What’s Next? Australia’s Cultural Ambitions

Stories
Sep 11, 2013
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University of Wollongong 30th Anniversary of Creative Arts Faculty keynote address by Rupert Myer AM, Chair of the Australia Council, Monday 9 September 2013.

Vice Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings

Executive Dean of Law, Humanities and the Arts, Professor Amanda Lawson – and thank you for your generous introduction.

Faculty and University staff, Creative Arts alumni, students, artists, ladies and gentlemen.

I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Dharawal and Wodi Wodi people and pay respect to elders past and present and all indigenous people present.

Thank you for your kind welcome, and for the opportunity to speak to you on this significant occasion.

This week, we celebrate and say ‘Happy 30th Anniversary’ to the Creative Arts Faculty.  It is a great occasion for Creative Arts, the wider University community, and for Australia’s cultural life.

The Creative Arts Faculty and its approach to multi-disciplinary arts practice have made a defining contribution to the University’s achievements.  I note that the University’s Vision is:

To be a leader in ideas and solutions, a community of campuses and partners where discovery, learning and technology connect to transform people and the world we live in.

In today’s world, where creativity and innovation are the drivers of cultural and commercial success, that Vision statement could equally describe the value that Creative Arts graduates add to Australia’s society and economy.

As the outstanding American cellist Yo Yo Ma said recently:

‘I realized that everything I practice in music, and this is true of all the performing arts, involves the four qualities necessary for success in the workforce of the 21st Century:  Collaboration, flexibility, imagination, innovation.’

Of course, engagement with the arts goes deeper than acquiring useful skills. Yo Yo Ma again observed:

‘The arts, culture and humanities give us perspective, and the capacity for empathy and humility.’ i

If we look across the range of courses and subjects offered by Creative Arts under the broad umbrellas of visual, performance and media arts and through the linkages between them, there is unlikely to be an aspect of Australian life not touched by the practice of the graduates of this Faculty.

Drive down any street and read a billboard, pick up a magazine, chill out in a gallery, text, Facebook or tweet a message, spend a night at the theatre or a concert, watch TV or listen to some music or a news broadcast, or browse a website and you will be engaging with design, creative writing, visual art, musicianship, journalism, performance and stage management and so on.  It’s everywhere and it’s fantastic. And it is made possible by graduates from schools such as this.

The playwright David Williamson has said:

“Creativity has to be learned just like anything else.  Australia is blessed with some of the world’s best in their respected fields and their collaborative efforts have not only given pleasure to millions of people. These people didn’t come to their roles by accident. They had the benefit of a rigorous training that helped them become the true professionals they are today.

So many of our well known artists, actors, musicians, dancers, writers and creative Australians started their careers in a university or institute that specialised in high quality education.ii  So at a time when many involved in arts education feel a little besieged and under constant pressure to justify their existence, I would urge you to take a moment on this anniversary to congratulate yourselves and be proud of the contribution you make to contemporary society.

When I was asked to nominate a topic for this address I decided that I would like to share some thoughts and observations with you on the possible futures for the arts in Australia and Australian arts in the international context.

Having now completed a year as Chair of the Australia Council, I feel privileged to have gone some distance on the journey of discovering and understanding the breadth and depth of cultural activity in this country, and its global reach.

Of course there is a considerable way to go but it is a journey on which I constantly meet extraordinarily creative Australian artists, encounter new wonders, stumble over seemingly intractable old issues and frustrations, and ponder what might lie around the next bend.

On the way, I am being greatly supported by a Council of wise, experienced and highly talented members and a dedicated, hardworking executive team and staff.  And I am enthusiastically positive about what I have seen and where we are headed.

The title of the address: ‘What’s Next: Australia’s Cultural Ambitions’ arises therefore from my reflection on the journey so far and what possibly lies ahead.

Of course there may be an argument that the notion of national cultural ambitions is somewhat anachronistic in a rapidly globalising world, and that it is especially futile to attempt to predict ‘what’s next’ in the arts which derives much of its dynamism and appeal from surprise and unpredictability.

