Rupert Myer AM speaks at Brisbane Powerhouse

19 September 2012 Artery

The following is a speech delivered by Australia Council Chair Rupert Myer AM at the Brisbane Powerhouse, 10 September, 2012.

This is a special occasion for me and we greatly appreciate you taking the time to be here.

I am very pleased that this reception is being held here at Brisbane Powerhouse. This building and the activities that occur in it, along with the nation’s galleries, museums, studios, theatres and concert halls, to name but a few examples of it, form part of the nation’s cultural infrastructure. Maintaining and refreshing that infrastructure, the bricks and mortar and especially the place of the artist, remain an enduring commitment for all of us.

The Australia Council exists to serve Australia’s arts communities, and I now have the pleasure and privilege of serving the Council as its Chair. It is a formidable responsibility. I have detected that there will be no shortage of advice.  I welcome it.

I would like to acknowledge the work of the Australia Council over almost 40 years, Kathy Keele, her management and staff and their predecessors, the two generations of Council members, art form boards and chairs peers, all of whom together have improved our shared cultural inheritance.

A couple of you have asked me to comment on how I have served my apprenticeship for this role.  A reply provides me with an opportunity to thank and acknowledge the board colleagues, management and staff of those arts institutions from whom I have learned a great deal about the importance of the arts, the contribution of artists, arts governance, and if you like, the politics of arts policy. I have learned much from observing, participating, and in some cases having a leadership role at the National Gallery of Victoria, the Museum of Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Australia, Opera Australia, Jawun – Indigenous Corporate Partnerships and Kaldor Public Art Projects, and entities established to seek private sector support for each of these. Of course all of this has occurred against a background of my own personal interest in the arts and indigenous culture.

To elaborate a little on how these experiences influence my thinking about the arts, I believe it is most important for those of us in administrative roles to place artists and those responsible for supporting artists right at the centre of an organisation’s purpose, policy and decision-making. I am pleased that the centrality of the artist is part of the culture and personality of the Australia Council and, I believe, this is evidenced by the care and respect shown for the artist in the work we do.

I have also learned from my experience how important it is for organisations in the arts to be business-like in their operations. As my cousin Carrillo would remind me, I have learned that the key to corporatization in arts administration is to be business-like, not like business. For my role with the Council now, that means ensuring that we can be highly responsive and flexible in our engagement with both established and emerging art forms, as well as being focused on the strategies and capacities of the organisations serving the sector.

In chairing of the Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft Inquiry a decade ago, I had the opportunity to work with some of those most closely connected with public policy in the arts at Local, State and Territory and Commonwealth Government levels. I saw that, as a Federation, Australia often only gets things done after much hard negotiation and positive collaboration. We see that in health, education, indigenous affairs and other areas and we will continue to see it in the arts. The Australia Council has to master these processes if it is to deliver for artists.

It may seem odd to say it but it is really important to get public policy right. In its formulation in the arts, I have learned that individual arts practitioners, private and public sector institutions, the media and the wide community must be engaged. For my role with the Council, that means ensuring that our research and advocacy activities are policy driven, carefully targeted and are informed by a consultative approach with stakeholders throughout the sector.

The experience of the Inquiry also taught me that Australian artists are best able to create work of the highest standard when arts organisations and cultural infrastructure are well maintained, sustainable, adaptable and dependable.  That is true too across all art forms.

Through my serving various philanthropic and grant making organizations including the Myer Foundation and Felton Bequests’ Committee, I have had the great privilege of learning about the breadth and depth of our arts sector and our indigenous cultures.  I have learned that all Australians, no matter where they live or whatever their personal circumstances, or stage of life, should have the opportunity to express themselves creatively, and to experience the arts. I have also come to appreciate the dynamism of private sector support co-mingling with public sector funding and the leverage that they each have on each other for the benefit of the artist and art form.

I am greatly indebted to the many people who have played a role in my arts education and I acknowledge some of them who are here tonight with whom I have worked.

Right now, many policy issues are under consideration. This is an energetic moment with many possibilities. The fashioning of new policy frameworks brings with it many opportunities and, of course, anxieties as well.  Some important matters are already getting settled and I suspect that there will be some reasonably rapid movement on many others in the next few months.

In the past month, a new entity to promote private sector support for the arts is in the making following the announcement by Minister Crean of the merger of Artsupport and ABAF. Also, the Minister has announced the transfer of the nations arts touring programs from the Federal Arts Department to the Australia Council.  Implementation has commenced. These are both significant announcements and it is pleasing that both have been well received by the sector.

