The Dilemma

Since becoming involved with the Greater Blue Mountains Creative Arts Network (GBMCAN), and becoming its president in 2022, I have become increasingly distressed by the way in which the arts and culture sector is not integrated into the idea of community development. Instead the Arts has become captured by the ideology of neoliberalism—the glorification of market forces, individualism and prestige maximisation via wealth and/or fame, at the expense of our shared sense of community.

Australian Values

Simon Kuestenmacher suggests “values obviously vary from one person to the next and our collective values transform somewhat as a new generation comes of age but there is a set of values that are deeply embedded in the collective Australian psyche. As a migration nation, we must constantly retell our national myths to ensure folks fresh off the jumbo jet understand how Australia works.” 

What are the values that marks us as Australian? We’ve never been cursed by the mantle of being a major power, like the US, nor an Empire like the UK or France. Our non-Indigenous origins are humble – convicts and rejects of England and Ireland, and then those escaping the horrors of European wars and their devastation, and then those of SE Asia, the Middle East and Africa. As we face the colonial reckoning with our past injustices to our First Nations people, the following are the values that we seek to bind us together.  We must protect them at all costs. They are under sustained threat by the dark forces let loose by neoliberalism and social media algorithms.

  • Mateship— helping one another and resisting pretensions at identity ‘snobbishness’, whether that is based on wealth, job title, education, family lineage, religion or ethnicity
  • Fairness—when things don’t pass the ‘pub test’, and we call for a ‘fair go’, and this has to include gender and ethnic equality and respect
  • Authenticity—a well tuned bullshit detector that saves us from gross political or religious grandstanding and gaslighting
  • Resilience—’she’ll be right mate’ – pulling together in times of collective troubles.

I have previously (The Regenesis Journey) suggested that we need one other core value to add to this list as we look into the future:

  • Caring for Country—a deep sense of spiritual responsibility for the more-than-human world, as encoded in First Nations knowledge systems and a sense of family kinship with Country in its multiple levels of meaning, set against the demands of mining, urban settlement, agribusiness and tourism.

Historically, these shared values have been strongly contested by racism, especially towards First Nations peoples (to justify the land grab) and xenophobic nationalism, but Australia continues to seek to redress these through embracing a distinctly multicultural identity and various attempts to acknowledge that the bedrock of our cultural identity lies with the 65,000+ continuous living culture of First Nations peoples. This marks us out from the cultural wars gripping the US and Europe.

As we face such challenges as climate change and rising need for community resilience; widespread anxiety and depression and domestic violence; homelessness and intergenerational wealth inequality, we see how they are tearing at the social fabric of our society. We must reclaim an emphasis on community development—enveloping frontline services and the arts if we are to sustain our social cohesion in these times.

George Monbiot – Neoliberalism as Meta Deception

Why, when there are so many real conspiracies to worry about, do people feel the need to invent and believe fake ones? These questions become especially pressing in our age of extreme political dysfunction. This dysfunction results, I believe, in large part from a kind of meta-deception, called neoliberalism. The spread and development of this ideology was quietly funded by some of the richest people on Earth. Their campaign of persuasion was so successful that this ideology now dominates political life. It has delivered the privatisation of public services; the degradation of public health and education; rising inequality; rampant child poverty; offshoring and the erosion of the tax base; the 2008 financial crash; the rise of modern-day demagogues; our ecological and environmental emergencies.

Joined-Up Policy and Action

I am not an artist, but as a sociologist and self published writer-thinker, I have had a long professional career in various aspects of public and social policy, including working as a social planner in urban development, acting as Director of NCOSS (NSW Council of Social Services), being on the Board of the then NSW Housing Commission, and subsequently working in the university and government sectors on the social impact of technological innovation and change,

As we grapple with intransigent global social media companies, and the looming crisis of managing the impacts of AI, the need for joined-up policy thinking becomes ever more apparent. It is time we recovered the transformative power of arts and culture in community development, echoing its long traditional role in keeping First Nations culture alive across millennia, including in the face of colonial conquest and its devastation by the people of my cultural background, in the the name of ‘civilisation’.

