The announcement last week of the news of Metro’s future felt monumental.  To me. To the Metro Board and staff. And I suspect to many who heard or have since read the news.  Change is challenging to say the least, but I know we can’t see what’s over the hill if we simply stand still.

So, we are on the move.

I was going to write about future ideas and potential visions for the future, but I know it takes time to digest the information and to heal first.  I’ve decided instead to share some of my process – how I arrived at the point where I am comfortable with selling our Old Broad. Late last year, for the Performance Space LiveWorks Conference in Sydney, I was asked to speak about something that was keeping me up at night and something I was passionate about.  This speech reflects the rawness I was feeling at that time, and the struggle to find a way through for all of us now and into the next 40 years.

In January this year when I launched the 2017 Metro Arts program I said the following:

“I’ve thought a lot about our 2017 program – the works we’re creating and presenting and the artists we’re collaborating with….  They are a reflection of the world we’re living in, of the changes and challenges we see all around us. Artists are here to witness, to testify but also to challenge, to question, to console, to empathize, to inspire…  to produce ideas that make new ways of seeing, thinking and feeling possible! This is the driving vision behind Metro Arts as a cultural organisation and I suggest behind the artists and art you see in the building. Nothing here is safe or gently snuggling up to the status quo – that’s not our job!  Our job is contemporary art, live and living art, challenging and experimental and diverse art and in a time where not much is making sense in the world I believe these artforms are the ones to articulate a new understanding, and a new way forward.

2017 is a very big year with a very big program offering more support than ever to independent artists and we have done this as a deliberate response to the funding cut-backs made specifically to the small-to-medium sector and to independents.  We are here at Metro Arts to support and collaborate, to witness and to testify – to make sure unique independent voices are not lost in our cultural landscape.”

Ten months later I’m looking backwards and reflecting on a really tough year.

I have long been an advocate for independent and experimental artists, the cultural value of their work, and the important role artists play in the sociological landscape as provocateurs, as feeders, experimenters, those who challenge and push…

But I’ve been thinking about inequity of access, lack of diversity in stories and on stages and walls, the plight of our First Nations peoples, the constant reduction of funding, the invisible arts and culture policy in Australia as a nation, the struggling artists and arts-workers who constantly prop up the industry, mental health and self-care concerns, homelessness, the effect of the NDIS on service organisations for differently abled artists and audiences…. these are all cultural issues for me and I suggest cultural failings.

Someone very dear to me recently suffered a severe psychosis.  During a moment of lucidity we talked about creative thinking and new ways of looking at the world and how to find a better way forward.  She talked about ‘the solution’. She talked about how she felt she had to solve everything, fix everything, be great at everything and the pressure that overwhelmed her.  She said she was listening to Beethoven before she ‘went crazy’ (her words)… Beethoven. An artist – one might even say an independent artist of his time. Someone who saw the world differently and offered a response.

Now, more than ever the world needs cultural solutions, connection to art, beauty, truth, authentic expression……My friend reminded me that I had always had an artistic mind, a way of working that sat outside the norm….

And so

…after all of these musings, all of these critical, crucial and large issues, I look closer to home, I look intimately at myself, as an artist, and a woman, a cultural ‘leader’ and a mind, body, heart and soul, as one who has given and tried to find cultural solutions and offer something.  But right here, right now, I feel defeated and burnt out and angry.

I do not feel I have been able to do enough for our artists, I do not see a shift in thinking or support or policy, I have not been able to solve some extreme problems for the nearly 40-year-old small arts organisation I love and have been associated with in one way or another since 1999.

I reflect…as an arts and culture leader when is it time to say enough?  We have tried and succeeded and tried and failed and tried again. Is it enough?  I don’t want to quit. I don’t want to be angry and defeatist but… Everything dies, from grandparents to goldfish.  Sometimes organisations, programs, companies also have to stop….

In order to truly shake the status quo, and hopefully to renew and start again.

And so, I will return to the art and artists…to look for hope and inspiration… I am proud of the work we are making and presenting in Queensland.  Highlights for me this year include Warraba Weatherall’s stunning inaugural solo exhibition exploring deaths in custody of our Indigenous people, 30 years after the Royal Commission and nothing has changed;

And finally, I offer you some words from a Canadian-Australian group, Too Close to the Sun, who presented their work, Bluebird Mechanicals, a few months ago at Metro Arts. This monologue spoke to me – it made me sit up and listen.  It was beautiful, poignant, poetic and urgent work by independent artists. Due to the difficulty of gaining sufficient ongoing support to create new work, over three years the artists sought assistance from each of the following:  The Australia Council for the Arts, The Banff Centre, Canada’s National Arts Centre English Theatre, Arts NSW, the Council of the Arts in Quebec, the Rex Cramphorn Studio’s Artists-in-Residence Program at the University of Sydney, HotHouse Theatre’s A Month in the Country, Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal and Metro Arts.

A thank you and acknowledgement to Talya Rubin (and her collaborator Nick James) for allowing me to use these words….

Everyone wants a drink, I know.  I know, I know you all want one.

You have escaped the humdrum, the ho-hum.  You have escaped your own mind, you’ve escaped your own head, your own soul, your own thoughts.  You’ve escaped. It’s OK now.

You don’t have to worry about pretence or pretentiousness or keeping up appearances cause we are all doing that together all the time, so drop the mask, and put on your face.  It’s OK now, we are no longer on solid ground. That means everything is shifting and whatever you’re thinking, feeling, experiencing is acceptable…. as long as you keep it to yourself and shut up.

God only knows what you people do.  You disgust me, each and every one of you with your fat smiles and your big red lips and your engorged mouths swallowing constantly – you can’t even see your flaws……

Well it’s been delightful speaking with you.  I will be back later on to announce the entertainment services and meal times and menus.

So stay tuned.

Jo Thomas
Metro Arts’ Creative Director & CEO
December 2018