Performing Arts uniquely positioned to advance Australia’s soft power

DFAT has launched the first Soft Power Review to consider ways to better leverage Australia's soft power assets and build effective partnerships to advance Australia's security and prosperity. AMPAG’s submission to the Review, summarised here, outlines the vital role that cultural diplomacy, including diplomacy through the performing arts, has in advancing Australia’s soft power.

Performing Arts uniquely positioned to advance Australia’s soft power


AMPAG’s key recommendations are:

  • Develop and resource a cultural diplomacy strategy within the soft power strategy, supported by an organisation structure that can attract and retain high-calibre personnel.
  • Increase investment in cultural diplomacy to support long-term complex engagement strategies beyond focus country initiatives.
  • Develop capacity for in principle or indicative financial support in the early planning to enable Australian representatives to enter discussions confidently, demonstrating capability.
  • Strengthen the diplomatic post’s capacity to generate greater synergies between corporate market positioning needs and the resourcing necessary to support successful deep cultural diplomacy.

Soft power is the ability to influence the behaviour or thinking of others through the power of ideas and attraction. By leveraging our soft power strengths, we can advance Australia’s global reputation and prosperity. Cultural diplomacy, which is founded on ‘the exchange of ideas, information, values, systems, traditions, beliefs and other aspects of culture, with the intention of fostering mutual understanding’, is an effective strategy to advance soft power.

The performing arts have a vital role to play in advancing Australia’s soft power by reflecting Australia’s values and identity as a stable, sophisticated and creative nation that is both culturally diverse and socially cohesive.

Kim Beazley summed it up at the opening night of STC’s Uncle Vanya at the Kennedy Center in Washington, when he said, ‘Sydney Theatre Company achieved more for Australian public diplomacy in three hours in the theatre tonight than I have in two years.’

Woodside has been a proud supporter of artistic and cultural activities and organisations, including West Australian Ballet (WAB), over an extended period. They report that:

 ‘…being associated with the positive Australian “brand” by our customers around the world provides us with a point of difference, which at times can be a key consideration for securing long-term and reliable supply of a strategic commodity, like energy. We have, therefore, seen value in partnering with high-quality Australian artistic and cultural activities in target markets that project a modern, positive and sophisticated image of Australian values and society. In recent years, we have supported events of this nature in several countries, including Japan, Korea and Singapore.’

When it comes to soft power, Australia has both assets and challenges. On the asset side, the MPAs are strong Australian ‘brands’ that have existed for many years. For example:

The Australian Ballet’s tour of China this month is their ninth since they became the first international ballet company to visit the country following the Cultural Revolution. As a result, the company has developed strong relationships with resident Chinese ballet companies.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra also has a deep multiyear, multilayered engagement strategy in China, which has supported other government, business and state events. This year, the SSO — who in 1974 were the first Australian orchestra to tour Europe — is embarking on a seven country, 12 concert tour of Europe, building on the legacy of long-term engagement.

As a touring orchestra, by 2017, the ACO had notched up 565 concerts in 271 cities across 45 countries on 58 international tours, and this year begins a three-year residency as International Associate Ensemble at Milton Court in partnership with the Barbican Centre.

Bangarra toured Europe in 2017 and will be travelling to Japan and India this October and November. In their fourth visit to Japan, Bangarra will present I.B.I.S and Spirit 2018, which will be the concluding highlight of the Australian government'sAustralia now program.

Sydney Dance Company returns to Taiwan in November to perform a dynamic double bill of Rafael Bonachela’s Lux Tenebris and Cheng Tsung-lung’s Full Moon. Cheng Tsung-lung is the Artistic Director of Taiwan’s phenomenal Cloud Gate 2.

Circus Oz returns to Tollwood Winterfestival in Munich over November and December for the German premiere ofModel Citizens. They will also perform the show in November at the Teatro Circo Price in Madrid.

Projecting a sophisticated firsthand view of Australia and its people can advance other priorities, such as trade and tourism. Sharing the diversity of our stories and revealing a sophisticated, creatively vibrant country through riveting, emotional performances can inspire people to invest and to visit Australia, to stay longer and spend more on cultural events.

This month, OA begins their inaugural multicity international tour of China with Madame Butterfly. The tour supports the development of the OA brand in one of the organisation’s largest inbound tourism markets, which has led to OA including Simplified Chinese surtitles for some Australian performances.

The major performing arts organisations (MPAs) are involved in a range of international cultural engagements with appreciated but variable levels of DFAT cooperation. The impact of cultural diplomacy could be improved by increasing a diplomatic post’s capacity to develop long-term country-specific joint exchange; for example, the MOU between the Australian and Singapore governments, which recently led to a partnership between Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Singapore Symphony Group.

There are also opportunities to build impact by investigating new applications for the MPAs’ arts education and artist development programs.

For example: 

China is developing one of the biggest markets in the world for western art forms. Australia could engage Asian school students through an arts education initiative in partnership with major performing arts companies. Musica Viva Australia have partnered with Premiere Performances Hong Kong (PPHK) for the past six years, to replicate Australia’s successful 36-year-old program in their territory.

In 2016, WAB launched the pilot Knowledge Exchange Programme (KEP) in Jakarta, Indonesia in partnership with Ballet i.d. The success of this program has led to Australian Japanese Foundation and WA Australia Japan Society to support the WAB in the establishment of a new Knowledge Exchange Program with Japan.

Digital engagement can dramatically extend the international reach and impact of companies. The Australia Council for the Arts estimates the MPAs’ total 2017 digital reach was approximately 62.8 million people. Engagement can vary from viewing short performance clips, downloading music performances to the 24 hour online live streaming of World Ballet Day LIVE 2018, celebrated at the beginning of this month and hosted by The Australian Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet and The Royal Ballet, with Queensland Ballet with WAB also participating. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has secured a prestigious international TV distribution agreement with UNITEL, a world-leading producer and distributor of classical music for TV, DVD and Blu-ray, cinema and new media, and Malthouse is in early conversations with London’s Young Vic to create a global production via digital platforms.

The MPAs are not funded to deliver cultural diplomacy and do not have access to the Australia Council’s international grant funding. They do work in partnership with sponsors, patrons and government to enable cultural diplomatic opportunities, but capacity can be unpredictable and complex, which in turn is limiting.

There are many opportunities to advance Australia’s soft power through performing arts touring and collaborations, artist exchange and arts education, and digital engagement. Increased federal government investment  and greater capacity for embassies to support strategic cultural  engagement will deepen Australia’s cultural impact and soft power capital.



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