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Debbie Darnell is the senior policy and programs officer of Participation for Equity and Health section of VicHealth (Victorian Health Promotion Foundation). She works in the race-based discrimination area, specifically with the Arts About Us program and the Building Bridges program. Debbie spoke to arts interview about the Arts About Us program and how art supports VicHealth in promoting diversity.

Interview by Iris Siyi Shen

What is your role in Vic Health?

My role is to work with artists and arts organisations funded by VicHealth to develop projects that start conversations around the harmful effects of race-based discrimination and the benefit of cultural diversity.

VicHealth is keen to support this work because we know that exposure to ethnic and race-based discrimination is linked to anxiety and depression. There is emerging evidence of a link between discrimination and poor physical health such as diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. Race-based discrimination can also lead to poor self-esteem and stress, which in turn affects physical and mental health.

Discrimination can prevent access to education, employment, social support, and participation in sports, cultural and civic activities – all of the things we need for good health.

We believe health is a fundamental human right and that is why we form partnerships to tackle race-based discrimination. Our activity is geared towards promoting good health and safety, and preventing ill health.

What is the Arts About Us program and how does it support VicHealth in promoting diversity and health strategies?

Arts About Us currently provides three-year funding to 17 community and arts organisations, which have partnered with VicHealth to deliver the pilot phase of the program. This program champions the many benefits of cultural diversity and highlights the harm race-based discrimination causes.

Each project creates and showcases art that strengthens cultural understanding, celebrates cultural diversity, and generates discussion about race-based discrimination. For many years VicHealth has developed strong partnerships with arts organisations to increase participation in arts activities, break down social isolation and build social connectedness. This has included supporting Indigenous, migrant, and refugee communities to strengthen and present their arts and culture. Arts About Us takes this approach a step further by using various artistic pursuits to communicate about cultural diversity, race-based discrimination, and intercultural relations to a wider audience.

Can you provide a successful example that VicHealth has funded, which demonstrates such advocacy in action?

Arts About Us organisations are as diverse as The Torch, the City of Greater Dandenong, A.R.A.B., La Mama and Museum Victoria. Now into their third year all organisations have developed strong programs showcasing outstanding work in their field.

A specific example is Regional Arts Victoria (RAV). Through the Arts About Us program, RAV commissioned works by two of Australia’s leading producers: The Merger, by Damian Callinan and The Caravan Burlesque, by legendary burlesque production house, Finucane & Smith. Both productions have been ‘built to tour’ and will visit regional and remote communities across Australia over the next two years. Each production explores themes of cultural diversity and discrimination, but approaches this task from extremely different perspectives: The Merger tells the story of the Bodgey Creek football club, a club that attempts to stave off a take-over bid by recruiting players from the Asylum Seekers Refuge Centre. Caravan Burlesque is a pop up Parisian salon that challenges cultural stereotyping and breaks down artificial barriers between people.

 In your opinion, what were the challenges in initiating and implementing the Arts About Us program and how does the arts help reach a more diverse group than a standard health strategy? 

While the arts provide a good setting in which to prevent discrimination, research suggests that there is some potential to ‘do harm’ in this area. It is important to identify and match the content of arts activities and communications carefully to increase the likelihood of messages being accepted, and to reduce the risk of reinforcing negative views and stereotypes.

Health promotion uses different communications strategies for different messages and audiences, and constantly refreshes itself. People are attracted to the arts because they are entertaining and can equally create opportunities for dialogue and ‘food-for-thought’. They connect with people on their terms, rather than imposing ideas and messages, and reach people who might otherwise have limited opportunities to connect with issues of diversity.

Producer Artistic Merit is also developing a road-show. This will allow us to reach a much wider audience across rural and regional Victoria. The art projects that will be part of the road-show are mobile touring to traditional and non-traditional venues (sports clubs, outdoor spaces etc.) providing a range of interests that will hopefully allow us to have ‘something for everyone’. The Arts About Us pilot is currently being evaluated and will continue into mid-2012. We will look at the evaluation to work out the direction of the program in the future. The inclusion of a road-show next year will provide greater opportunity for audiences in rural and regional Victoria to enjoy the creativity within the program.

