Closer cultural ties with Asia can help to foster regional harmony
Illustration: Robin Cowcher.
ASIA'S emergence as an economic powerhouse, resulting in a transformation of the power balance from West to East, is extraordinary and for once Australia is at the centre of the action. While the focus is certainly on the economic and security implications of Asia's rise, Australia must also seize the opportunities to develop a better understanding of Asia through increased cultural engagement.
A number of Asian countries and cities, in particular China, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore are investing heavily in cultural infrastructure and cultural diplomacy. Cultural engagement has become a key platform of ''soft-power'' strategies, globally. Asia is now the target of significant cultural investment from Europe, Britain and, increasingly, the United States as they recognise the power and potential influence of such strategies.
In 2009 France signed a major cultural co-operation agreement with Singapore that initiated a recent memorandum of understanding between the Singapore Art Museum and Centre Pompidou to develop and show contemporary art that resulted in a major video exhibition in Singapore in 2011.
Likewise the US-based Asia Society recently opened its new Hong Kong Centre and Gallery, transforming a heritage military compound into a cultural hub, and Germany's Goethe Institute delivers increasingly sophisticated partnerships and programs in Asia, including arts management training programs. Asia is also developing its own cultural networks through the proliferation of regional biennales and professional associations that do not necessarily include Australia.
As Asia leverages its new influence to develop cultural relationships with partners with more money and stronger global status, Australia can no longer take its geographic proximity for granted or assume it will enjoy a privileged relationship with Asia.
It must be serious about investing in cultural relationships or risk being ''crowded out'' by increased competition. If we are to build our networks and presence in the region, Australia needs to commit the necessary resources to deliver a long-term strategy for cultural engagement with Asia.
Cultural engagement with Asia matters for many reasons, not least of which is the promotion of regional harmony. Working with colleagues in Asia provides opportunities to build trust and networks that may also influence other social, educational and economic relationships.
Australia also has a competitive advantage in the supply of cultural workers, particularly festival directors, arts programmers and marketing professionals.
Asia is ''creatively hot'', generating new ideas in art, design and technology. While the level of cultural engagement has increased in the past 20 years, it has been inconsistent and underfunded, highlighting the need for a more strategic national approach.
Fortunately, the coincidence of two important Commonwealth government policies provides a unique opportunity for Australia to position and resource cultural engagement with Asia as a major priority.
Given that the Prime Minister has signalled the significance of the ''Asian Century'' for all facets of Australian society, through the commissioning of a white paper, led by former Treasury secretary Ken Henry, then the proposed new National Cultural policy now being developed by Arts Minister Simon Crean must also reflect this new reality or it will risk credibility in terms of the ''whole-of government'' agenda.
Asia is becoming increasingly sophisticated and sceptical about export-oriented bilateral ''nation- state marketing'' and is more interested in partnership, collaboration and reciprocity rather than ''presentations'' of Australian culture in Asia.
New models of cultural engagement will also require skill, knowledge and networks. We need to prepare the current and next generation of artists, managers, producers and policy leaders to work with confidence with Asian partners. And we need more of these opportunities, particularly reciprocal projects that enable Asian artists and arts administrators to visit Australia.
Lesley Alway is director, arts program, at Asialink, based at The University of Melbourne. Asialink Arts fosters cultural engagement with Asia through a variety of programs. asialink.unimelb.edu.au