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Creating positive change through arts and culture

Seven Australians discuss how we can build a better world

Sydney Opera House

Since opening in 1973, the Opera House has championed environmental sustainability, creativity, diversity, cultural rights and respect for heritage.

On Tuesday 29 October, the Opera House became the first major arts institution in the country to announce its commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The Global Goals address some of the most pressing issues of our time, including inequality, education and climate change.

The announcement puts the world-famous performing arts centre and premier tourism destination among a growing collective of global and Australian companies, governments and community organisations that have signed up to the Global Goals.

When community change makers met at the Opera House for the launch of the Opera House’s latest Accessibility, Environmental and Reconciliation plans, we asked them: How can arts and culture affect positive change?

Sam Mostyn, Non-executive director and sustainability advisor

“I believe that many of the issues that we deal with in communities are stuck in language and in specialists that feel quite distant from us. The role of arts and culture is often to help interpret and translate these very complex issues into human experiences.

“So when we go to a theatre, go to a beautiful building or read a book, we’re immediately transported on a human level to issues that we can’t access when we’re given those same problems from scientists, from accountants, from economists, from politicians.

“Coming together as communities to understand these challenges, and to understand the role we can all play in addressing them, makes us feel less alone in the face of some of these issues. I think when you have a cultural response, you feel much more connected to others who care about the same things.

“There are moments of absolute inspiration that the arts and culture take us to, and help us lift up out of ourselves to behave differently and be our better selves.”

Deborah Mailman AM

“I’m a deep believer in the arts allowing people to think, engage, debate, create. As a community of artists and as storytellers, this is the best way that we can put forward our commitments to the world.

“And it’s more than just a commitment; it’s a duty. Certainly in my work as an artist that’s how I view the arts. How we can really make deep change. When people understand a story they can engage with it on a much more emotional level. That’s where change can happen.”

Councillor Jess Miller, City of Sydney

“Arts and culture is probably one of the most important things for sustainability because what it does is invite people to imagine what the future might be. Without that creative process, or joy, or hope, or vision, it can be really easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem and give up.

“Places like the Opera House, that give everyone an opportunity to come together and really dream about how we get ourselves out of this mess, are of critical importance. Without them we’d be a lot sadder, and probably nowhere near as excited about the opportunities that we currently have to reimagine what the world could be.”

Karen Mundine, CEO — Reconciliation Australia

“Culture is absolutely all about change. When it comes to First Nations people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, culture is intrinsically linked to who we are, reflecting those sometimes hard to tell stories.

“It’s about creating aspirations of who we want to be, it’s about unpacking some of those difficult conversations. It’s also about projecting where do we wanna go, what’s the kind of future that we want? I think arts and culture play such a vital role.”

Paul Nunnari, Inclusion advocate and Paralympian

“Art and culture is open to all members of the community, and that includes people with disability. Having more opportunities for people with disability to participate in arts and culture is really important. Not only as spectators, but as performers.

“One of the most profound performances I saw at the Opera House was Jess Thom, a lady who had Tourette’s, perform Backstage in Biscuitland. It was amazing. She spoke about her personal journey and why she came to perform. Even just listening to that story alone touched a part of me.

“The Opera House provides those kinds of opportunities, not only for people with disability to be in the audience but to perform. There’s so many amazing stories out there from people with disabilities. Having a space to share that is so important as well. That is the next dawn, to be able to do that as business as usual. We’re not the exception to the rule, it’s embedded into performances as something that cultural institutions around the world just do as part of their programming. That’s what I think in the next phase, and that’s what I’m really excited about.”

Rhoda Roberts AO, Sydney Opera House Head of First Nations Programming

“When culture is honest and has integrity it can shift the thinking of people. Through our arts platforms we can challenge those very hard questions we need to ask ourselves, with a little bit of humour and a little bit of honesty, and it can shift your thinking. We actually saw it with Natives Go Wild recently.”

Sarah Meredith, Australian Country Director — Global Citizen

Global Citizen wants to see a world without extreme poverty, and the roadmap for that is the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We know to get that into the community — because most people don’t know about the Global Goals — is through arts and culture but also through our iconic locations like the Opera House making a big statement that the Global Goals are important.

“One of the best things that’s worked for us is a mix of pop and policy. We know that when you get artists who come out and say ‘this is a priority for me’ as someone who has an opportunity to travel the world and see many locations.

“Those of us lucky enough to be born in a country like Australia have an opportunity to go and help our neighbours and people across the globe to help end extreme poverty by 2030.

“What the Opera House is doing is really exciting and I hope the community gets behind it and starts to find out more about the Global Goals.”

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