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2014 CHASS Australia Prizes Dinner – Keynote Address Rupert Myer AM

Speeches and Opinions
Dec 08, 2014

• Steven Schwartz, Executive director, Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

• Senator Dean Smith

• Mr Les Murray

• CHASS board, executive and members

• Award nominees and recipients

• Generous sponsors

• Ladies and gentleman

I would like to acknowledge that we meet on the land of the Kulin Nations and I pay my respects to elders past and present and all indigenous people present this evening.

Thank you for the invitation to speak.

I congratulate the Council on this National Forum and tonight’s inaugural awards ceremony that recognises and honours the distinguished achievements of those producing outstanding work in the HASS fields. Although new, these are already amongst the highest honours that exist for achievement in these fields and this further intensifies the significance of this occasion.

The Australia Council and CHASS enjoy a strong relationship and have collaborated on some important policy matters.  It is appropriate that I thank CHASS for the formal submissions made to two important reviews in 2012: the Review of the Australia Council and the Review of Private Sector Support, also known as the Mitchell Review.

The outcomes of both of those Reviews have had a material impact on the Australia Council and I hope that you will recognise in my remarks this evening various parts of your detailed submissions.

Those areas where CHASS’s crisp advocacy has had the strongest influence include:

1. Cultural diversity as a key aspect of policy,

2. Your encouragement for the Australia Council to find sustainable ways for artists to use their skills and knowledge in the long term,

3. A five year time frame for creating sustainable interventions and support mechanisms,

4. Support for the research and advocacy role of the Australia Council,

5. Greater clarity around the processes by which peers are selected and a greater diversity of those peers with the active inclusion of individual artists and the voices of smaller arts organisations.

I also note from the submissions your advocacy for an enhanced role for philanthropy in extending its support for the arts and cultural institutions. We are all in favour of that.

With such sharp and reasoned advocacy, and with a prescient eye for an achievable outcome, I want to say from the outset that I feel confident that significant elements of the custodianship of humanities, arts and social sciences in Australia are in safe hands with the impressive organisations that make up the membership of CHASS. For a relatively young organisation, CHASS has established an enviable reputation as an effective, constructive and persuasive representative and advocate for the HASS sector.

Stephen observed in a recent CHASS publication, “Despite the high level of public and political support for subjects, we HASS members frequently feel that we are struggling not only financially but also to prove our value.”    Lamenting this state is not new.  Gregory of Tours could well have had the same concerns in the early Middles Ages:

“Woe to us, for the study of letters has disappeared from amongst us!”

So, why is it such a struggle?

Giving a single definition to the humanities is great sport but it possibly doesn’t help a lot that we all can’t quite agree.  I happen to like one adopted by the brilliant cellist Yo-yo Ma who said:

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

I also like the five ‘claims for value’ presented by Professor Helen Small in her recent book, The Value of the Humanities:

the humanities cultivate intellectual disciplines that the hard and social sciences either ignore or don’t emphasise; 

the humanities are “useful” to society in ways that aren’t quantifiable;

the humanities have a contribution to make to our individual and collective happiness;

Democracy needs the humanities; and

the humanities matter “for their own sake”—they need no justification.

I like a lot of the definitions and I’m not persuaded that it matters very much that there are so many of them, probably there are 120 versions espoused by those of you attending this Forum.  I think that almost any version will do.  They are all brilliant and insightful.  It is how you use them that really counts.

What does concern me is that the arts and humanities seem to have to always defend themselves against criticisms that their areas of interest are elitist or esoteric or unnecessary, and against taunts of ‘soft’ option university subjects and degrees, and unemployable graduates.

This dreary attitude is mind-numbing, tedious, out of date and untrue.  The ignominy of it is that the negative case is so often made by those who have themselves directly benefited from their own training in the humanities and practiced through their writing and broadcasting.

My counsel is to not get defensive, get resolute, perhaps even defiant.  The good news is that recent coverage shows that there is more employment, contribution to GDP, respect and appreciation for the HASS disciplines than many might think.  The Australia Council’s most recent research also has something to say about it.

We released a research paper in May titled Arts in Daily Life: Australian Participation in the Arts based on research in 2013 that, happily, has been quite widely reported.

The paper provides an insight into how Australians participate in the arts today and, when compared against a similar study in 2009, they paint a picture of the shifting attitudes and behavioural trends in both participation and attitude towards the arts.

The headline findings were both encouraging and informative… and they included these:

– 94 per cent of Australians engaged in the arts in some way in the 12 months before the survey attending live events or art galleries or reading literature in that period up 2 percentage points on 2009.

– And nearly half of Australians participated in the arts as creators in at least one art form… whether that be music, a craft activity, painting or drawing, photography and video making, 7 percentage points higher than in 2009.

– And perhaps of particular interest to this audience… 73 percent of people have read a novel in the previous year, 3 percentage points higher than in 2009.

