Portrait

Lunch with Scott Rankin, the creative director of the arts and social change organisation, Big hART. By Sarah Price.

Big hART’s Scott Rankin

Scott Rankin is on a fly-in fly-out visit to Sydney. Between appointments he meets me at a cafe at Chippendale Creative Precinct. Cement and iron pillars divide the open space and groups of lunchtime patrons. The room is lit by midday sun. There’s a buzz of productivity: conversations are focused, laptops open. Echoes sound from the kitchen.

Rankin is in Sydney for production meetings at Barangaroo. He is a cultural activist, and chief executive officer and creative director of Big hART, Australia’s leading arts and social change organisation. Big hART collaborates with disadvantaged communities to create art and illuminate injustice. Since its genesis the company has empowered vulnerable people in more than 50 communities across the country.

The feeling of isolation, or of being separate from the community, is familiar to Rankin. He grew up on a Chinese junk on Sydney Harbour. As a child living “gently illegally” on a boat, he had to be quiet. He wasn’t able to have visits from friends, or birthday parties. His family, he says, were outsiders. To appease the council, Rankin’s parents said they lived on the boat; to appease the water police, in the boat shed. For 16 years Rankin lived on the boat with his family, until they were “chucked out”. The chucking out involved six squad cars of police.

I ask Rankin about Big hART’s focus on culture and about the importance of cultural rights. Before answering, he apologises. “I’m probably going to rant,” he says. “Culture is an international human right. It’s the broad discussion of ideas the whole community goes through to invent the future. Nations are narrations – if you are not in the narration, if you don’t have a chapter heading, if you are just a byline, you are gone, you’ve lost the protectors.”

He continues: “Cultural rights are the rights of everyone to be visible within the culture. If you look at the way the Australia Council and major performing arts boards are structured – of the 28 companies getting the major proportion of funding, how many Aboriginal companies are there? One. That is structural racism. We’ve got to stop the structural racism and the way in which the Australia Council itself is driving the hegemonic European preoccupation with heritage, rather than cultures that are here. Everyone is part of the story. If you look at how many artists present as having a disability nationally and the abysmal amount of money the Australia Council puts into disability arts… You have to see it’s not working. Let’s get serious. The way it’s set up at the moment is morally and ethically wrong.”

Rankin tells me culture is as essential as education and health, yet it doesn’t sit at the table of cabinet. “But arts and communication do,” he says. “Culture needs to sit at the table to ensure the protective mechanisms are there. That requires good policy that has the guts to say, ‘Look, the Australia Council was invented before the Holden Commodore. It is from a previous world. Pull it down constructively and rebuild it, and put the headquarters in Alice Springs.’ ” Rankin is interrupted by a waiter who asks if he would like to order food. “I am hungry,” Rankin replies, “but too excited to eat.” He pushes up the sleeves of his black hoodie and continues. “The work that is going on privately in the vast areas of this continent is held by the high culture of Aboriginal Australia. In the belly of this country is the deepest cultural diplomacy and ecological stewardship in human history.

“Where is the Indigenous symphony orchestra?” he asks. “People think there’s not enough talented musicians. Why not? Because you didn’t start funding it. So strip it down now and fund it. What would that look like? Where would this orchestra perform? Would it be in the tiny footprint of Sydney or Melbourne CBD? No, it would be trucking out in Arnhem Land. Turn it around. This is the face of Australia. What are the CEOs and chairs of the Australia Council doing? Holding it back.”

When he left Sydney in the 1980s, Rankin moved to Burnie in Tasmania. “The electorate of Braddon is the poorest electorate in the poorest state,” he tells me. Rankin stayed, and co-founded Big hART in 1992. “In a global century it is much better to be away from the eyes of the city,” he says. “If you take the eyes off you, you can relax into new forms creatively that you may not be aware of or, if you are, you are frightened of.”

In a challenge to politicians and arts boards, Rankin wrote a Platform Paper, Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive. He writes that culture is the powerful narrative that binds us. All communities have the right to be visible, to influence their future and to thrive. Cultural exclusion causes invisibility and often the demonising of our most vulnerable citizens. We need to stop encouraging debilitating clusters of cultural sameness while robbing high-needs communities of their human right to our culture. Cultural policy, he argues, must be rebuilt from the ground up to meet the urgencies of the 21st century.

Rankin tells me all of us stumble into grief as we grow out of childhood and become aware of the systems that have shaped our inaction – and the inaction of our parents and grandparents. “It is harder to hurt someone if you know their story,” he says. “We need to advocate for those who are absent from the narrative. These are serious issues of cultural injustice. We don’t own culture and we have to stop saying that we do.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 1, 2018 as "Big hART beats loud". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.