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‘Can we get a cheer for systemic oppression’: Talking racism within the VCA

<p>The Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), with the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, are one of the most influential art schools in the Southern Hemisphere. Graduates have gone on to become recognisable faces of screen and stage, to have artistic works displayed in major global exhibitions and to perform on the circuit of esteemed opera [&hellip;]</p>

The Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), with the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, are one of the most influential art schools in the Southern Hemisphere. Graduates have gone on to become recognisable faces of screen and stage, to have artistic works displayed in major global exhibitions and to perform on the circuit of esteemed opera houses internationally. It is this influence that deserves critical reflection; particularly when the experiences of marginalised students point to institutional barriers to participation and inclusion. Barriers to participation today materialise in the cultural production of tomorrow.

When it comes to diversity and representation, Mmoloki (Milo) Hartill-Batsietswe, a final year musical theatre student at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), who identifies as a “fat-black-queer-woman”, says: “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it”. This point underscores the first of several discussions hosted by UMSU’s Southbank division about representation in art and the future of the Southbank campus. Joined by Arrernte performer and Honours student Sherry Watson, the pair explored important questions about racism at the Southbank campus and within the performing arts industry generally. 

Milo’s point raises an important problem for the Faculty’s predominantly white staff and cohort: how to address racism on campus when you can’t see or personally experienced it? 

“Discussions are so important,” said Milo. “It’s funny because the arts are deemed as an all inclusive space for the weirdos of society but it is only the weirdos of the straight, white, social ideal that really belong here.” Both posit that hearing about and listening to the experiences of inequality from ‘others’, be they different in race or cultural background, ability, or sexuality, can help you to better understand your own position or for your ‘personal bubble’ to better reflect social reality. 

Listening alone, however, is not enough. “Being the only Aboriginal person in the course, a lot of times I felt really let down by a lot of my classmates” explained Sherry, of the often isolating experience of being an Aboriginal musical theatre student, “they would listen but they would never do something or use their power to make change.” Milo explained similar experiences, “there have been so many times when I would speak up about something in class, and the response would be ‘you need to just calm down’ or ‘they didn’t mean [their actions] to be racist, so don’t make a big deal out of it’, and I would respond: “No, if it affected me, it affected me.” In taking on this responsibility, Milo says she sometimes feels cast by peers and academics as “the angry Black woman”. 

Explaining the effects of racial inequality within the classroom, Sherry notes the impact of needing to conform to white expectations and modes of assessment. “I went to the teachers and I told them: “the material you’re giving us is really white and I am getting graded on these tasks that come really easily to my other peers and I just can’t access this voice type or this movement as easily as they can; my body doesn’t move this way and my voice doesn’t do those things.'” This, she says, leads to her trying to be ‘authentic’ but ultimately her “acting goes out the window”.

Overall however, the discussion was hopeful. Milo and Sherry, ironically encouraging the audience to “cheer for systemic oppression”, brought a deserved liveliness and optimism to the audience. “Nobody is blaming anyone for being born white or being born into a privileged position,” Sherry said, emphasising that discussions of privilege should not be read as an attack. This point highlights an important distinction that the pair made on several occasions on the difference between ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility’. Someone has to take responsibility for racism; why should it be the person experiencing it? 

The pair acknowledge that last year, in particular due to the Black Lives Matter movement, an awakening occurred. “The institution did a 180 and people started stepping up, which is amazing. It made my heart feel really good” said Sherry. “The conversations we had last year were so immensely important because they helped to bring to light the importance of our allies,” said Milo. Adding that it is “hard to be your own cheerleader” when it comes to anti-racism. 


Broader cultural problems within the industry 

Barriers to diverse participation in the arts have recently become well noted. One of many such instances occurred in 2020, when a major scholarship competition searching for Australia’s best young musical theatre performer came under scrutiny after the vast majority of its 30 finalists were white. 

The competition, the winner of which receives $50,000, was ultimately cancelled but only after the competition organisers, the Rob Guest Endowment, doubled down on their choice of finalists, stating: “the only metric considered by our judging panel was talent”. The competition has since announced that it will take a hiatus in 2021 and is committed to a minimum 20% BIPOC representation into the future. 

The lack of representation amongst the competition’s finalists has raised questions about whether the assessment of ‘talent’, particularly by white decision-makers, is causing structural disadvantages for aspiring artists and performers of colour. 


Selections procedures within the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music 

This question is a significant one for the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, which carries out such assessments in its admissions procedures each year. One audience member asked Milo and Sherry about whether the University could be doing more to promote equity within selection procedures. “Absolutely” responded Milo.

“I know at the start of these discussions they would say ‘well people from diverse backgrounds just aren’t auditioning’,” lamented Milo, to which her response would include questions such as, “well are you making it accessible for those people, are you making them feel welcome, do you have a disabled or person of colour on the selection panel, do you have a non-binary option on your application forms?” 

In September of 2019, the University quietly withdrew the guidance provided to selection officers for the assessment of the severity of disadvantage experienced by applicants seeking admission to the University under its equity scheme. Presently, the University of Melbourne does not provide guidelines for selection officers to assist in ensuring equity.

“I think they took a big positive step last year, I didn’t see any of the auditions for this year’s intake but I spoke to some of the teachers about it and I was very happy with the changes”, said Sherry. 

“This year there are quite a few BIPOC people in the intake which I am absolutely over the moon about. I think we have taken a good step in that direction but there is always going to be more to do. I do think the VCA has been pretty good at listening”. 

Listening alone, however, is not enough. The writer sought comment from Professor Barbara Bolt, Director of the Victorian College of the Arts, in relation to this article. Professor Bolt’s response follows:

“The VCA provides specialist arts training and it has a talent-based entry system, completing its selections through audition, folio and interview rather than on ATAR entry scores. This allows us to consider each applicant’s unique and diverse background and experience at the outset. In its selection processes, the VCA is very alive to issues of disadvantage and providing equal opportunities for those whose passion is the arts wherever they may come from and whatever experience they bring with them. The recently revised selection process for entry into the Music Theatre program for 2021 was a direct result of these important discussions and is part of our ongoing commitment to creating an inclusive, safe and supportive campus for all. The Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development also provides support for Indigenous students who wish to apply to the VCA. We will continue to support our diverse students in all respects and actively work to adjust our procedures as a response.”

The auditions and interviews section of the University’s Bachelor of Fine Arts (Music Theatre) application page states that Applicants are still required to complete a General Medical History Form that includes disclosure of an applicant’s weight, if they have ever had glandular fever, the existence of mental health conditions and the number of cigarettes consumed per day. It is unclear whether Applicants are required to complete this form before they receive an offer to study.

Image source: Kierkegaard, Rhys (2019). Cruel Optimism (#3). Ready-made ephemeral photograph retrieved from The Age, 12 December 2019. Melbourne: Fairfax Publishing.

Rhys Kierkegaard* – is a student and artistic researcher within the University of Melbourne, as such they have published this article under their artist name, pursuant with the University’s Academic Freedom of Expression Policy.

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