Current efforts by BMCC through their placemaking projects and activation of the Hub through the Festival of New Works, goes some of this way, but because it does not seem to be done in partnership with community organisations and the local business sector, it can fail to strengthen ongoing capacity at the community level.

The Whitlam Legacy and the Keynesian Consensus

Initially built on the assumptions of Keynesian economics, whereby the State played a significant role in the provision of services (housing, health care, transport, utilities, employment protection legislation and welfare safety nets), Keynesianism shaped the great flowering of human-rights informed arts and cultural policy, along with legislative reform that was delivered by the Whitlam Government (1972-1975).

The arts and cultural legacy of these years was based on four policy principles:

  • to promote a standard of excellence in the arts
  • to widen access to, and the understanding and application of, the arts in the community generally
  • to help establish and express an Australian identity through the arts, and
  • to promote an awareness of Australian culture abroad.

In just a few years, Australian society was fundamentally transformed from a cultural outpost of the British Empire under Robert Menzies, to an assertive Australian society with its own identity. The assumptions of the ‘White Australian Policy’ gave way to the proclamation of a Multicultural Australia, with the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) making it unlawful to unfairly discriminate against someone on the basis of their ethnicity or national origin or to incite others to do so. With ‘white’ society challenged by university student ‘Freedom Rides’ (led by Charles Perkins), finally in 1967 Australia’s First Nations people were finally recognised as ‘people’; as citizens to be counted in the national census, which eventually led in 1992 (Mabo v Qld) to the legal dismantling of ‘terra nullius’, the fiction by which the British claimed all of Australia as a land with no people, and therefore no legal impediment to the British Crown’s claim to all land and sea rights. This colonial attitude of seeing First Nations peoples as sub-human has left a lasting legacy of racism that continues to this day.

The legacy of this racist dispossession of land, language and culture has been intergenerational trauma, youth crime and suicide (rage and despair at social exclusion), and structural poverty. This is now being countered by a post-colonial reckoning that is challenging current and past practices. The arts has played major role in this post colonial reckoning, advancing First Nations voices and perspectives—witness Archie Moore’s acclaim for ‘Kith and Kin’ at the Venice Biennale.

Alongside the funding for the arts, was a change in the funding of community services to address issues of social disadvantage and urban services. Traditionally the preserve of church-based institutions and governed according to their different religious codes, the Whitlam government introduced direct funding to secular community-bases services, incorporated as NFPs, cooperatives or associations, which saw the flowering of extensive community activism in the delivery of a new range of services through neighbourhood centres, childcare services and women’s services.  This also included funding for community arts projects, with their emphasis on harnessing the power of the creative arts for community development, wellbeing and social cohesion in a rapidly changing world.

This emphasis on community benefit has been progressively whittled away by the growing influence of neo-liberal economic orthodoxy, with its emphasis on the marketisation of society and the related emphasis on individualism. Through this the Whitlam era link between community development and arts and culture has been lost through policies of contracting out specified services to providers, and an increasing emphasis on narrow regimes of accounting for outcomes.

The Neo-Liberal Consensus

Following the stagflation crisis and oil shock of the 1970s, which triggered the collapse of the Whitlam Government, the economic consensus shifted to the ideology of a greater reliance on the so-called free market as more efficient and innovative, than government in delivering essential services and infrastructure.

Known as neo-liberalism and associated with Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s US, this new economic orthodoxy saw the selling off of public assets to the private sector, increasing de-regulation of labour laws, and the shifting of public investment in education and health to subsidies for private providers in those sectors and reduced income, company and asset taxation, in favour of tax subsidies to the private sector. This accompanied the globalisation of economic activity, an emphasis on free international trade, and the increasing financialisation of the economy.

