Communications, ‘creativity’, and some basic checks

The City of Port Phillip’s communications, issues management strategies and community consultation processes are always instructive guides for communicators on what not to do.

The blog is almost reluctant to draw attention to the latest effort – a new cultural policy called Art & Soul – after it has used so many Council communications as case studies in what not to do so often. But this latest effort is both careless and potentially contentious.

The blurb on the policy in the paper prepared for the Council to endorse describes the effort as: “Art & Soul – Creative and Prosperous City Strategy (the Strategy) expresses Council’s commitment to a city that is culturally and economically prosperous and supports a diverse and inclusive community by co-creating these outcomes with our partners. “

“The Strategy outlines how we will achieve Strategic Direction 5 of our Council Plan, ‘We thrive by harnessing our creativity’, and is focused on the associated outcomes: a city of dynamic and distinctive places and precincts; a prosperous city that connects and grows business; arts, culture and creative expression are part of everyday life.”

Now it’s hard to argue against any of this other than perhaps to mention that it has been a long time coming after a disastrous start in which the early attempt at an arts policy had astonishing suggestions such as comparing the Council capacity to raise arts sponsorship money with that of the National Gallery of Victoria. There was worse however and the original document was, to the Council’s credit, effectively set aside after it was ridiculed by many residents and members of the local arts community.

But the new policy’s title is the problem. The Art & Soul branding sounds great with connotations of what arts and culture might do to help enrich the city’s soul.

Even if by now you have not noticed that the policy brand sounds a bit familiar, you can still think about the lessons for communicators: that the Council staff obviously didn’t think their creative inspiration was anything other than original, brilliant and inspiring nor did they do the fundamental check – very easy to do in the Internet Age – as to whether it was the same or very similar to other brands. Admittedly they would have found a list of similar and identical names, many of them caravan parks and cafes, but none quite like one result.

The blog first heard the policy brand in chatting with some Council people about the upcoming Council meeting and agenda. It immediately said: “That sounds very much like the Art + Soul ABC television series about indigenous art.”

The TV series was directed by the award winning Warwick Thornton of Samson and Delilah fame and presented by Hetti Perkins, the distinguished Aboriginal art curator, and eldest daughter of the late Charlie Perkins.

The TV series also spawned a magnificent book, also called Art + Soul, which ranges over the Papunya Tula Artists; Rover Thomas and other East Kimberly artists, Emily Kngwarreye, Destiny Deacon and many others.

Now the policy name and the Hetti Perkins series and book title are not identical just as the hamburger store brand, McDowells, is not identical to McDonalds in the Eddie Murphy film Coming to America. But the Council version of its policy brand is a lot closer to the Hetti Perkins series title than the brand confusion in the film. And the McDowell character (father of the young American the African Prince, Murphy, takes as his queen) is blatant about what he has done whereas one assumes the Council case is simply a product of carelessness.

But given that one of the major problems with indigenous art is the continuing scourge of copying and appropriation even a close resemblance is problematic – particularly for a Council committed to recognising indigenous rights, contributions and culture. How problematic is perhaps illustrated by Tony Albert’s current exhibition, Visible, at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) which features work which uses European appropriation of indigenous themes into ashtrays, tea towels and so on. This appropriation has been an ongoing problem, also highlighted by Destiny Deacon’s practice, for decades in Australia where the art and emblems have been used to produce the sort of kitsch once beloved of an older generation of white Australians.

Given the Council’s policy in favour of diversity, and its commitment to recognising Australia’s First Nations, their history and their precedence on, and connections with, the land the Council boundaries now cover, it is doubly problematic.

The questions are: how did it happen; did staff not do the obvious of checking whether it was similar to other brands; if they did why did they think the resemblance was not a problem; and, what is the Council going to do about it?