Furthermore Australia has a comparatively mature arts sector, that is, one that is highly professional  – due in no small part to the calibre of our arts education and training institutions such as that here at Wollongong.  We are multi-faceted, internationally respected, indeed a leader in several fields, and one that has for many decades received considerable financial support from the public purse and private benefactions through targeted and well administered programs:  In short, a system praised if not envied by many, more often from those off-shore, for its inventiveness and generosity.

The journalist Nick Bryant writing in the Griffith Review and using perhaps not my favourite expression,  talked of Australia “Punching above its weight in arts and culture”.  He adds that, “…there is no longer the same rush to the international departure lounge ….  for promising young artists seeking to advance their careers.” iii

Does this mean the ‘What next?’ question with regard to public policy settings was one for past generations and is no longer relevant because we’re already there?  Or that our cultural ambitions have already been well articulated and widely embraced – for example via policy statements like the Keating government’s Creative Nation 20 years ago and more recently in Creative Australia – the 2013 cultural policy statement?

I think that the question is still relevant and the notion of a national cultural ambition is still worth exploring.

Whilst the Australian arts sector is well developed and has an established international reputation, there is often a lack of robustness, even fragility, around many of our arts organisations that support artists and arts practice.

We do not have policy settings that place our nation’s cultural infrastructure in the same mind-space as the other types of national infrastructure that service what is perceived to be more urgent human need.

More broadly, the responsibility we all have for justifying public funding of the arts is arduous, never-ending and often undermined by powerful groups in the community who place little value on cultural endeavour but who, seemingly unknowingly, benefit greatly from it.

We live in a nation that seldom adequately acknowledges the achievements of our artists and arts organisations.  Given the quality of the work and the originality of the ideas, our artists should enjoy a higher status in the community. Ironically, we seem to save the greatest accolades for obituaries and leave much unsaid in artists’ lifetimes.

In other spheres of endeavour, whether on the sports field or in the swimming pool, science laboratory or boardroom, there is often an ambition widely shared and passionately held.  In the arts, pride is a pale imitation of the ferocious barracking that goes on in the other domains.

Those of us charged with responsibility for advocating for artists and the arts, and ensuring adequate support for the sector in a fair and transparent way, also have a related responsibility to put sparkling ambition well back on to the agenda and do what we can to help realise it.

So, what is the best way to anticipate the future and plan accordingly? “What’s next?”

In reflecting upon this, we might benefit from Abraham Lincoln’s advice that “The best way to predict your future is to create it” and it’s my observation that the arts sector is already on that path.

Having a sense of national ambition is not an argument for a chauvinistic or jingoistic approach to culture. As Professor Julianne Schultz has so eloquently said:

‘In the global village, there is no longer a need for a cultural cringe, and a cultural strut is equally inappropriate. We can confidently participate on a global stage and create cultural experiences that are unique and valued here.”iv

We are well used to acknowledging the cultural achievements of other nations without regarding them as a form of national conceit. ‘Scandinavian design’ and ‘Swiss quality’ are phrases that come to mind. We could also find examples where attaching ‘German’ or ‘Japanese’ to a product or service conveys a similar message of high standards, and of course there are many others.  Here, commercial interests, far-sighted policy makers, artists, IT specialists and engineers have harnessed creativity, design, innovation, and technical skills, the drivers and fundamental outcomes of artistic endeavours, in a culturally ambitious way.

Although not always apparent to ourselves, there is already a potent Australian cultural brand that brings to mind brazen confidence combined with subtle rendering, freshness, vitality and imagination even when dealing with the sombre, and a wit and humour.  There is also a power in our indigenous culture that sits close to the heart of the stories that we tell and of our artistic expression.

Amongst the artists and retailers, architects and designers, collectors and magazine editors, producers and performers from Asia, Europe and America whose opinions I know and value, there is a strong conviction about what the Australian cultural brand represents and, at times, even a yearning for what we have. We are not going unnoticed.  So, how might this impact on our cultural ambitions?

