What makes a community arts space?

By Ikumi Cooray

Graphic: Renae Low

In 2015, at the 67th annual Emmy Awards, Viola Davis won the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series award. She was the first black woman ever to have won an Emmy in the category. In 2020, Zendaya became the second black woman, and youngest person ever, to take out the prestigious award for her performance in Euphoria. In 2021 white actors won all 12 lead and supporting acting categories. And yet despite this pattern, with 73 years of evidence to go off, people still congregate in the YouTube comments of Viola Davis’ acceptance speech convinced that this imbalance is simply because women of colour are not trying hard enough.

In Davis’ epic and gracious speech she lets the audience – Hollywood elites and home viewers alike – know that “the only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity.” And for me, opportunity is also what separates a community arts space from everywhere else in the arts world. 

People of colour working in the arts know from their daily lived experience that it can be a homogenous space dominated by the same kinds of people and institutions. If you need convincing that Australia’s creative industry is shockingly white, that more work is needed to ensure that everyone feels included in the arts or that Australia’s arts institutions don’t reflect our diversity – especially in leadership roles – you don’t need to look very far. People of colour don’t enter the arts scene on a level playing field, and oftentimes, while spectating this bizarre and intimidating world from outside its walls, they don’t enter at all.

People of colour don’t enter the arts scene on a level playing field, and oftentimes, while spectating this bizarre and intimidating world from outside its walls, they don’t enter at all.

Against this backdrop, non-profit community arts organisations like CAS are a beacon of hope, a warm and inviting refuge, a welcome sign of change and a trove of endless opportunity. Most importantly, opportunity is afforded to everyone – no matter your background, skills, experience, where you live, where you went to school, where you were born, your gender, your race or how ethnic your name is – all factors that might impede your chances of professional success elsewhere. Community arts organisations like CAS provide the opportunity for people who have always been on the outside or on the periphery of the arts world to come inside and have the same experiences, pathways and privileges as those that have always been inside it. 

It’s not at all surprising that an arts organisation built on prioritising artists of asylum seeker and migrant backgrounds is one that also prioritises having a place for everyone, and even further, finding and creating a place for someone if it doesn’t already exist. This doesn’t just apply in the context of giving artists a platform. The opportunity to be a part of a community, to learn and to grow is afforded to everyone who has a role to play in the enormous arts ecosystem – curators, workshop hosts, social media managers, accountants, writers, and even audiences.

If like a lot of people in the emerging or still ‘just dreaming’ stage of their careers, on the periphery or the outside of the place they want to be, you don’t yet see yourself as an artist, curator, workshop host, social media manager, accountant, writer or consumer of the arts – the community arts space has a place for you too. In the for-profit arts space you might have to mould yourself to become what an institution wants you to be, even if it doesn’t align with your identity or your values. In a community arts space, the community will find a place for you just as you are and nurture and support you in becoming the person you want to be. Your voice will always be heard and valued, your work will always be acknowledged and appreciated, your wins will be celebrated as a community and you’ll never mourn your losses alone. 

While the wider arts world is engaged in a superficial scramble to tack on diversity, equality and inclusion programs to its existing homogenous, unequal and exclusionary structure, the community arts space embodies and upholds these principles because they are built into its foundations. Amidst these complex conversations, opinion pieces, quotas, reports and statistics on diversity, its real meaning and granular benefits can be lost. 

While the wider arts world is engaged in a superficial scramble to tack on diversity, equality and inclusion programs to its existing homogenous, unequal and exclusionary structure, the community arts space embodies and upholds these principles because they are built into its foundations.

The real benefit of an organisation honouring diversity, equality and inclusion is that everyone who wants an opportunity is given one. For someone like the 2019 version of myself – with a firm belief that I wanted to work in the arts in some capacity but with little to no experience, knowledge, skills or most importantly any confidence to do so – CAS and its brilliant team of volunteers, artists and friends were exactly the starting point I needed.

The community arts space gave me the opportunity to take on new challenges, move outside my comfort zone and reach my potential, all while creating a safe space to make mistakes, take breaks and try again. There was a person that the 2019 version of myself wanted to be and because of CAS, the 2021 version of myself is that person. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes the warmth and generosity of a community arts space for an aspiring but typically marginalised creative to enter, feel comfortable and thrive in what seems on the outside like a dazzling but impenetrable world.

1 Comment

  1. Such beautiful and powerful writing, thank you! It’s so strange to realise that “being welcomed” is unfortunately not the norm in most art spaces. Really love CAS’ ethos and endless opportunities offered

    Liked by 1 person

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