Interview with Alasdair Foster

In September 2012, I attended the Kaunas Photo Festival to participate as a reviewer in their international portfolio competition (blog to follow soon!…). At the event I caught up with fellow reviewer Alasdair Foster from Australia and put a few questions to him on perspectives from a different continent….

  1. [Malcolm] You left Scotland for Australia some 14 years ago and based yourself in Sydney – do you think of yourself as Scottish, Australian, or does the international dimension supersede these?

[Alasdair] I had a strange sense of coming home when I moved to Australia. It’s hard to explain, but I felt a strong sentimental attachment to the country from the get go: to its multi-cultural citizenry, its awe-inspiring sense of natural space, to its wonderful trees and, of course, its clement weather.

My perspective has certainly been expanded by living in the Pacific hemisphere, building on what I experienced and learned in the Greater Atlantic zone. Asia and the Pacific is an incredibly rich and varied super-region. If I say my outlook is ‘international’ then that is probably the Australian way of thinking, since we are almost all immigrants and come from so many parts of the world. That said, we are each the accumulated product of our peculiar personal histories, and so that ‘internationalism’ is situated within and inevitably limited by my particular background. But I have become profoundly respectful of the many cultures of Asia and the Pacific. I feel enriched and privileged to have the opportunity to work in this part of the world.

What I do miss from the UK is the scepticism that questions power. It exists here, but not to the degree or depth I remember from my time in the UK.

 2.     How do people in the arts in Australia perceive Scottish visual arts?

Probably about the same way the Scottish audience perceives Australian visual arts… not much. Really, aside from links through expats, there is little, if any, differentiation between visual art from Scotland and visual art from the UK as a whole. Brand ‘Britain’ is what is recognised, brand ‘Scotland’ does not get much of a look in. Even the Edinburgh Festival is seen as British rather than specifically Scottish. Not surprising really given Australia a country of 22 million and Scotland of 6 million separated by over 17,000 kms and six billion other people: quite a human and geographic distance to travel. That said, I would place Iceland higher than Scotland on the level of Australian perception in the contemporary arts just now.

3.     You ran the Australian Centre for Photography (ACP) for 13 years – what changes did you see happen during that time and what is your proudest achievement?

Environmental change

The two biggest environmental changes were a major increase in Commonwealth (national) funding for the small-to-medium visual-arts sector in 2002 and a growing acceptance within the art world of pop culture as a legitimate aspect of creative activity, if not public subsidy.

Interestingly, the uplift of public funding under the Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy was the brainchild of one of Australia’s major arts philanthropists, Rupert Myer, who lead a report to the then (Right-leaning) government. It may seem surprising that it was a Right- and not a Left-leaning government that came to the rescue, but both sides have an ideological view of, and a political place for, the arts. Increasingly, however, the Left find it hard to argue for art ahead of education or health, and seem trapped in the either/or paradigm that poses this dilemma. The Right see culture as a mix of luxury commodity and national character, the Left see it in an increasingly short-termist light of instrumentality, which is difficult to argue convincingly when times are hard. Both sides are clear about one thing: the need for a diversity of income streams and the medium-term dismantling of contemporary arts that rely solely upon tax money to exist.

Organisational change

While I was director of ACP my colleagues and I worked to diversify the income streams, moving from the standard model of roughly 90% public subsidy to a situation where 60% of our income was derived from the provision of user-pay education and less than 40% from a mix of State (New South Wales Government) and Commonwealth (national) funding via the Australia Council. While we also attracted some commercial sponsorship, this remained a minor source of income, as did private philanthropy. Ideally we should have been more effective in bringing those additional streams into play.

During my time at ACP gross annual income tripled to over $2 million and enrolments in our classes rose from around 350 in a year to over 2,350; exhibition attendances increased from 13,500pa to 46,000pa. We also developed exhibition touring to a level that established ACP as the largest single provider of touring photo shows in the country. Meanwhile, the centre’s international profile developed to a level where up to 50% of our program was from overseas and in a given year some 100,000 visitors attended our exhibitions presented overseas.

Right Here Right Now, the second social inclusion project run by ACP

However, the greatest sense of personal achievement came when we were able to use our educational expertise and equipment, and our fundraising and income earning capacity to establish a pilot scheme to provide free training to young homeless adults in our area. The aim here was not to train them as photographers but, more fundamentally, to use the ‘sexiness’ of the medium to help each individual take hold of a chaotic lifestyle, focus on goal setting and project completion, build self-confidence and a sense of self-worth and offer a platform on which to open a dialogue with the community in which they maintained a wraithlike existence.

Now and When, the first social inclusion project by ACP

For me art is an experience not a commodity, and the best art is transformative. These pilot projects transformed the lives of more than half of the participants in a sustained and positive way. While some may relegate such activity to the realm of “community arts” I think this is a mistake. We should understand the arts in a holistic way. The value of each aspect is diminished if it is segregated from the whole – no more so than the so-called ‘fine arts’ which, if excised from the living whole, are rapidly reduced to intellectual novelties and luxury commodities.

4.     Is the term ‘resilience’ a common term in Australia?

Buzz words are handles for meaning. While the buzz word ‘resilience’ is not yet widely used in Australia, I think there is a growing awareness of the need to address its meaning.

As I understand it, ‘resilience’ was coined by the UK MMM (Mission, Models, Money) group as part of its agenda for creating economically sustainable arts infrastructure. It is the next stage after ‘sustainability’ (which is a buzz word in Australia). Whereas sustainability is about the individual (person or group) within the cultural ecology – a mix of environmental and individual strengths in synchrony – ‘resilience’ puts the onus on the individual or group. Resilience is a mix of fortitude and adaptability. It is a Darwinian idea. In terms of the cultural sector the fortitude comes from a strong support group and mixed economic basis; the adaptability is the ability to revise the vision and redirect the objectives to remain useful in the environment as it is and is becoming. Individuals or groups whose power base built on a small coterie or who rely on the support of a single funder, donor or market and who cling to their original mission come what may, will find it increasingly hard to sustain themselves. In the winds of change the rigid oak, however august, may tumble, while the flexible willow bends to the forces around it. I see this adaptation as appropriate when it is about remaining useful in the world and relevant in the community.

Putting both sides in their best light, it is the tension between staying true to one’s beliefs and remaining useful to the community (the cultural ecology) that is evolving around you. It may be morally most appropriate to remain true, but only if one also accepts that nothing is forever. In this case initiatives find their time and cease when that time passes. Any artist or organisation should not expect to continue to flourish simply because they have in the past. Equally, an organization that merely takes the easiest route without any clear vision or ethical framework will not hold together coherently.  (The latter is true also of political parties more attentive to the latest opinion polls than to envisioning and enacting a coherent set of policies for the people who elected them – and those who did not – as we see today.)

Resilience comes from a balance between inner fortitude (a clear philosophical driver with a flexible modality) and continuing usefulness within the society it serves.

 5.     What good examples of mixed economy practice in arts organisations have you encountered recently?

I think ACP is a good example of an organisation that is heading that way. It was the only Australian contemporary art space to earn more than 50% of its income from non-government sources. It is the only visual art organisation in the country to own its building, and that generates a degree of empowerment and flexibility.

6.     You were the founding (and as it turned out only) director of Fotofeis, the international biennial of photo-based art, which stage three events across Scotland in the 1990s. With the benefit of hindsight, what measures could have been taken to ensure the Fotofeis continued?

Any arts organisation (indeed any organisation) needs a leader fighting its corner the whole time. I had said from the beginning that I had a plan for three festivals and then wanted to move on, and I gave 12 months’ notice so that a new director could be identified and hired. When I left Fotofeis it was, I understood from SAC, the only contemporary arts organisation with the guarantee of triennial funding in place – something that is essential for a biennial festival. It takes a good three years to negotiate and fund a festival on that scale.

I have never understood why the Board did not hire a new director. Certainly adverts were placed and applications received, but months after I left Fotofeis, the position remained unfilled. In such a situation any organisation is vulnerable. There is never enough money to go around and if a company seems rudderless then it became ripe for de-funding. I don’t know the circumstances of the closure, but Fotofeis was wound up some time after I immigrated to Australia.

I don’t know how that was received in Scotland, but certainly the British Council in Sydney were very disappointed as it was one of the few British contemporary arts events anyone knew about here in Australia.

So my advice is:

  • Make sure you have a leader and that that leader is actively fighting for the organisation at all times
  • Understand the value of what you do from outside the paradigm of your own experience
  • Ensure the Board actively champions what you do and undertake their responsibilities in a timely and effective manner

7.     Tell us about the type of work you undertake for arts organizations with Cultural Development Consulting? Is this largely the not-for-profit sector, or does it overlap with the private sector?

One of the public floor talks and media interviews carried out for Ouroboros show at PIP12 (the work on the wall is by Dulce Pinzón)

Cultural Development Consulting is something of a speculative undertaking. I am attempting to map out and work across three distinct areas: academic research; strategic planning; and content production and dissemination. I am interested in how ‘cultural communities’ develop and ‘cultural conversations’ are sustained. This is particularly important in a region such as the Asia Pacific which spans much greater cultural differences than the Atlantic. As the shift of power moves to the Pacific, we will increasingly need those cultural conversations to develop empathy between people; enough empathy to engender the will to find mutual understanding in what will surely remain significant diversity. If the 20th Century was an American Century that saw a shift towards globalised monoculture, I think the 21st will be a Pacific Century marked by respectful but sustained pluralism.

