Deputy-chancellor of the University of Sydney, Mr Alec Brennan AM, Dean of Sydney College of the Arts, Professor Colin Rhodes, Graduates, your families and friends, Academic staff, other invited guests, ladies and gentlemen.
It is a real privilege, and a considerable responsibility, to make these remarks, and I am indebted to the Sydney College of the Arts for the opportunity to do so, in this magnificent Great Hall.
I would like to begin by saying to the graduates, congratulations.
Whilst I say this because it is the point of the role that I have been invited to perform today, I also do it to reinforce and add emphasis to the great sense of significance attaching to the achievements that gather us here today.
The congratulations of this audience and of the wider community have been earned. There are too few opportunities where we stop and acknowledge achievement. Thankfully, this is one of them. Your very large village is saying in a single voice, “well done”.
I also add to the word ‘congratulations’ the words ‘thank you’. Whilst I well know that university life is not all solemn duty and that you will have had pleasures from the experience that will sustain you throughout your lives, no one here should presume for a moment, and I certainly don’t, that the achievements we celebrate today have been made without considerable personal sacrifice.
Our thanks should also be extended to your families, variously your parents, grandparents, siblings, partners and children and grandchildren, and to your friends. Their encouragements and their own personal sacrifices in supporting you through this time in your lives should be acknowledged too.
I am sure that your studies over the last several years will have, on various occasions, seemed challenging, risky, financially arduous and, at times, full of uncertainties. I am also sure that you will have been stimulated, enlightened and energised by your time here.
I believe to the core of my being that your choice to persevere with your academic education and, particularly, with your very specific training in the arts, will be of enduring benefit not just to you.
The rewards of your training and achievement are also shared by the society in which you will choose to live and work. We are all the beneficiaries of your hard work and therefore we must thank you for it.
And we should also thank the staff of the Sydney College of the Arts who have been responsible for the transfer of knowledge and skills and who have challenged you to think critically and creatively. The work that is done here, and in other similar institutions around the nation, is critical to the arts, and to our nation’s arts and cultural life. That role doesn’t get acknowledged nearly often enough.
The Australia Council’s research has shown that almost two thirds of practicing professional artists in Australia hold a tertiary qualification, and most believe formal training by coursework at tertiary or specialist institutions is the most important way to learn.
On average, more than one third of professional artists continue to engage in some form of training throughout their career. Most also recognise that their skills are improved and diversified through experience and learning through work.
This place of training, research and education is a vital part of the nation’s cultural infrastructure that we should value as much as we value the infrastructure that provides our water and electricity and that exists in our roads, ports and airports.
Training and developing the next generation of artists and cultural workers is critical to our country’s intellectual and human capital as well as to our economic health and future. It is essential that we maintain places and people that can provide the spaces and tuition to transition creativity from latent ability to productive artistic practice and innovation.
At the Australia Council, we say, proudly, that our role is to support the unimagined along with the re-imagined, the unknown and experimental along with the keenly anticipated. We are the Australian government’s principal arts funding, advocacy and research organisation, which has supported Australian artists and the arts for approaching half a century. The Council is a champion for Australian arts created and presented both here and overseas. We invest in artistic excellence and vibrancy through support for all facets of the creative process and are committed to the arts being more sustainable and accessible to all Australians.
Whilst there is never enough arts funding to meet the demand, the Council, other parts of the Commonwealth Government, State and Local Governments and many in the private sector strive to ensure that Australian artists are given the opportunity to develop their visions and talents and contribute culturally to the nation. It doesn’t hurt to know a fair bit about these many pools of prospective funding. It is in your interests to have that knowledge.
An occasion such as this graduation ceremony can be the catalyst for a career-spanning association between you as artists, and the Council. Some of you may have already begun that engagement as art students, and other will shortly move to looking at the range of programs, grants, residencies and other opportunities that the Council and other government and non-government funding agencies offer.
Even if you operate outside the sphere of the Australia Council and the other agencies – and many artists do – you will still be part of the cultural ecology with all of its challenges and opportunities.
These are exciting and dynamic times with digital disruption causing us to constantly re-assess how we sustain a professional career – be that in journalism, music, retail, engineering, law and the arts.
Your success will depend not just on your talents but also to some degree on just how knowledgeable and savvy you are about what you do and how the arts ecology operates.
My encouragement to you is:
Don’t be beige! Be bold!
Think way beyond the medium you think you want to explore.
Back your own judgement.
Be willing to fail.
Make your own luck.
Consciously connect your creative arts way of thinking to everything you do – the world is craving originality.
But this is not just about self-interest. There is more to being part of the arts ecosystem than chasing grants and financial success. I doubt that’s why you chose to enter art school.
At a moment in your lives when you are doubtless consumed with the need and desire to work, I encourage you to look to a slightly wider horizon and think about your works, about how you might pursue the privilege of serving the community more broadly.
You, as the central players, have to be more than artists, you must also support the arts ecosystem, and to advocate for the sector. Don’t leave it to your forebears, the Australia Council, governments and philanthropists. You’re at the cutting edge and you must lead, not just follow.
The arts play a vital role in a culturally ambitious nation. Never before has there been such rapid change driven by creativity and innovation. Never before has there been more engagement, participation or curiosity about art and culture in our everyday lives.
You are therefore entering the cultural sector at a wonderful time and should be optimistic about your future in the arts. I would encourage you to work hard at your artistic practice but also to approach your lives as several parallel and interconnected futures. I suggest that you begin to explore pathways that connect a commitment to continuous learning, selection of mentors and the development of the skill of listening to others.
While you are doing that, I also encourage you to include a broader array of considerations about your futures that might promote a generosity of spirit and tolerance, and the breadth and depth of knowledgeand wisdom necessary to cope with the most euphoric of times and the most challenging of times
One of my heroes, John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, founder of the British Council for the Arts and a man who spent his life deeply immersed in the arts described Isaac Newton as a man who possessed ‘in exceptional degree almost every kind of intellectual aptitude – lawyer, historian, theologian, not less than mathematician, physicist, astronomer.’
Noting those parallel lives across disciplines, my encouragement to you is to also not just lead one life: get on and have a few. With the qualifications conferred on you today, you are well equipped to do so.
Again, congratulations and thank you.
“I believe to the core of my being that your choice to persevere with your academic education and, particularly, with your very specific training in the arts, will be of enduring benefit not just to you.”