For more than 25 years, Rankin’s Big hArt, based in Burnie in Tasmania’s North West, has pursued projects which have a distinct cultural purpose. Beginning with a production about the closure of Burnie’s pulp and paper mill in the 1990s, Rankin has chosen projects which tell stories of dispossession, economic change and social disadvantage.
“This was a town with a few really big businesses, and the mill looked after people pretty well,” he says.
But when it closed, the town lost its footing for a while. It was ok if you were at the top end of town but if you were any distance down the food chain it was pretty tough.
“Quite a few kids were acting out. There was pressure on families and our tendency is to blame the poor and blame the victim rather than understand that the problem is the poverty."
In a situation like that, says Rankin, the only thing some of those impacted by the closure had left “were the stories they had to tell.”
“And sometimes those stories can act as a valuable canary in a coalmine, and warn everyone else about what is happening to others,” he says.
The Burnie Mill production set Rankin on a path, both artistically and personally. A native of Sydney, where he grew up living – illegally – with his parents and grandmother in a boathouse on the Lane Cove River, Rankin arrived in Tasmania in the 1980s at the time of the protest against the planned Franklin Dam.
“I came down here and found it just exquisite,” he says.
“So it’s a lifestyle choice for me. It’s quiet, and I have a lot of thinking time. And if I have to be in Melbourne, the local airport is 15 minutes away. I can park for free and be there in an hour."
It is a lifestyle choice which has brought significant recognition. In November 2017 Rankin was announced as the Tasmanian Australian of the Year for Big hArt’s contribution to social justice over a quarter of a century.
“Sometimes stories can act as a valuable canary in a coalmine, and warn everyone else about what is happening to others.”
Tasmania has set Rankin on a unique creative path. The Burnie Mill was the first step in a journey in which Big hArt has evolved a model where the art is not an end in itself.
Big hArt productions serve as both a catalyst for developing the skills of participants and creating ongoing engagement and dialogue around the issues.
“Telling the story involves a whole range of literacies which people can get hold of to increase their skill base and their
networks in the community, and that can bring about a change in their social trajectory,” says Rankin.
“At the same time the story we are putting out there, as long as it is of high quality, can speak to the kinds of places where
decisions are made, and by that I mean social policy or corporate policy.
“And sometimes, you can increase the empathetic response in those decisions and sometimes even make a persuasive argument for a different and more cogent policy.”
In the Burnie Mill project, says Rankin, he and his collaborators were “blundering our way through” but out of that came an approach and an evolving methodology they now apply to all of their work.
They have also been successful fundraisers. Although Big hArt has average annual turnover of a modest $2 million a year,
the group has helped raise $50 million for disadvantaged communities.
Not all of the projects are in Tasmania, but as time has gone on its home base functioned as a testing ground or laboratory for ideas which have been applied elsewhere.
In Central Australia, Big hArt has worked with the family of celebrated artist Albert Namatjira on an ongoing eight-year project which has culminated in a Legacy Trust to support local indigenous artists.
In its earlier phases, Rankin worked with the Namatjira family to write and produce a stage production which played to more than 50,000 people in 144 performances in 31 Australian and two international locations.
The evolved Big hArt methodology is for projects to go beyond one-off productions and become “streams of work”. Out of the Namatjira project has come an iPad painting app, a Namatjira soundtrack, 29 short film resources, a feature documentary now playing on Qantas flights and 1682 art-based leadership workshops.
Nearly 1000 members of the indigenous community have participated over the eight-year period.
For Rankin any project has two components; the content and the process. The process works on what he calls “five domains of change” which impact not just on the participant but also on the wider community. For any project to be considered a success, it must work in at least three of the five domains.
Five Domains of Change
The success of each Big hArt project is measured against five “domains of change".
- Individual Change. Is the participant improving their situation through their involvement?
- Community Change. Is the community responding to the project and changing as a result?
- Policy Change. Are governments and decision makers paying attention and changing their policies as a result of the work?
- Quality of the Work. To have the maximum impact as advocacy, the quality of the work has to be of the highest order to be a catalyst for change.
- Sharing the IP. Give others access to the knowledge and IP from the project so they can also use it.
As Big hArt has evolved its model, it has become more involved in collaborations with corporates, because Rankin also sees them as major influencers on policy development.
This does not necessarily involve funding, because for Rankin the corporate opportunity is about “putting authentic and
invisible stories” in front of targeted audiences who have the power and resources to respond.
Young leaders from accountancy firm PwC have become involved in Big hArts ongoing work in the Western Australian town of Roebourne, which began in 2011 with the Yijala Yala comedy and comic project with local indigenous youth.
A second work stream, the New Roebourne Project, is working to deliver five projects including a prison music program, 40 short films and a touring theatre production.
“Roebourne is one of the most stimulating places in Australia, but its also under extreme stress,” says Rankin.
“It’s where first world economies meet First Nations people, and some of the biggest global companies are in the Pilbara
right next to Roebourne, where there are First Nations people with intact language and culture.
“So it’s something of a battleground, and there are some companies doing really good things and others doing things which are naïve, and counter-productive.”
Big hArt works on projects simultaneously, so while the Roebourne engagement has another four years to run Rankin is also working on a project called Project O in his own community in Tasmania.
With support from Telstra, the aim of Project O is to back young rural women to help prevent family violence and drive generational change.
There are three layers to the project: workshops and partnerships to develop new skills, a public art marathon called a ‘Colourothon’ and a theatre piece – Play – based on the story of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Beginning in Tasmania, the goal is to build Project O from a grassroots to a national campaign driven by young women, changing community attitudes to family violence.
“One of the features of the project is access to digital, because many of these people are on the bottom rung in terms of access and according to the digital inclusion index they are falling out of the back door of society,” says Rankin
“Digital today is also a social justice issue, because we are moving into the digital century and in areas such as North West Tasmania we are allowing some people almost no resources.
“So what is coming out of working with Telstra is that we are hothousing, or playing catch-up with young women who are otherwise missing out.”
After 25 years at Big hArt, Scott Rankin is in no mood to stop now. In some ways he has only just started.
One of the current projects in production will be a showcase on one of the world’s biggest stages, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Called Skate, it involves skateboarders to create percussive music and trigger explosive light projections.
Big hArt has been calling for social impact investors. Rankin says Skate is almost fully funded and the strategy is for any profits to fund the company’s long-term sustainability.
“Skateboarding is one of the world’s biggest sports right now, and it’s part of the Olympics in 2020,” says Rankin.
"Our show will be like Stomp on wheels. And while it’s set to be a great show, the long-term plan is for any commercial success to set us up for the financial autonomy we need to deliver on the promise of our organisation."
Big hArt –25 years and beating strong
- 50 communities engaged
- 35 awards won
- 300 artists contributed
- 8000 people contributed
- 2.4 million audience members