For me a cultural community is more than a community of cultural practitioners. It is the whole community engaged as active participants in a network process of creation. That is not to say all people are equally creative. What I am saying is that no-one is without creativity, unless their education has been so ‘successful’ that it has been drained from them. Here, I align with Ken Robinson’s view that the Anglophone educational system is founded on principles that specifically alienate the individual from their creative talents; undermining their confidence in themselves as creative beings and shaping them to be passive consumers and workers. That clearly makes no sense in a world of rapid change where creativity is supposedly prized.

I work with both public and private interests (not-for-profit and commercial). The aim is to be effective, and to do that one needs to understand and engage with all sectors of the cultural ecology. My principle aim is in redefining the basis for public funding for the arts to encourage cultural communities at home and inter-cultural conversations locally and globally.

You can see more about what I do here: http://culturaldevelopmentconsulting.com

8.     You are also the ambassador for a consortium of photography festivals in the Asia-Pacific Region – what does this involve?

The Asia-Pacific PhotoForum (APP) is an international consortium of festivals from the Asia-Pacific region that works collaboratively to promote photographic art as a means both of artistic expression and the dissemination of ideas in a globalising world.

Here, the Asia-Pacific (within the definition employed by this group) covers Asia, Oceania and the Pacific rim, from the Middle East to the western seaboard of the Americas, from Mongolia to New Zealand.

“Ouroboros: a Mexican cycle”: here Alasdair presented work by three Mexican photo-artists (in China) as part of his ongoing strategy of helping to build links between countries in the Asia-Pacific that have little history of cultural exchange. [L-R] Fernando Montiel Klint, Alasdair Foster, Pablo López Luz in exhibition space

I was recently elected as an ambassador for the group, with a remit to help build alliances between photographic festivals from across the Asia-Pacific region. I want to use my wide network and extensive history in the field of photo festivals to help expand and facilitate the group. My role, as with much of my international work, is about developing and sustaining intercultural ‘conversations’. As such it is essentially catalytic. I aim to help the development of strategic and empowering relationships.

While APP is the most extensive photographic network in the region, with member festivals spanning Angkor in the west to Auckland in the east, and Pingyao in the north to Ballarat in the south, there is considerable scope for the network to expand. There is strength in being part of a broad alliance of diverse festivals. There are economies of scale in terms of programming; there is the increased power for lobbying and the sharing of experiences to the benefit of all the members.

Alasdair prepares to chair a discussion panel at the Kaunas Photo Festival

9.     You’ve obviously been to many photography festivals and portfolio review events. What do you think of the Kaunas Photo-Festival? 

Alasdair in a lunch time briefing session, with Photo Festival Director Mindaugas Kavaliauskas.

The advantage of Kaunas is that it is small and friendly. While the mythos of the ‘meeting place’ model is that one will find instant fame, the reality of building a career as an artist (or as a curator) lies in establishing networks. The smaller festivals tend to be less formal, friendlier and, most importantly, freer in their thinking. I am a firm believer that it is in the margins of today that the history of tomorrow is written. Metropolitan centres and the corporate machinery of larger festivals tend to inhibit the ability to be flexible or open to new ways of thinking and doing.

10.  What other festivals would you recommend to a Scottish based practitioner?

I would recommend getting to as many of the smaller festivals in Europe as you can afford; certainly the UK ones at least. Format in Derby, for example, has a very high reputation. In Europe there are many. Krzysztof Candrowicz, who runs Fotofestiwal Lodz in Poland, is a very dynamic figure and the event reflects this energy and network connections. Krzysztof established the Union of European Festivals of Photography (www.festivalunion.com) which gives a portal to many of the smaller European events not included in the larger and more international Festival of Light (www.festivaloflight.net). The best bet is to check out the festival timings and, where they have one, their thematic focus. Then pick an itinerary that suits your schedule, wallet and photographic style.

Alasdair Foster (on the right) with Pablo López Luz who won the international award at PIP12

Alasdair Foster is the Founder and Principal of Cultural Development Consulting (CDC) which provides a range of future-focused professional services that promote greater cultural dialogue through the visual arts. With a firm belief that art is the territory of the many and not the province of the few, CDC works to extend visual ‘conversations’ locally, nationally and internationally.

Alasdair Foster has 20 years’ experience heading national arts institutions in Europe and Australia and over 35 years of working in the public cultural sector. He was the founding director of Fotofeis, the award-winning international biennale of photo-based art in Scotland (1991–1997) and, more recently, director of the Australian Centre for Photography (1998–2011). He began his career in the documentary film industry before establishing a successful photographic business (1980-1990). He has worked as an artist, curator, writer, editor, researcher, policy advisor and commercial photographer.

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