The result has been the transformation of housing from shelter to a financial asset with the innovative financial products that triggered the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. Although private sector businesses, the banks that were too big to fail without crashing the entire economy were bailed out by government (public money), the banks were then free to continue their financialisation of the economy. This has led to  the rise and rise of the renter class, those whose incomes are derived from asset management on the stock market, rather than direct employment or investment into productive activities in the manufacturing and services sectors.

Accompanying this has been the ‘great wealth transfer’ that has witnessed the exponential increase in intergenerational wealth inequality, which is saddling young people with educational debt, locking them out of the housing market unless they have access to the ‘bank of mum and dad’, and eating away at the social fabric of our society. When economic commentators talk in averages, it hides the extent of this problem and provokes political rage in those with lived experience of this rise in wealth inequality, which is more significant than income inequality per se.  But of course, higher income accumulatively allows a rise in asset wealth.

The social wage compact of the Hawke-Keating government, which saw neo-liberal de-regulation matched by compensatory funding of social services, medicare, education and childcare, has been whittled away through further privatisation, and the failure to index welfare support to keep pace with the consumer price index to ensure recipients lived above the poverty line.

Once an informal support for struggling insecure artists, the ‘dole’ (unemployment benefits) no longer performs this function. Now policed by heavy regulation and punitive measures, along with the Youth Allowance, the ‘dole’ currently provides an income far below the poverty line, plunging its recipients into homelessness, despair and an epidemic of mental illness. So much so that Parliament’s Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee, with advocates like the influential Independent, David Pockock, is recommending that such welfare payments be raised to 90% of the aged pension (- $72 per day).

Arts and the Neoliberal Consensus

Under the neo-liberal consensus and the intensification of the ideology of economism, whereby the concept of ‘society’ gave way to that of the ‘economy’ as the measure of life, arts and culture was re-branded as the ‘creative industries’. The worth of arts and culture was now measured by its economic impact, as it sought to find its place in this new cultural framework of economism.

Culture is now saturated with a market‐oriented mentality that closes out alternative ways of thinking and imagining.  Jim McGuigan, ‘Neo‐Liberalism, Culture and Policy’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, Vol. 11, 2005, Issue 3

Thus the philanthropic organisations who have formed ‘The New Approach’ to improve the public perception of Australian culture, claim that “Culture in Australia employs around 400,000 workers and represents A$112 billion of economic activity. But it has negligible political clout compared to industries like agriculture, mining or gambling.” Continuing this location of arts and culture within the ideology of economism.

Under the neo-liberal consensus of marketisation, the Arts is split between the ‘top tier’ of marketable ‘products’ in the visual arts, music, theatre and film sectors and a struggling sector of casualised, insecure, self-employed creatives. As art historian, critic and writer, Tai Mitsuiji notes:  

As an art critic and art historian, I’ve spent the past decade swimming in these waters. . .  like a badly written joke: shaped by the 1%, populated by the shrinking middle classes, picketed by anarchists and run by unpaid interns.

The current Albanese Labor Government seeks to redress historic underfunding of the arts under successive Conservative governments, through its Revive policy program of restoring core arts funding; establishing Creative Australia, Music Australia, Writers Australia and a Creative Workplaces centre to support arts workers; establishing a First Nations-led body dedicated to First Nations work; sharing the National Gallery of Australia’s collection with regional and suburban galleries; and improving incomes for authors.

However many of its policies are still shaped by the reigning neo-liberal economic orthodoxy, and the emphasis on consumer-driven growth, and goals such as making Australia a ‘renewable energy super power’ to sustain such growth.

Absent from this vision is the role of the arts in community development through cross-sector integration with non-arts policy areas such as health, housing, education and community justice where they have a demonstrated ability to contribute. The policy to keep unemployment benefits and youth allowances well below the poverty line continues. Instead, we see the continued promotion of a greater professionalisation of the arts sector by acknowledging arts workers as legitimate workers, addressing issues around professional payments and conditions for arts workers.

