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Blending arts, design and public service on the way to the top

While it’s sometimes difficult to figure out the reasons behind post-election agency restructures, the same could not be said for the new Creative Victoria.

At the beginning of this year, the formation of Creative Victoria saw the state become the first jurisdiction to bring both the arts and creative industries portfolios together under one umbrella.

Overseen by Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley, the agency takes a wider brief than previously, incorporating the functions of the former, more traditionally arts-focused Arts Victoria, but adds screen, film, television, computer games, as well as design, fashion and architecture.

The idea is to give a stronger economic focus within government to what is a big business in Victoria — a group of industries comprising around $33 billion, or 8% of the economy. The creative industries employ about 220,000 and have exports of $1.4 billion a year, attracting a tourist spend of around $1 billion.

A shift of departments has cemented this move. While Arts Victoria sat within the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Creative Victoria is situated in the newly-created Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources under the direction of a deputy secretary in Andrew Abbott.

The restructuring process has apparently proceeded smoothly.

Andrew Abbott
Andrew Abbott

“In this case it’s clear this isn’t change for change’s sake. It’s change to derive considerably more public value, there’s no doubt about that,” explains Abbott.

“What I’ve found most striking is the willingness of all concerned — staff here at Creative Victoria and staff in the agencies that have been brought together under the creative industries banner — have all welcomed the establishment of the new portfolio and are really enjoying getting to know each other and each other’s portfolio responsibilities.

“Former Arts Victoria staff have really embraced the wider portfolio and the staff that have come across to us from the former business department have really welcomed their arrival as well. There’s been a lot of goodwill and good outcomes so far.”

The key, he told The Mandarin, is explaining why change is necessary.

“The most important aspect of change management is communication. To communicate early and often is critical to ensure that all those subject to that change are fully cognisant of what’s changing and why and how. That would be my number one message.

“To understand the reason why, in this case why this agency has been formed, is fundamental for people’s willingness to back that change. That is important to come from the political class as well as the public service. In this case one of the big drivers of early success — we’re only several months into it — has been the consistent messaging politically around the value of this and the reason for it. We’re seeing a very positive representation from the government.”

Not just for arts’ sake

While he is keen to emphasise that the restructure is not just about the economics of creative industries, explaining “we’re quite keen to equally emphasise the social impact of the creative industries, as well as the cultural impact itself”, Abbott states “it’s unusual to see the full gamut of industry brought together in this way, so it is path-breaking to that degree.

“[Federal arts cuts] will have an impact on the small to medium sector in Victoria and we need to work as closely as we can … to ensure that any negative consequences are minimised.”

“We do see quite significant breaking down of barriers across disciplines in any case. That’s happening across the creative industries more and more. Art galleries displaying fashion for example. And design. The National Gallery of Victoria is really putting significant emphasis on design. It’s established its first design department.”

Abbott thinks Creative Victoria “feels like it’s been substantially established now”. The next step is the development of the creative industries strategy, which will dictate any future changes to the agency.

The goal of the strategy is to maximise the economic, social and cultural value of the creative industries. To that end a task force has been established, led by Louise Adler, CEO of Melbourne University Press, as well as an expert reference group, which she also chairs. They’ve been charged with developing a draft strategy by the end of the year for government consideration.

Boston Consulting Group has been commissioned to undertake an analysis of the current state and value of the creative industries, while the government last week released a discussion paper and has begun a statewide consultation process.

Another looming challenge for the agency is to deal with the effects of proposed changes to federal funding of the arts.

While naturally loth to offer an opinion on the federal government’s decision to cut arts funding — including $30 million from the Australia Council and $38 million from Screen Australia over four years, impacting smaller organisations in particular — the Creative Victoria chief believes the changes will impact the state.

“There is no doubt these changes that have been proposed at federal level will have an impact on the small to medium sector in Victoria and we need to work as closely as we can with the Australia Council and with the Ministry for the Arts to understand the impacts and to ensure that any negative consequences are minimised,” he said.

‘Once you’ve plateaued it’s time to move’

What career advice would he give to younger public servants who might one day want to work in a similar role to him?

“If you don’t feel you’re learning, it’s best to move to pursue areas of interest and to work for leaders you respect and feel you can learn from.”

“My general advice would be to people who are looking to pursue a career in a particular area would be to be as conscious about getting breadth of experience as they are about getting depth of experience. That means moving around into areas that are not always as obviously part of a designated career path because it all adds value,” he says.

“Particularly early in your career, move on a fairly frequent basis to pursue opportunities that ensure that you’re always on a learning curve. Once you feel you’ve plateaued it’s time to move. If you don’t feel you’re learning, it’s best to move to pursue areas of interest and to work for leaders you respect and feel you can learn from.”

Abbott was appointed director of Arts Victoria in 2014, and originally began his career in the arts, including at National Gallery of Victoria, before moving to Arts Victoria in the 1990s.

He spent the next 12 years in the Department of Premier and Cabinet and the Education Department, with a bit of time in the then-Industry Department, before finding his way back into Arts Victoria.

“I have a blend of an arts background and a public sector background. The public sector background is a mix of central agency and line department. It does give you that balance of government and arts.

“My early days in the Premier’s Department was about establishing the government’s first design strategy, in fact I think Australia’s first design strategy. They’ve been running that since, over the last 12 years, so that’s been interesting having that coming back into the portfolio that I’m now responsible for.”

The design strategy looks at how to exploit the state’s design strengths and promote the sector.

“It’s been useful to understand what makes central agencies tick … what premiers and treasurers care about as well as how we can support them in what they want to achieve.”

“From about 2002 onwards we’ve been investing in promoting awareness of design into manufacturing and other areas of business, supporting design firms that have the disadvantage of scale,” he explains.

“They tend to be small to medium sized businesses not necessarily with the capacity to put their best foot forward to the rest of the world.”

He thinks having that experience in DPC has helped broaden his knowledge of how government works.

“It’s been useful for me coming into this role to understand how the centre of government works, to understand what makes central agencies tick — what they care about and what premiers and treasurers care about as well and how we can support them in what they want to achieve.

“Working in a central agency has meant that I’ve had broad exposure to all departments across the Victorian government, and that’s helped me in interacting with those departments where there’s a relationship with the creative industries.”

Read more at The Mandarin: Cultural economy and the soft power of the forgotten portfolio

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.