There’s a new kid on the block at the ALSO Foundation and from what Southern Star can gauge, he’s the popular boy in school.
Leaving his post as director of Gasworks Arts Park, Crusader Hillis will take the reins of the GLBTI community advocacy organisation this month, making the shift from arts director, publisher, writer and editor to wrestling politicians for dollars and cents (and sense).
Hillis is widely applauded for creating a respected platform for minority artists throughout his career. He said the same challenges apply to his new CEO role.
“Having had the chance at Gasworks over the four years to do some really solid programming in [queer arts] shows you what happens when a venue and an organisation put confidence and resources into developing that work,” he told Southern Star.
“Quite interestingly, at Gasworks this year we’ve had our highest proportion of straight audiences coming to Midsumma shows.
“That’s when you can start to gauge when your impact is being felt, when it’s breaking through that community wall and I think it’s really important.”
With an enviable CV by any standards, Hillis has over 25 years experience in the arts sector. He co-founded Melbourne Queer Film Festival, worked with the Melbourne International Arts Festival and the Melbourne Writers Festival, and served as a board member for the Victorian Writers Centre, among myriad other projects.
Hillis is perhaps best known in the GLBTI community for Hares and Hyenas, the queer bookshop he co-owns with his partner of almost 30 years, Rowland Thomson.
Now at the helm of the ALSO Foundation, Hillis said his priority is to ensure mainstream services, particularly education and health services, do a much better job at sensitively serving the GLBTI community.
However, he’ll never stop putting on his arts hat.
“I think ALSO’s role as it goes into the future needs to take a broad approach to how it deals with government and who it advocates for in terms of the community.
“Obviously there’s everything else around violence, equal opportunity, discrimination, housing, youth issues, seniors’ issues, all of those things. They’re all extremely important and arts is another one of these things.
“The arts and culture area is a really great space to engage people because it’s engaging people at their most comfortable times so you can often get some really good information in at that point.”
Hillis said he is prepared to deal with the religious arguments often advanced in opposition to the pursuit of gay rights.
“I’m not hot-headed, I’m quite calm about these things.
“I think the politics within the queer community is just as complex in some ways as the opposition politics that come from outside.
“I think there are lots of challenges about being able to tread a path where we can have opinions that do differ from other people but that we are respectfully heard on these issues within the queer community as well as outside.”
In 2010 the ALSO Foundation celebrates its 30th anniversary, having established itself as one of the peak voices of the community.
Like many community organisations, money is a constant worry, and a few shock waves went through the community after a sobering financial report at last year’s AGM.
The Foundation posted a $139,732 loss for the last tax year, leaving the organisation $34,683 in the red.
The situation sparked discussion about the level of government support ALSO needs for the work it does in the community.
At present, it relies on fundraising.
Hillis said while the organisation is currently in a difficult financial position, the ALSO ship is not in danger of sinking.
“It has been fragile and it does require longer-term sustainable funding and/or income-raising,” he said.
“There’s already a lot in place. We’ve had the [All So Fabulous] op shop going into the new place, there’re real opportunities there to grow it as a business.
“If we’re going to be — as we already sit on a number of government committees — part of the conversation which helps to make and develop some of the policies that are coming out through government, then there does in the longer term need to be some support from government to allow us to be there.”
Hillis said he’s always been attracted to minority causes.
“I’ve always had an interest in and an inclination — and so has my partner, Rowland — in never just going for the mainstream.
“It’s how we see community built, and it’s also the most interesting part of life.
“I don’t want the world to be a mirror. I would much prefer it to be a place of continual exploration, curiosity and excitement.
“I don’t want there to be something looking back at me that thinks and operates like I do, I would be so uncomfortable in a monocultural setting.”