marcus westbury

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Initiativism

August 25th, 2009 by marcus

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I’ve been using the word “initiativist” recently to define my philosophical approach to culture. I used the term in my lecture in Newcastle the other night and attempted to sneak it into my column in The Age this week but it was removed by an overzealous sub-editor probably on account of it not being a real word.

A key line was changed by an  from “I am an initiativist and not a bureaucrat” to “I am an initiator not a bureaucrat” which made it sound like i was referring to my own work rather than a philosophy or approach. I’m sure the last thing the world needs is another “ism” but if I’m ever going to get away with using it in the paper i will probably need to have a go at defining it.

So what do i mean when i call myself an “initiativist”?

To me initiativism is a loose term to describe an alternate approach to the centralism and bureaucracy that is default position in current cultural policy. It’s based on my firm belief that culture actually comes from the initiative of the many and not from or through the institutions of the few.

I’ve argued recently in this Meanjin essay and several other places that most cultural policy (in Australia at least) has become about supporting institutions and large scale companies rather than facilitating initiative, experimentation and enterprise at the small scale. Indeed, many aspects of cultural, economic and social policy actively discourage activity at the small scale.

If you believe as i do that culture comes from the initiative of the many, then it logically follows that a key role of cultural policy, arts funding and cultural agencies should be facilitating and encouraging initiative. It is not a particularly radical idea but it’s one i’ve rarely seen practiced. Usually, policy is about creating limited scarce opportunities and attempting to select likely winners to occupy them.

Initiativism is about tilting the policy thinking away from centralized, administratively heavy, and capital dependant approaches and towards ensuring that personal, community, and small scale creative initiative is viable and that there are many entry points and opportunities for exploration and expansion as possible. It is not about creating or administering outcomes but instead about creating opportunities and efficient processes for cultural creation, production, and distribution to take root.

This approach of facilitating diverse opportunities and lowering barriers to entry is central to the success of the Renew Newcastle project and has informed the thinking behind most of the festivals, projects and events that i have been involved in such as This Is Not Art, Next Wave and Free Play.

Ultimately it is about a cultural policy approach that begins with thinking about the  viability of initiative at the smaller scale and that accumulates a cultural richness from a fertile ground of viable small scale things. As i’ve noted before, the viability of small scale initiative has been under assault from both the public and private sectors for a long time.

Thinking in terms of initiative is not an extension of straight industry paradigm in the arts, it is actually an inclusive alternative. It recognises that arts and many creative enterprises often don’t and often shouldn’t behave like an industry but equally that they arts don’t behave like public sector agencies either. It is about promoting the long tail of activity and innovation.

It is about creating a diversity of opportunity for enterprises, community and creation but not about trying to force them into a business model. It recognises that creative people don’t always have money and that their motivations are rarely exclusively (or even particularly) financial. Yet in the absence of capital, there are real economic and structural barriers to both their entry and to their ultimate success on both artistic and economic terms.

Perhaps there’s a better word for it but “initiativist” is the best i’ve got.

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