Esther Anatolitis’ tenure as Executive Director of the National Association for the Visual Arts will come to an end on August 20. She speaks to Limelight about the highlights of her three years in the role and the challenges yet to come.

NAVA’s outgoing Executive Director Esther Anatolitis and Penelope Benton, who be Acting CEO until February 2021. Photo © Zan Wimberley

Three years feels like a long time in the context of recent events, what have been the biggest changes to the sector over that period?

Time seems to flow in different ways, I mean the last few months of this year have lasted at least three years! I’m seeing in the last three years some much stronger articulations of what best practice is in the arts, and I’m seeing a lot more cohesion at state and national levels among colleagues about what are the best ways to come together to advocate for what’s needed. We’re seeing the differences are growing between local and state governments – the ones that actively position the arts as central to their policy and the ones that don’t – and I think across the country we’re getting better and better at identifying which local councils, which regional shires, which states are doing exceptionally well. And then through the whole pandemic to see the states coming together to advocate for what’s needed nationally has been really, really heartening.

In the visual arts sector specifically, NAVA has been leading the work around the review of the Code of Practice and also revamping our professional development and other membership programs – it has just been so invigorating hearing directly from artists, arts workers and organisations about, yeah, this is how we strengthen the sector for everyone. So it has been a time of just deep connection and collaboration and illumination. It’s just been a beautiful period of time.

What have been the biggest challenges over the last three years?

I think the challenges of the last three years have been – unsurprisingly – heightened and brought to the fore by the pandemic crisis, because we see now the great danger in not having a clearly articulated arts policy at the Federal level. And that danger is multiple: when it comes to how government understands the working conditions of artists and how that’s different to other workers, how they understand the scale, the scope, the enormity of the arts and culture sector, and how they understand the deep interconnectedness between our sector and the others who rely on the arts for their success, such as tourism and hospitality. Had there been a clear, ambitious, well-connected arts policy in place then the sector wouldn’t still be waiting for the support and stimulus that is needed – not just to drive the arts at this point, but to guarantee the successful recovery of the entire Australian economy. So all of us, in the ways that we advocate for the arts, we look at that big picture and what’s needed nationally, and I think this period has made it absolutely clear that the lack of helpful, comprehensive policy at the Federal level remains the biggest challenge that we face.

What achievements are you most proud of over the course of your tenure at NAVA?

I’ve been delighted to see our membership program strengthen, and just really great professional development and sector development for artists. I’ve been really honoured that NAVA have been able to support some really important work on gender, that has been led by artists, particularly the Clear Expectations guidelines by Spence Messih and Archie Barry. And also The Countess Report, really making it clear just what discrepancies exist between the reputation of male and non-male identifying artists in the sector, and making sure that we’re seeing more women, female identifying, trans and other gender diverse artists in collections, in public programs – the full range of ways that artists participate and are presented.

That strong stance that we’ve taken around things like gendered harassment, around the improper and unethical appropriation of the work of First Nations artists, and also the improper repurposing of funds in funding programs, where certain politicians have been exposed as having inappropriately redirected artists’ funds. It’s terrible when you’ve got to raise a voice about that, but it’s terribly important that all tax payers are confident that when their money is invested in the work of artists, that it really does go there according to fair, ethical, transparent criteria. And there’s a range of issues that NAVA has stood up on over the last three years – and in the decades previously – and it’s something that our members have come to expect, a good, clear, constructive advocacy voice.

For you, how important has it been to drive those conversations in the public sphere?

I think it’s absolutely essential that we’re all using the voice that we have to really enrich the public sphere with that conversation. One of the frustrations I often find in conversations with colleagues who want to make that broader contribution, is that sometimes people feel that as a publicly funded organisation – for those organisations who do, in some fraction, receive money from government – there’s a feeling that that somehow constrains us from contributing to a broader public conversation. But of course those of us who are the heads of non-profit organisations, if we look at our constitutions, if we look at the basis on which we receive important tax concessions, that’s all based on us contributing to the public good, and vital to that is the public conversation that we foster. We need to all be doing our best to foreground the voices of artists and a diversity of artists in the media, we need to make sure that public decision making – which we might not think has anything to do with arts and culture – actually has an arts and culture perspective infusing it. We’re talking about education, we’re talking about mental health, we’re talking about urban and regional planning. We’re also talking about the conditions in which artists work, the conditions in which all of us want to be inspired and enriched by the work of artists, and certainly [during] the pandemic period, something that we’ve all been wanting to talk about and experience is the work of artists that create a future, that reopen our horizons, that connect us with each other, search and reveal our emotions in different ways. So to have an enriched public conversation which is beyond the economic analysis of certain policy decisions, we need to make sure that we are scrutinising policy decisions from that broader arts and cultural point of view, to create that richness of the public discussion which benefits all of us.

Your advocacy hasn’t been limited to the visual arts, has it been important to you to take a broader perspective?

I think first and foremost as Executive Director of NAVA, my duty, my responsibility, is to the visual arts, craft and design sector. And then in advancing the interests of our sector, whenever we’re speaking to a general public audience, whenever we’re speaking to politicians as well, we need to be able to articulate the value of what we do in broader public terms, so very often that is about talking about arts and culture, the creative industries, it’s about talking about public value, about our civics contribution – how we contribute to the decision making that affects our lives, and that’s something that we’re often so busy in our roles it’s really hard to look above our individual organisation membership and the scope of our sector to engage in that broader conversation, but I just think it’s so, so important. Any of us as advocates for the arts are not just advocates for a particular sector, we’re actually advocates for public value, for cultural diversity, for the centrality of First Nations voices, for broader policies that redress disparity and disadvantage. All of these things, I think, are essential to sustaining an artistic practice and working in the arts.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the sector moving forward?

In some ways our biggest challenges are the ones that are faced by every other sector of the economy all over the world right now, which is how do we emerge safely from a pandemic for which there is no cure. And to emerge safely we need to work really closely together, we need to be cohesive and collaborative. We need to be able to look to governments – who are spending unprecedented amounts of money on keeping the economy ticking – we need to be able to work closely with those governments and say, OK, that financial contribution is deeply valued, what you’re actually contributing to is the future of Australia’s culture, and to get there, we need to foster the voices, the energy, the vision of the artists who actually create that future. And so a big challenge for us for the next while in the arts is to articulate that public value in a really compelling way, to engage with political decision makers, to connect with the general public, and I’m speaking now for those in leadership positions, but I’m also speaking to all of us, to voters, to people who’ve got connections with their local MPs, to draw them into the conversation about things that matter to us, to make sure that as we recreate Australia at this time, what we’re creating is a more confident, ethical future.

What’s next for you after NAVA?

I am going to take a little break, it’s really needed after the intensity of this year – I’m going to need to just recharge, rest, reinvigorate! And then I’ll be in a position later in September to make an announcement about my next steps.