Further reading on diversity and the arts:

The discussions of stress factors have emerged as a recurring theme throughout many of our interviews to date. It is a big issue that has the potential to spill over to affect our general wellbeing. So, for this week’s interview we decided to alter the format and simply ask a select, diverse group of arts professionals two questions about what they find stressful about working in the arts and what they do about it. We are immensely grateful for the shared insights and honesty. I have actually taken a few of these suggestions on board myself.

Interview by Eliza Muldoon 

Helen Garner

A writer of both fiction and non-fiction including: Monkey Grip, The Children’s Bach, The Last Days of Chez Nous and Joe Cinque’s Consolation.

What do you think are the most stressful aspects of working in the arts?

Just doing the work. The technical and moral battles of doing it. Fighting lethargy and postponement.

Tolerating the responses of other people to what I have done. Getting up every morning to start again. Necessity for enormous stretches of being alone.

What have you done to reduce the impact of such stress on your own life and work?

Physical exercise. Friendship. Routines. Self-discipline. Dancing. Playing the ukulele. Psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Divorce. Accepting and being grateful for solitude.

Louis Pratt

A sculptor, film-maker and painter. Louis is represented by Iain Dawson gallery Sydney.

What do you think are the most stressful aspects of working in the arts?

I normally think/feel everything that is needed to be done other than making art can be stressful, the art making is the UN-stressing aspect of the work. So when I am making work – it is great, but it is the distractions such as paying bills and doing admin among other things that can be stressful. Though, that is very general on the stressful side.

What have you done to reduce the impact of such stress on your own life and work?

My personal strategies would be to simplify life – not to engage in lots of things and keep social engagements low. I should say that I do mediate everyday but not for managing stress.

I heard on the radio just today that Mozart wrote this amazing work at the age of 33 or so, and it was a light fill work without stress. But it is known that the very next day after finishing it he wrote to a friend begging for money…

Amanda Robins

An artist, academic and author of Slow Art: meditative process in drawing and painting.

What do you think are the most stressful aspects of working in the arts?

I think the most stressful aspects of working in the arts are the lack of security in income and the competitiveness. I also find the necessity to constantly network stressful as well as the continual spectre of rejection – no matter how high up the food chain you are.

Of course, working in a responsible academic position in the visual arts also has its own stresses, perhaps not that different to those who are in similar positions outside the arts field.

What have you done to reduce the impact of such stress on your own life and work?

I do find that physical exercise works for me and I know others for whom it has been helpful. Getting away from the city now and then (somewhere without mobile phone coverage!) and having supportive friendships outside the arts can be helpful, as is a supportive relationship.

Angela D’Alton

A curator, stylist and director on projects including: Leeloo.com.au, {twin set}, the ship song project and peppermint magazine.

What do you think are the most stressful aspects of working in the arts?

In Australia, it is probably the availability of work, the regularity of work, the salary of the work available, and the general things that go with the risk of choosing a creative career when you also need things like a roof over your head and food on your table. The other stuff is handling criticism, the self-doubt, being scared of the “haters”, and pushing through the days when you are feeling super, super lazy and completely uninspired.

What have you done to reduce the impact of such stress on your own life and work?

Removing the things that do not ring true in my heart from my life. Having family and friends that love and support me no matter how crazy or ridiculous my ideas might be. Ensuring I have regular creativity just for creativity’s sake. I do pilates, ballet, go dancing, walk my dog. Moving a little away from the rush of the city has given me time to ponder and appreciate. I have got to know myself over the years through a lot of work, trying a lot of different things and not being put off by people who think I cannot “stick at something”, tried a lot of different creative based things which gives you an new perspective and insight into the different processes required, learnt from my mistakes and always found a way.

Caroline Brazier

An actor with film, television and theatre credits including: Rake, Packed to the Rafters and the Bell Shakespeare Company.

What do you think are the most stressful aspects of working in the arts?

Both the rejection and the financial uncertainty are stressful, not being able to make plans, having your earning potential so intrinsically linked to your appearance and the scarcity of work.

What have you done to reduce the impact of such stress on your own life and work?

Learning gratitude for the opportunities that I do have, and have had.

Discipline; control where there is none!

Moderation in all things helps, as does daily exercise, talking and transcendental meditation (a recent addition – marvellous!) We have a place in the country, which makes much of the neuroses that comes with my profession feel a bit silly. Love, perspective and a well honed philosophical bent.

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