Recommendations around the Australia Council’s architecture and governance are being carefully considered right now. As we all know the announcement of the National Cultural Policy is imminent. Changes to the not-for-profit sector are working their way through the parliamentary process. Consultation is underway for a draft national arts curriculum. The Government is soon to release its plans for Australia in the Asian Century. And we can expect a government response to both the Convergence and Classification reviews.

I do not intend to detail the various matters and the manner of the Australia Council’s engagement. Suffice to say that the Council has a very keen interest in these matters of public policy and the creation of a new consensus.  We are playing a vital role in their formulation and are central to their implementation.

From the Australia Council’s perspective, the way in which we engage with all artists, arts organisations, indigenous communities and government in matters of public policy is guided by some principles that we hold close, all of which have been around for a very long time. Amongst these are that:

  • Arts practice expertise and governance best practice will inform Council strategy, policy, assessments and administrative design.
  • A well-managed and open process of arm’s-length, peer-review is essential to ensure fairness and transparency in identifying, nurturing and investing in artists and arts organisations.
  • As a national organisation, Council will acknowledge the contribution of and work collaboratively with State, Territory and Local Governments.
  • Council will ensure the engagement and visibility of Australian artists and arts practice through exposure to and dialogue with Australian and international audiences and markets.

In the same way that demands are rightly made on the Australia Council by the whole arts sector, may I respectfully invite you to share a challenge in partnership.  A couple of weeks ago, I had occasion to write an opinion piece in The Australian.  I did so in reply to an article that I believed had misrepresented to the paper’s readers a view about the arts as being unaccountable for the expenditure of public funds amongst several other misinformed slights about the sector.

I don’t want to revisit that article here, aside from saying that our sector has become very adept at making the economic, educational and welfare arguments for what we do. Yet, in the view of many, the sector has become less adept in articulating the cultural benefits and yes, the art for arts sake arguments that were so well expressed in earlier times. A subset of that paralysis is the actual language that the sector itself uses.

For a sector that prides itself on imagination, inventiveness and challenge, we seem keen to describe what we do with a language that is old fashioned and stale, cliched, even devoid of meaning.  The exhortations about where the nation’s ‘cultural capital’ might be located underpin outdated language focused on the wrong concepts.

Each community should be confident to assert pride in its artists from all disciplines and the range of cultural experiences available. Each can delight in its cultural infrastructure. We will admire different public policy environments. We will want to relish the pervasive cultural memory that a community shares.  We may wish to contrast the experiences of all these factors across different geographies and art forms. We may even deeply believe that the experience of art is more intense, relevant, meaningful or enjoyable in some places.

But please let’s think of a fresh imaginative meaningful way to express this. The ‘Cultural Capital’ nomenclature is really tired and tiring.  It is a remark that is calculated to offend, not enlighten.   It doesn’t reflect the complexity and sophistication of the arts eco-system, and it certainly contributes to an unhelpful smugness that saps energy from all of us in the sector.

It’s time for the sector to find a new way to talk about what the nation has here. To be specific, can we please get rid of expressions that describe places being a ‘jewel in our cultural crown’. Where else in the arts do we so unthinkingly cling on to these ancient and archaic expressions?  The narratives that benchmark us against what else is available in the southern hemisphere are pretty odd. Can we stop explaining everything that we do in the arts as ‘story telling?  Can we drop ‘world class’?  We seem to be the last ones to rely on this crass marketing prop. If you share with me this concern about language and better expressing the cultural attributes of our sector, let’s work together to find better ways to communicate what we do and let’s have new kind of conversation about the role of the arts and culture.

In a recent piece of writing, Alison Carroll formerly of Asialink, encouraged us to consider the higher view of British culture and cultural creativity that the world formed during the recent opening and closing ceremonies of the London Olympics.  How do we achieve that same higher view of Australian artistic, creative and cultural activity? She advocates the ‘overt vocal support’ and encourages us to ‘speak with enthusiasm about its importance’.  That is our job at hand. Let’s rise to the challenge.

I mentioned earlier that the Australia Council will shortly have been in existence for 40 years. Like most 40 year olds, this recent period has been a time of solid reflection about the achievements and disappointments of the past and about the ambitions for the future. The good thing about being 40 is that you still have plenty of time to keep imagining and inventing.

I feel very optimistic about the public policy environment and the depth of thoughtful analysis that is coming from many in the sector. With your support and engagement, we are in for an exciting future.

Image Credit: Henri MATISSE, France 1869 – 1954, Océanie, la mer [Oceania the sea] 1946. Painting, Textile, screenprint on linen, 172.0 h x 385.4 w cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of Tim Fairfax AM 2012. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.