In Australia, we have a well-established tradition of looking to governments to not only set the agenda for social and economic development, including cultural development, but also to principally finance and implement change.

Perhaps our humble beginnings as a branch office of the 18th century British equivalent of a ‘Department of Corrections’ is the reason for this, but in broad terms it is consistent with our British heritage and contrasts with the United States where private enterprise is the preferred provider.

Arguably the upside is that from the latter half of last century, the Federal government and, increasingly, state and local governments have attempted to give some direction and provide some cohesion to our national cultural ambition. Collectively they have been the major funders of the arts and culture in Australia.

It is instructive to reflect on how we as a nation have gone about the process of cultural development and particularly timely given the change of government.  We hear a lot about adversarial politics and how one side or the other is more sympathetic to the arts.  My reading of the past 50 years or so of public policy in the arts is that while approaches and priorities may vary with changes in government, there has been broad bi-partisan support for maintaining and expanding opportunities for artists across all art forms, and ensuring that Australians generally can engage with the arts both actively and as audiences. To a large degree that has been a shared cultural policy ambition.

This was reinforced recently by a new study published in the Australian Review of Public Affairs that ‘found little evidence that the political persuasion of the government had an impact on the level of cultural expenditures. v Yes, election outcomes are driven by policies not connected to cultural ambitions.

The development of the Australia Council itself is a good example of that unspoken bipartisanship. In November 1967, then Prime Minister Holt informed the House of Representatives that a new Commonwealth agency, The Australian Council for the Arts, would be formed to fund the arts in Australia. This event can be reasonably regarded as the beginning of a modern cultural ambition for Australia.

That new body met for the first time under Prime Minister Gorton in July 1968.  Then in January 1973, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam formed a new, but interim, arts council to assume the roles of the earlier body as well as a number of other boards and committees that had operated independently to that point.

Ultimately the Australia Council Act 1975 was passed and the Australia Council, an arm’s length statutory authority, was established, modelled broadly on the existing independent or ‘arm’s length’ arts councils of Great Britain and Canada.

In 2013 a new Australia Council Act was passed re-affirming past practice such as the principles of peer review arm’s length from government while introducing new more flexible structures to suit the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century.

The remarkable “Nugget” Coombs was the inaugural Chair of both the precursor organisation and the Australia Council.  He outlined his strategy at the time, calling on the Council to:

‘Seek to ensure that, while the best is encouraged and those who produce it are given the greatest opportunity to achieve the highest quality of which they are capable, influences are [also] encouraged which run counter to the Establishment; that the new and experimental get effective opportunities.’ vi

Even if slightly less dangerous, these enlightened remarks remain as fresh and relevant today as they did nearly half a century ago. Nugget’s formula combining the centrality of the artist, quality, diversity and innovation set the pattern, which the Council employs to this day.

To my mind they remain a fundamental foundation of our cultural ambitions.

In the decades since Coombs, we have witnessed both of the major political parties while in government flesh out and refine the policy ambition.

Major policy statements like the Keating government’s Creative Nation articulated a broad national arts policy and, for the first time, the notion of creative industries.  Prime Minister Howard’s government initiated the Major Performing Arts, Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft and Orchestras reviews, aimed at improving the sustainability of these key cultural sectors.

Most recently the Rudd and Gillard governments initiated a fresh look at the scope for enhanced private support for the arts with the Mitchell Review, and reforms to the Australia Council suggested by Angus James and Gabrielle Trainor, culminating in the release of the national cultural policy Creative Australia.

So, by a series of pro-active policy initiatives over time, governments have progressively maintained our focus on cultural policy and shaped and enabled our ambitions.

A continuing mistake we make is to fail to acknowledge our rich history of cultural development and the particular contributions of artists and arts organisations, successive governments, public and private corporations, individuals and philanthropic trusts to our cultural legacy.

