy, but you are unlikely to be truly adaptive and resilient as you won’t understand the world around you sufficiently to work with others and to change over time. (If you think being powerful is the same as being resilient, think about any regime change you weren’t expecting.)

As I’ve written previously, one of the Achilles heels of the arts sector may be that we save our empathy for our creative output and use it too little in our strategy or our ‘situation awareness’. A little more empathy might have helped in the recent Creative Scotland stramash, for instance. Empathy between funded and funder helps avoid simplistic measurement frameworks, or lip service to measurement frameworks. Hell, we could even try really understanding where Michael Gove is coming from, so we can better argue with him. (Empathy and sympathy not being the same thing, of course: you can use your empathy to understand but still be fiercely opposed to someone’s ideas.)

Photo of work by Li Hongbo at White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney