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An exchange with CEO Michael Loebenstein

As you all probably know, the National Film & Sound Archive recently convened a series of public fora to discuss its Draft Strategic Plan (DSP)  for the future management of the institution. Meetings were held in six capitals and attendance numbered, all up, some several hundred people including no doubt many people reading this note. I was unable to attend but, as the NFSA had offered, sent a note to the CEO Michael Loebenstein setting out my thoughts on some of the issues raised in the DSP. This was not a very comprehensive response. Others such as Martha Ansara sent in much more detailed reactions than mine and you can read her thoughts here.

The matters that captured my attention included, in no particular order, the appointment of an indigenous officer to manage a key part of the NFSA’s work going forward; the NFSA’s current lack of funds to cover all of its assigned activities; the difficulty in finding private funding; the need for greater Government commitment to fund the NFSA properly; current thinking about digital preservation; the future role of the Board in pursuing these financial requirements; and, the need for all these issues to be thrashed out in public especially so as to enable the film community to support and advocate for the NFSA’s survival and future prosperity.

Michael Loebenstein responded and with his permission I am sending this note round to all those interested people who signed the initial protest letter: It’s been quite an experience travelling most of the Federation (excluding Tasmania and NT).  I’ve done it before, but it’s always interesting to note the cultural differences and the attitudes towards ‘the Commonwealth, the East Coast, Canberra’.  In many regards we are not in an ideal position being considered part of and all of that.  

In regard to having an Indigenous Officer in charge of programs I do believe that it is far-sighted to make it a management requirement to have increased Indigenous representation, particularly at a senior level, in our programs and engagement section.  It will be effective in the long term and as there is no strict ‘quota’ set for particular positions or classification levels we have all the flexibility we need to ensure we have the best people in the appropriate positions.  Yet our ability to get the ‘right people for the job’ is  shaped by forces external to the NFSA - I am not sure many people actually understand the implications of the current ‘interim arrangements for recruitment’ in the Australian Public Service for agencies like ours.We are increasingly forced to redeploy from the’pool’ available within the Service, at classification level, and in some cases regardless of the actual ‘real’ skills or qualification, which we then need to argue for through a business case.  

Regarding your comments on digitisation and the question of its necessity for preservation, it is an interesting conundrum indeed.  Only last week at a symposium here in Canberra my colleague Thomas Christensen from the Danish Film Institute and I emphasised the fact that there is absolutely nothing wrong with film preservation as in the passive preservation of original elements, and photochemical duplication.  WE know how to do the right thing in terms of storage conditions and handling, and if it weren’t for the obsolescence and lack of availability of first 16mm, then increasingly 35mm stock and copying  facilities the debate would be a different one.  As you said, it is mainly about access - a point I tried to make in our strategic plan draft by pointing out that the paradigm, or the reason to be for archives, has shifted both in the public view and in the view of our masters.  

One absolutely valid and crucial point you and others have made is a point that I was glad to hear in many of the stakeholder meetings.  Corporate support, philanthropic support, crowd sourcing, private-public partnerships are only one aspect of building a sustainable resource base.  In the light of the massive challenge brought forward by necessary and essential digital preservation activities, for formats that cannot be preserved on analogue carriers (like broadcast collections) there is absolutely no way around large scale public funding.  I do underscore your argument that public infrastructure-scale investment, probably enhanced by private sector funds, is the only sustainable and convenient response to the so-called digital deluge.  It is an argument that galvanises support from our stakeholders.  If the outcome of my engagement with community is not only a well articulated and supported strategic plan, but an orchestrated and visible public advocacy for this cause and for policy development I think we will have achieved a lot.  And it will be a test for the robustness of the relationship between NFSA management, Board, community advocates and supporters, and our administration.  

I am increasingly excited by this huge opportunity for creating a public debate and momentum for not only change but growth of the NFSA’s visibility within the sector and community, but also in general an increased awareness of our audiovisual legacy and its significance for our collective identity and well-being.  I really look forward to the next stages of synthesising what has been said so far into a work plan.

Speaking of, and to assure you that the engagement process continues: before the end of August we will send out an update to all participants and interested parties about the key themes that have emerged out of the feedback so far, and make the transcripts of the Q&A sessions available in full on our website.  From September on - and we will inform everyone in due time about the details - we will pursue a mix of focus group discussions and broader workshops with interested and engaged individuals and organisations.  The aim is not only to workshop specific emerging themes and questions but also for me to continue fleshing out a sustainable and continuing way of ensuring I can test ideas with the sector and the broader community.