Access for the Regions: Why RASN?

In a landscape of so many arts service organisations in Queensland that include regional service in their brief, it begs the question of why a construct like RASN might even be necessary.

I often muse over what state-wide delivery actually means, and have been fortunate to travel a good portion of the length and breadth of Queensland through my work here over the last 20 years.

Queensland covers a vast geographic area. According to Queensland Treasury’s Rebased estimated resident population, regional Queensland, 2016, 67.7% of the State’s population lives outside the Brisbane/Gold Coast region. We have long heard that Queensland has the most decentralised population, but to give you an idea what that really looks like, I’d like to share a bit of math fun that I had looking at the Western Queensland region covered by Red Ridge Interiors.

15 local government areas covering roughly 749,000 square kilometres. Total population of roughly 81,528. By comparison, Germany covers a little over 357,000 square kilometres, with a population of nearly 83,000,000. That is to say that the Western Queensland RASN region covers an area about twice the size of Germany, with less than one percent of the population. And it is also worth noting that more than a quarter of Western Queensland’s population is in Mount Isa. Some of the local government areas like Diamantina cover an area of 94, 823 square km, with a population of 288.

I ran out of steam trying to figure out how many islands there are in regional Queensland. Roughly speaking, taking into account Torres Strait Islands (274), Palm Island, Magnetic Island, Whitsundays, (74), Fraser Island, and the Moreton Bay islands, there are more than 365 islands, with at least 20 that are home to sizeable communities.

There are also 16 Aboriginal Shire Councils in regional Queensland, that have been impacted by intergenerational effects of relocation, suppression of language and culture, isolation, and lack of access to employment and training opportunities.

So how do you provide access to, and meaningful engagement with the arts, when faced with the challenges of vast geographical spread and, extremely low population density, and in many cases recurrent cycles of natural disaster, and the impacts of intergenerational disadvantage?

Flying Arts stands out as one organisation that was created to address Queensland’s inherent geographic challenges, and they continue to do an amazing job on a fly-in-fly-out basis. But how can we reach people where they are, work with them over time on their priorities, and build deep engagement over time?

In speaking with my colleagues at artform service organisations, most do not have any significant travel budget to achieve regional reach. And as for the notion that we can adequately service all regions online, just try getting mobile data in regional and remote Queensland with anyone but Telstra, and even with them coverage can be pretty spotty. Even within the team of RASN Regional Arts Officers, we have team members who do not have access to the internet on a regular basis.

Enter RASN. A diverse team of regionally-based Providers, who have dedicated Regional Arts Officers in 13 locations. Each one of these Regional Arts Officers is committed to regularly spending time in communities across their regions, where they provide mentorship, support, and encouragement, and engage communities in the planning and delivery of locally-determined arts priorities.

In the first year of establishment, there were hundreds of face to face consultations delivered throughout the state, regular networking sessions in communities across the state were held to connect like-minded creatives, initiatives such as the South-East Queensland North region’s First Nations Gathering interrogated engagement practices with First Nations communities across the region, and set the benchmark for future engagement. And major initiatives like Dress the Central West in Blackall and Longreach showcased how the arts could bring drought-affected regional communities together through the arts, to contribute to positive mental wellbeing.

We haven’t officially counted the cumulative kilometres travelled, but the Regional Arts Officers and my team in the State Coordination Office have travelled thousands of kilometres in any given week. And in some cases it’s delivering more than arts – our colleagues at Red Ridge regularly ring up to see if isolated people need milk or bread before setting off on the long drive, and once we even had a ZOOM meeting interrupted by someone who needed Jaimee-Lee, the multi-talented RAO in Blackall, to put an IV in a cow (which she took in her stride).

In the first year of RASN we also experienced many of our regions being affected by flooding and fire, and in many cases we have had to adapt our planning and approach when venues for artist retreats have burned down, and local government partners have become consumed immediate disaster response.

RASN is about meeting regional needs where they are, on a sustained basis, through the expertise of Providers and RAOs who live in the region and understand the unique strengths and challenges of each place. It is about connecting up a complex and disparate state through creating strong networks and communities of practice. With a brief to effect regional development through the arts, we are working to bring local government and community along on a journey to a place where regional Queenslanders irrespective of how remote or small the population, have access to high quality arts experience, the tools to drive their own cultural priorities, and pathways to arts education, training, and employment. A big part of this picture is of course connecting regionally-based individuals and organisations to service organisations including the ones presenting here today, as each holds a piece of specialised knowledge that is important.

It is a long road, and we are just at the beginning, but we have already started to see some great results in spite of scarce resources and the various challenges.

As a result of the concerted efforts of the RASN team, we are already seeing more funding applications coming forward from regional Queenslanders, mentorships for regionally-based artsworkers who will create sustained change in their communities, and artist development collaborations with companies like JUTE in Cairns that foster strong art-form based connections and communities of practice. There have also been spectacular arts initiatives like Dress the Central West, a project by Western Queensland RASN – don’t miss the performances here today and tomorrow. And keep an eye out for developing stories like the Matilda Way and Savannah Way Art Trails, with water tower murals already completed in Mount Isa and Windorah. There are too many stories to tell already, but we’d love for you to check out the RASN website, Facebook and Instagram accounts because pictures and stories from the field are the best.

Written by Wendy Mansell, RASN SCO Regional Engagement Director, for presentation at Arts Ablaze Panel: Access for the Regions