Before governments assumed a greater responsibility, it was individuals like Alfred Felton, the world’s Paul Getty of his time and Australia’s philanthropic outlier, who died in Melbourne in 1904 without whom there would be a hugely diminished National Gallery of Victoria, who laid our cultural foundations.  Similarly the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney can trace its origins to Australian expatriate artist, John Power (1881-1943), who left his personal fortune to the University of Sydney to inform and educate Australians about international contemporary visual art.  And there are many other examples.  Perhaps for another occasion, I believe that it is nonsense to talk about the absence of a culture of giving in Australia.  My observation is that there is a poorer culture of asking.

Similarly we should not ignore the fact that Australians have a long history of international cultural engagement.

I was reminded of this by the current exhibition at the NGV in Melbourne entitled Australian Impressionists in France. To quote the exhibition website:

‘Beginning in the 1880s and continuing into the twentieth century, many of the best and brightest art students left Australia to continue their studies in Paris….. the Australians became part of the large community of French and foreign artists who were changing the course of art. Claude Monet demonstrated his Impressionist technique to John Russell; Charles Conder trawled the cabarets of Montmartre with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec; and Vincent van Gogh considered Russell a friend. In France, Australian artists engaged in personal and artistic exchanges with artists from around the world.’ vii

Just as we shouldn’t overlook the contributions of our forebears in realising our cultural ambitions, we must recognise the significant roles played by those in the commercial and unsubsidised arts sectors, and private arts benefactors and entrepreneurs.

For example, it is difficult to imagine a government agency conceiving, let alone being allowed to pursue and construct projects like MONA in Hobart, Tarrawarra Gallery in the Yarra Valley, White Rabbit in Sydney as well as many other private places established for public purpose.  These risky and daring initiatives have changed the way we think about art museums, programs, education, curatorship, outreach and taste.  In each case, a private ambition has cascaded into a deep community of public pride.

Likewise, the groundbreaking contemporary arts projects made possible by John Kaldor have given Australians the opportunity to share the visions and creativity of some of the world’s leading artists.

Many others have quietly, and occasionally noisily, donated works of art to art museums, supported musicians and writers, and helped with the construction of some of our major cultural infrastructure, such as the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery in Canberra. There are examples all across the nation.

I think that we can expect to see a greater commingling of private and public funding in the arts.  I know that some fear that this will be as a necessity as a consequence of or even a pre-empting of a withdrawal of government from the sector.  Whilst that is conceivable, I think that it is more likely that the grant assessment processes of organisations like the Australia Council will be sought by those wishing to support the sector but could never find the economies to set up their own peer review and grant making arrangements. Leveraging off existing processes, a larger number of grants could be made across and between all art forms.

Some of the relationships between subsided and commercial arts and public-private linkages are not always immediately obvious. For example in a recent article in The Australian Matthew Westwood wrote:

‘An ambitious commercial musical like King Kong owes its existence to private enterprise, but it, too, draws upon the theatre craft and skills developed in national training institutions and the subsidised arts sector.’ viii

We need commercial arts entrepreneurs and we need graduates from schools such as Wollongong’s Creative Arts Faculty to be players in our national culture.

In discussing our cultural ambition internationally, it is surprising how little is known of the sum total of what is achieved already.  And the information is not readily discoverable as it is widely dispersed, often known only within specific art forms and often unreported.  Not well known and certainly underutilised, the Australia Council is in addition to being a grant making body also a mighty reservoir of knowledge of what is happening in the arts.  The process of drawing on its knowledge base across and between art forms reveals examples of not only the large scale and most obvious projects, but the less well known but equally culturally significant.

So, at the risk of excluding many, a quick survey of the now would include the work specifically commissioned for the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London starting next week that will mark the first major survey of Australian art in the UK for 50 years and the largest ever to leave Australia.

It would also include the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale that features a site-specific project by the artist Simryn Gill.

In music, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is building a presence in Southern China, while the Australian Chamber Orchestra has toured to Hong Kong, Slovenia and Japan.

Object curated the Australian inclusion at the 2nd International Triennale of Craft in Japan in August 2013.

Australian writers have over time been recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pulitzer Prize and the Booker Prize, and the Australia Council has funded translations in 49 different languages.