Along with creeping credentialism in the arts and culture sector that followed the university takeover of arts practice, which has in turn been impacted by the progressive corporatisation of the university sector as bastions of neo-liberalism, the arts and culture sector has been de-coupled from any capacity to act in partnership with community development as a strategy for addressing issues of community wellbeing and social cohesion in a society of increasing wealth inequality and the linked issues of rising mental illness.

Reclaiming Arts & Culture in Community Development

Key take-outs from the the US in ‘Transforming Community Development through Arts and Culture’, a special edition of Community Development Innovation Review, Vol 14, Issue 2, 2019, are set out below


Culture = the values, beliefs and traditions that inform a society’s way of being. Arts and community development that infuses arts and cultural strategies helps residents reclaim community identity, strengthen cultural resilience, and build power—all key components of achieving equitable community development outcomes. This approach also explores changes and practices to the field of creative placemaking and provides new deep dives, perspectives, and analysis on the implications of this work for broad equitable development goals. 

Investments have yielded valuable insights and lessons for a wide range of fields of practice:

  • from affordable housing development to parks stewardship,
  • from the social practice of art to youth development,
  • from community organising to public health.

With new tools and ways of thinking, imagining, and acting, they have helped residents own and express the identity of their communities, build cultural resilience, and change the ways in which neighborhood planning is carried out.

At ArtPlace America (ArtPlace), we believe the arts and culture sector has the necessary tools, knowledge, and skills to deploy in partnership with the community planning and development sectors to improve the place-based outcomes that will lead to equitable, healthy, and sustainable communities.

We refer to this intersection as creative placemaking, and we see this practice not only continuing, but also being an important and critical driver of how the field of community development is evolving into the future. For us, creative placemaking is the intentional inte­gration of arts, culture, and community-engaged design strategies into the process of equi­table community planning and development. It’s about artists, culture-bearers, and designers acting as allies to creatively address challenges and opportunities. It’s about these artists and all of the allies together contributing to community-defined social, physical, and economic outcomes and honoring a sense of place.

This new and expanded value of the arts to community development has not been limited to the production of diverse and creative cultural materials such as sculpture, printmaking, photography, music, theater, experimental film, storytelling, quilting, beading, interior design, or many other disciplines and crafts. Artists of various kinds have also honed their capacities as facilitators, guides, motivators, and strategic planners, and they have significantly helped many of the country’s leading community development organiza­tions to advance their missions. This growth in smart “civic practice” by artists augurs well for the future of this kind of collaboration.

This linkage of arts with community development has brought about unprecedented cultural exchanges among ethnic groups that had not known much about each other, It has generated new ways by which artists can help to pass down ancient traditions from one generation to the next. It has removed barriers to community ownership of key cultural assets and brought new processes for strengthening the social fabric and identity of places. The intentional strengthening of relationships between the community development and arts and culture sectors have brought about positive outcomes in housing, health, and other dimensions of community development.

Changes in the overall culture, leadership, and future direction of the organization came about as a result of the arts and cultural strategies. These included  

  • Building greater capacity and more openness to risk and experimentation
  • Finding new ways to express an organization’s core values and tell its own story
  • Specifying different definitions and measurements of success based on those values
  • Crafting more effective interactions with community members, partners, and stake­holders.

Trusting the Creative ProcessAshley Hanson,, ‘Integrating Arts & Culture into an Organisation – the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership (SWMHP)

Similar creative practice to that which I employ when working with communities on theater productions: begin by listening, move on to creating together, and end with a performance/celebration. I was selected for the position and began by hosting a series of story circles, in which I invited the staff to share stories about what was working well and what was challenging about the organization—ranging from communication between departments, technology, staff capacity, file management, marketing, and more. It was here that I recognized the second gold nugget: a willingness to take risks. I witnessed the staff becoming more comfortable sharing their ideas as they began to trust me, the creative process, and each other.

