The arrival of COVID-19, on the heels of a summer of natural disasters, has led to profound disruptions to cultural life in Australia, propelling our artists, creators, researchers and cultural institutions into survival mode, and throwing into stark relief the dramatic pre-pandemic shifts in cultural production, consumption and distribution. Yet the events of 2020 have also highlighted how deeply culture and creativity are embedded in the daily lives of Australians, giving claim to culture’s status as a public good.

The 51st Academy Symposium –  At the Crossroad? Australia’s Cultural Futureexplored Australia’s cultural terrain in light of recent events and longer-standing disruptions and considered what transformations were needed to secure our cultural and creative future. It brought together perspectives from researchers, practitioners, creators and policy makers, and considered how innovative cultural policy settings and creative practice could together underpin a path to recovery, for our people and our communities.

This program was convened by Malcolm Gillies AM FAHA (Australian National University), Jennifer Milam FAHA (University of Newcastle), Shelagh Magadza (The Chamber of Arts and Culture Western Australia) and Joanne Tompkins FAHA (The University of Queensland).

Principal Sponsor: A New Approach (ANA) – the independent think tank championing effective investment and return in Australian creativity and culture.

Session 1


The pandemic has disproportionately damaged arts and culture even while it has reinforced the crucial role that creativity plays in the lives of Australians. Many galleries and museums are now open to social-distanced patrons, but most other art forms are still stalled and/or reworking their creative endeavours via technological options. This session explored the potential for technology-driven creative futures to generate innovative engagement with and between arts communities, art forms and cultural activity. The rapid, enforced shift to a reliance on technology gives rise to concerns such as the effects of the endless streaming of non-Australian material on our screens.

This session asked:

  • What revolutions – technical and others – has this year delivered in the practice, dissemination and consumption of cultural and creative activity? What are the ethical implications?
  • How is technology shaping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage?
  • What is the scope for younger Australian artists amid increased social rupture and isolation?

Session speakers:

Session 2


Memorialising James Cook has challenged us to re-examine the story of our nation. Indigenous leaders Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson have both called for a narrative of this country which honours the multiple strands of history, culture, experience and innovation within our national identity.

This session considered:

  • How do we construct a more inclusive story?
  • How can these perspectives inform cultural policies and institutions going forward?

Session speakers:

  • Abdul-Rahman Abdullah – Western Australian-based artist
  • Alison Page – Designer and producer, member Federal Government’s Creative Economy Taskforce, member Senior Advisory Group for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, ANA Reference Group member
  • Shelagh Magadza (session chair) – The Chamber of Arts and Culture Western Australia’s Executive Director, ANA Reference Group member
  • Michel Tuffery – New Zealand-based artist 
  • Lynette Wallworth – Emmy and AACTA award winning filmmaker and artist

Session 3


Leaders from the independent think tank, A New Approach (ANA), and the arts and culture sector shared ideas for how insights from ANA’s research program could be used to shape a rich and relevant cultural and creative future for Australia.

This session addressed:

  • How does arts and culture sit within the broader Australian creative economy?
  • What changes in the arts and culture landscape have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • Why is understanding the perceptions of governments and other stakeholders crucial to the future of arts and culture in this context?
  • How could a National Arts, Culture and Creativity Plan help Australia’s cultural and creative future?

Session speakers:

Session 4


A New Approach’s fourth report Behind the Scenes: Drivers of arts and cultural policy settings in Australia and beyond identifies drivers of arts and cultural policy, and highlights the growing complexity in Australian arts policy across and between national, state and local levels of government. The report identifies a pressing need – only underscored by COVID-19 – for better connected policy, above all with artists themselves.

This session considered:

  • The current situation of the nation’s artists, in terms of employment, creative work and cultural purpose.
  • The policy initiatives and incentives needed to recover and grow Australia’s future arts sector.
  • Opportunities for artists to connect with the broader creative economy, and social services (education, health, welfare).
  • Key topics of a National Arts, Culture and Creativity Plan (parallelling Australia’s Sport 2030 plan).

Session speakers:

Session 5


The culture sector is central to the future of Australia. This has been quantified through the direct and indirect contributions of the creative economy.

This session explored:

  • How might the arts and cultural institutions exploit their position within the creative economy to gain better funding and support, not only from government, but also in partnership with private industry? Where does that leave philanthropy?
  • To what extent do artists and those involved in the production of culture benefit from this broader recognition of the economics of creativity?

Session speakers:

Session 6


This was a very special afternoon of music, reflection and ideas to round out a wonderful week of presentations.

Session presenters:

  • Joy Damousi FASSA FAHA (session chair), President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities will provide closing remarks
  • Robyn Archer AO FAHA, singer, performer, writer, and artistic director will reflect on how the humanities has informed her creative practice, and her vision for Australia’s cultural future
  • Nancy Bates, singer/song-writer will present a performance of her song commissioned for the 51st Academy Symposium
  • Carol McGregor, 2020 recipient of the John Mulvaney Fellowship and award-winning Australian artist will reflect on how the humanities has informed her creative practice as a possum skin cloak maker, painter, printmaker and sculptor.