Australia is the featured nation for the 2013 arts program of performing arts in Bogotá, Colombia. This will include Sydney Dance Company, Flying Fruit Fly Circus dance artists, photographers, and an Australian film retrospective.

The Melbourne Theatre Company’s Rupert has been programmed as part of the Kennedy Centre Arts Festival in 2014 while the Sydney Theatre Company toured Europe with Gross und Klein, a co-production with some of Europe’s leading theatre companies and festivals, including Barbican London.

Circus Oz has performed in twenty-six countries across five continents;

the Sydney Dance Company is to tour to South America, the USA and Russia; Bangarra went to China, in 2011 to Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Mongolia; the Australian Ballet has a long-established history of high profile international touring, most recently with sell-out performances at the Lincoln Centre in New York

The Queensland-based circus performance group Circa has become a international success since 2006, touring to twenty-four countries across five continents.

I have observed that ‘success’, for the want of a better word, may vary from art form to art form and that may have something to do with just how well the particular art form is supported and administered at home, as well as how easily it is adapted to or accepted by other cultures.  However, the international profile of our arts is remarkable for the depth and variety of the work we produce and take abroad.

From the perspective of the Australia Council, I believe that national funding organisations ought to be shaped by the creative experimentation and directions pursued by artists rather than the categories defined by bureaucracies or of traditional media.

That is what the new structures and processes being implemented at the Australia Council represent – a platform that reinforces the centrality of the artist and that seeks to raise the profile of the artist in everything we do.

The Council has a new skills-based board. It has developed a structure to provide greater flexibility in its grant making.  This will allow the Australia Council to become more responsive to the changing needs and demands of the arts sector and more rapidly support emerging forms of artistic practice. The governing board is forming Strategy Panels to address the needs of the Australia Council’s Board, including by providing strategic guidance and art form expertise.  Along with Assessment Panels, these panels form the successors to the previous art form boards and by their nature will be better suited to the current ambitions of the sector.

A new grants model will respond to new modes of artistic practice and growing demand, making it more flexible and increasing access to funding.

While traditional art forms continue to form the bedrock of practice, as you all know from the inter-disciplinary way of teaching here, new art forms are emerging, boundaries are blurring and technology means artists and audiences are engaging in different ways.

Council will engage more broadly with Australian artists in its peer assessment process. Currently the Australia Council uses approximately 200 artist peer assessors a year. This number will increase by 25 per cent to 250 a year and new artist peers will be engaged each year instead of through the current three-year appointments.

Two things I mentioned at the outset  – that we are celebrating the success of this University and the value of arts education – are important indicators of the future.

Arts education will remain fundamental to meeting our needs as individuals and the needs of the arts sector. Part of our cultural ambition must be to see our art schools and training institutions embrace technological and social change and in turn receive the support and appreciation they deserve and need to forge our creative future.

Thank you once again for inviting me to speak to you today and congratulations to Creative Arts at Wollongong on your 30th anniversary.


i ©2013 — by Yo‐Yo Ma “Art for Life’s Sake: A Roadmap from One Citizen Musician”Americans for the Arts, 26th Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy

ii David Williamson extract of the NTEU lecture delivered at the University of Notre Dame Australia on 15 November, 2012

iii Nick Bryant ‘Cultural Creep’ https://griffithreview.com/edition-36-what-is-australia-for/cultural-creep

iv https://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/opinion/full-version-of-julianne-schultzs-speech/story-fn9n9z9n-1226482023036

v Kate MacNeill, Jenny Lye, 
Paul Caulfield Politics, reviews and support for the arts: An analysis of government expenditures on the arts in Australia from 1967 to 2009 Australian Review of Public Affairs Volume 12, Number 1: August 2013, 1–19

vi https://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/news/items/pre-2010/cutting_the_cloth

vii https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/whats-on/exhibitions/exhibitions/australian-impressionists-in-france

viii ‘Steering creativity regardless of politics’ Matthew Westwood The Australian 3/9/13 p16