Each group was paired with an “artist consultant,” whose role was to help the group artic­ulate its ideas and to support any technical needs. After three months of working together, we organized a staff retreat where each group shared its SLPs through creative presentations, including videos, interactive surveys, toilet-paper mantras, and a drum circle. Each project employed a creative process—with staff working together across departments—to address chal­lenges that the organization had been facing for many years.

Building CapacityPaul Singh, NeighborWorks America

Creative community development occurs when residents, community development organizations, artists, culture bearers, and other partners harness the power of culture, art, and creativity to collectively catalyze social, physical, and economic transformation in their neighborhoods, towns, tribal lands, cities, or regions.

The issue of insufficient understanding merits added focus from a capacity-building perspective. Many network organizations that we spoke to shared that their early efforts were limited by preconceived notions of what constitutes “art” or “creative placemaking.” They initially tended to prioritize artistic prod­ucts (e.g., the archetypal mural project) over partnerships with artists that could yield creative ways of addressing a range of problems.

NeighborWorks has identified the following priorities to guide future capacity building activities:

  • Build network organisations’ capacity to implement creative community development with a focus on advancing more equitable outcomes
  • Raise visibility of arts and culture-based strategies and cfreative expfression to increase understand of their value
  • Provide the network and broader field with tools for, and training in, creative community development and outcome measurement
  • Embed creative practices and collaboration within capacity building efforts

Lessons on Collaborative Practice—Alexis Stephens

The artists took on a broad range of roles: not only bringing creative expressions of local history to new audiences, energizing and activating public spaces, and organizing innovative perfor­mances and exhibits, but also facilitating internal strategic planning and ways of working.

Types of Artistic Practice:

  • Studio practice: artists create their own work and engage with residents as audience
  • Social practice: artists work with neighbors/residents on an artist-led vision that involves some level for community participation and intention of social impact outside traditional audience experience
  • Civic practice: artists co-design a project with residents; the spoken intention is to serve a community’s/public partner’s self-defined needs.

 Cultural Asset Mapping and Callouts

Cultural asset mapping is an exploratory process of identifying the cultural and artistic skills, talents, networks, and histories of an area—including people, spaces, and businesses—to acknowledge and integrate them into planning and development efforts.

While individual artists and arts groups were being identified as potential collaborators via cultural asset mapping, calls for artists, or through direct contact by interested artists, the organizations also created new structures for communicating with them, sharing opportunities, and consulting with them as a group. Establishing artist rosters, artist directories, and arts advisory committee all became ways that the organizations moved from engaging with artists on a project basis to building long-term relationships that covered multiple opportunities. What matters is the depth of the relationships that are formed and the utility of the guidance provided.

To collaborate successfully, the organizations had to demonstrate their respect for the artists’ and arts groups’ skills and expertise, educate themselves about integrating these struc­tures into their programming, institute fair-wage pay scales, and assign—and more critically, have a dialogue with artists about—shared language and expectations. Above all, they had to lead with their values, vision for the work, and open minds.

Sustaining arts and culture work over the long term is a different challenge from embarking upon it, but the learned ability through experimentation to translate the outcomes of their work and maintain a wide net of partners has helped.

The Connection between Public Space and Cultural ResourcesMartha O’Connell, Keir Johnston, Ernel Martinez, and Linda Fernandez Amber Art & Design

Single arts-based projects do little to transform relationships between community organizations and residents and rarely impact community development efforts over the long term. Experience showed the need for a focus on an arts and culture-based process rather than working toward a predetermined goal of art production, to unearth neighbors’ personal histories, expertise and interests.

