TAITMAIL What Ruth and Jenny could create 4 us
The Adelaide Festival this week announced a bold new feature for its 2024 edition, Create4Adelaide which, if it works, its progenitors believe could impact the rest of the world. Thousands of young people across Adelaide’s state of South Australia are being asked to use art to show their fears for climate change, and maybe their hopes.
And as I write, as if on cue, the authorities have warned residents in the hills above Adelaide of “extreme fire danger” from bushfires, and not to venture onto roads in case they’re trapped.
The Adelaide Festival, which runs this year from March 3 to March 19, has been going since 1960 and is Australia’s answer to the Edinburgh Festival, taking in every conceivable art form in its offer, music to literature to dance to drama to cinema to visual art. The festival is credited with turning South Australia into what tourism execs claim is now Australia's prime cultural destination.
It’s not, of course, the first time that culture has been recruited to address the issue that seven out of ten under 18-year-olds think is the biggest danger they face, and only a month ago we saw Wild Escape launched in the UK, an initiative in which 500 museums, charities, artists and thousands of kids are making art inspired by animals that feature in collections.
But never before have the arts and the environment been rolled out together as a climate change strategy on such a scale as with the Adelaide Festival programme. This week the young people of South Australia, of which Adelaide is the capital, were invited to vote on their climate change priorities, and at next month’s festival those priorities will be unveiled; between April and November the youngsters will link up with teachers and local artists to create art “that offers ideas to address climate priorities and inspire action”; and in December a representative group of the young people will decide which works of art they want to go into the 2024 festival as its centrepiece to represent what they have to say.
Create4Adelaide is a generation of the idea of Create4Glasgow conceived for the COP26 climate change conference in 2021 when 800 young people took eight months to create 250 artworks that were scattered around the public parts of the city. The new version will dwarf the 2021 edition.
This time the idea, says the Adelaide Festival’s new artistic director, is to “develop their creative skills and engage with local climate change priorities”. The peril for South Australia is a lot more immediate than it is for Glasgow or the UK. It faces a catastrophic drop in rainfall and quadrupling of the numbers of days in a year when the temperature is higher than 35 degrees , meaning an equally disastrous increase in bushfires; its famous wine industry will reduce by 44%, and what grapes survive will be of less quality; and livestock productivity will slump by 33% (Garnaut Climate Change Review)
If it works it could change the way the world approaches this most critical of issues: “We are convinced our collective engagement will be a turning point tackling climate change, because young people’s voices need to be heard more than ever to empower all generations in becoming activists against global warming” says the festival’s website.
And if it can have a resounding effect in South Australia, population 1.7m, what could it do across the UK if organised properly?
The reason why it’s not such an off the wall mention is that the new artistic director of the Adelaide Festival, for whom the 2024 one will be the first she will have programmed, is none other than Ruth Mackenzie (above). She tweeted the news and the first to welcome it was a certain Jenny Waldman (below) who kept her Twitter response brief: “Great project with young people leading the way”.
And if these two women could get together on a Create4UK programme - not a one-off, given the crescendo-ing urgency of the situation, but made at least biennial – the impact is going to be explosive.
This is the Ruth Mackenzie who created the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, changing and widening the Olympic concept for ever. After that she was chair of Arts Council London, and then she ran the Holland Festival in Amsterdam for five years before becoming the first female artistic director of the Châtelet opera house in Paris. London’s deputy mayor for culture, Justine Simons, said Mackenzie “has an unwavering commitment to supporting artists and to the potential of culture to transform communities”.
Jenny Waldman became director of Art Fund in 2020 having masterminded the national 14-18 NOW programme marking the centenary of the First World War – and having worked with Mackenzie at the Cultural Olympiad of which she was creative producer. 14-18 NOW linked hundreds of thousands of participants over four years, the longest festival ever, and commissioned over 100 new works of art; hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren now have a perception of that awful war that is more accurate and more actual than any previous generation because of Waldman’s vision.
And the Wild Escape, of course, is an Art Fund project. “Inviting young people across the UK to be creative, explore art and museums and articulate their hopes for biodiversity is at the heart of the Wild Escape, and artists are playing an inspirational role” Waldman says. “Ruth's Adelaide Festival project has similar ambitions in bringing together young people, art and climate. Ruth is a visionary and she's finding ways to engage young people with the arts and climate in innovative ways”.
A Create4UK that expands on the Wild Escape framework could get creativity back into the classroom from which the politicians have banished it on a mission no-one could argue with, link venues from libraries to museums to theatres to concert halls where the work of our talented children can be exhibited, tie in with broadcasters and digital platforms to air the work and its messages, all stuff Mackenzie and Waldman have already made their signature.
Bring these two formidable women together again, with the power of Art Fund’s connections with museums and galleries across the regions and nations, working with the young, with artists, with local authorities and with schools, and we can get a picture of the way the world needs to be if it is to survive, a picture that no government would ignore.