Defining ourselves as facilitators, translators, and bridge-builders, rather than as public artists, revealed that such an approach can:

  • Expand the capacity and reach of external community development organizations to engage neighborhood members in new relationships and services;
  • Strengthen the capacity of neighborhood-based community development organiza­tions to build on existing relationships with residents by engaging in ongoing follow-up;
  • Create a process of discovery and self-determination alongside neighbors;
  • Place neighborhood-based artists, who may otherwise have been unknown by the outside community development partner, at the forefront of community cultural celebration.

Culture and creativity are powerful tools for communities to create a positive narrative about who they are and what they want their futures to look like. By telling their own stories, communities gain the power to define their current reality and build agency, as opposed to carrying forward lingering narratives from others in the past. Collaboration that honors cultural identity and creative expression is a particularly effective strategy to build bonds and bridges between people and groups, which are key elements of social that have been shown to impact survival.

The Role of Organizing and EngagementJeremy Liu and Lorrie Chang

 Artists and arts collaborations created more meaningful forms of community engagement that influenced the trajectory of these organizations and their projects and disrupted unequal power dynamics in significant ways. The CDI organizations, like all community development organizations, constantly have to adapt to changing demographics, market forces, and other factors in order to remain relevant and responsible; indeed, an increased adaptivity of the organizations and their partners to evolving roles in the community development ecosystem is one of the most tangible outcomes of these six cases.

The creative process of arts and culture has served as a road map for using engagement activities to build community agency and strengthen the social fabric while advancing transactional housing, real estate, project development, and property management goals—otherwise known as “output.” In essence, arts and cultural strategies created a human-development through line from activity to output to community develop­ment outcomes of these organizations that merge people- and place-based goals.

Transformative Outcomes

Creative placemaking works best when embedded in a broader program of community development that addresses affordable housing, education, health, and safety. Accordingly, creative placemaking is a key pillar of our new economic develop­ment approach, which is called Catalyzing Opportunity.

We often think of arts outcomes in creative placemaking: a beautiful mural depicting historic events, a piece of public art on a transit corridor, or a branding project in a commer­cial center. But we have found that the process of creative placemaking, and the level of inquiry artists bring to the work, also uncovers hidden opportunities.

Creative placemaking centered in a civic-practice approach values discovery. It values co-design, and it demonstrates that the achieved outcomes and outputs would not have occurred if this group had not built a partnership and worked together.

We’ve seen print-makers build collaborative tools that residents use to imagine a vision for growth in their community; we’ve seen theatre directors aim their skills toward the facili­tation of conversation between residents with different beliefs and opinions about public good; we’ve seen musicians deploy practices of ensemble in spaces where dialogue was tense and difficult; we’ve seen heritage holders use story to bring community together for problem-solving a local challenge; and we’ve seen writers collaborating with designers help local leaders make complex issues legible to local stakeholders.


Wellbeing is not just an aggregation of individual benefits. Rather, it relates to a much broader notion of who or what prospers in society in relation to each other and the long-term health of society as a set of interconnected systems.

We know that artists are changing lives and transforming communities across this country, but their work as investors in their communities—as people who are committing time, money, and other forms of capital to realize their community’s development—remains marginalized and underfunded.

Advancing a Clear Vision Forward

So, no, you do not need special glasses, but you do need to expand your vision to be able to see the power of the arts as a means of celebrating a community’s history and culture—and a critical part of community development. The steps are easy:

  • Recognize that arts and culture have often been left out of the conversation.
  • Reimagine your own understanding of the roles that arts and culture can play in community development.
  • Request that your partners consider the role of arts and culture in the course of their project development.
  • Reinvest your funds through community-serving institutions with the flexibility they need to be creative in supporting arts and cultural investments.
  • Help community organizations to realign their practices where arts and culture can help achieve their missions.
  • Work with housing developers to fill capital gaps that help them to remix their core ingredients toward greater success.
  • Spend the time to reframe the work in a way that centralizes the desired community outcomes over the arts-based activities so that CRA examiners can fit it into their filters.

A little creativity on the part of lenders can go a long way toward achieving a better vision of what community development can do.