– And poetry was read by 26 per cent of people, up from 21 per cent in 2009.

When it came to Australians’ attitude to the arts…

– 85 per cent of those surveyed believe the arts enrich our lives and they view the arts as important and relevant to their daily lives… an increase of 5 percentage points over 2009 and 15 percentage points since 1999.

– Australians value Indigenous arts… with 92 per cent agreeing ‘Indigenous arts are an important part of Australia’s culture’, up from 89 per cent in 2009.

– 89 per cent agreed that ‘The arts should be an important part of the education of every Australian’; and

– Fewer Australians, 30 per cent, agree that ‘The arts tend to attract people who are somewhat elitist or pretentious’, down from 34 per cent in 2009 and 51 per cent in 1999.

The findings were very encouraging and they have, and will, continue to play a central role in informing the Australia Council’s strategic planning as well as policy making and advocacy roles.

They are already being reflected in the attitudes and advocacy of others.

It is not just the converted who are rallying but a chorus has formed of business, political and community leaders across many sectors and disciplines who ‘get’ the importance of creativity, originality, thoughtfulness and deep pools of cultural knowledge and expertise.

A recent report from the Australian Davos Connection, in collaboration with KPMG, noted:

‘…there is a cultural imperative to reframe what it means to be a ‘hero’ in the Australian narrative. It needs to become as desirable for young people to dream of scientific, entrepreneurial, artistic, or political success as it does for them to dream about sporting fame and accolades. Most importantly, there needs to be the commensurate public recognition and acclaim.’

David Redhill, a Partner at Deloitte Australia, at a Currency House Business Breakfast last month remarked that creativity would, in the future, be the most valued currency in business.  He noted that a 2012 survey of 300 directors and executives on the role of creativity in businesses found that leaders look for competitive advantage, with 96% thinking that creativity is critical in determining business strategy. But, 50% of those same directors and executives admitted that no-one in the business was responsible for it.  It is what Redhill described as ‘a fascinating disconnect.’

What a great opportunity for everyone in this room.

In a recent interview, Professor Small said she didn’t use the word “defence” in the title of her book because she wanted to make the case for the value of the humanities without assuming that the audience is hostile, or that the higher research in the humanities is gravely endangered.   She said she believed that defensiveness is not the most persuasive tone in which to communicate value and that she wanted to work out what the most persuasive arguments are for funding higher research in the humanities without raising the emotional or rhetorical pitch.

This sentiment has certainly influenced the approach that we are taking at the Australia Council.

I like that Redhill proclaimed that business should recognise that:

‘The currency of ideas is your most certain, bankable bet for the future; and art has the power to ferret out the truth’

A couple of weeks ago, the Australia Council released a new Five Year Strategic Plan following an extensive period of consultation, which we have titled, ‘A Culturally Ambitious Nation.’  We believe that we require a plan that reflects a culturally ambitious nation, and that supports one.  The plan clarifies our purpose as being to champion and invest in Australian arts.

It sets four priority goals that we are using to give shape to how we reflect and support the arts.  The goals recognise that Australian Arts are without borders, that Australia is known for its great arts and artists, that the Arts enrich daily life for all and Australians cherish Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and cultures.   We have now set forth with a new grants program, an expanded Peer review process, specific goals attaching to cultural diversity, six year time horizons for many of our funded organisations, and a focus on the artist as central to everything we do.  You might recognise some of this from your advocacy and thank you for your positive responses.

Naturally, questions turn to how we might better understand our performance in these areas and how we might use that understanding to guide our strategies and best advocate to ensure growth and sustainability.

The answers will not always be clear but the pathway there includes research and consultation, identifying our purpose and setting a clear strategic direction, network building and advocacy across the whole community and strong leadership.  The Australia Council has also announced that it will produce an annual State of the Arts Report in which it will detail all of the available data relating to the arts.  Over time, this will create a powerful longitudinal tool by which we can measure how the sector is performing.

Of course we can’t do it alone. Gaining a larger audience for the messages is critical.  In the same week that actors Leonardo Di Caprio and Emma Watson addressed the United Nations on the worthy subjects of climate change and gender equality respectively, Cate Blanchett represented the arts and humanities when speaking to students at the Macquarie University Faculty of Arts on receiving a Doctorate. Cate said:

“The arts are what we stay alive for, what we work all week for, what we dream about, what connects us and indeed, what some would say makes us human…..  I’d like to posit today that it is the arts that have always been the driver for innovation and exploration. I choose these words precisely because they are credited to science… innovation and exploration.”

As happens in today’s connected world, those words quickly travelled around the globe and generated some passionate debate.  The good news is that, whilst there may be disagreement forever over whether science or the arts add more value, there is an emerging furious agreement about an approach that embraces both.

Last month, one of your speakers at this Forum, Professor Ian Chubb AC released his recommendations for a strategic approach to science and its related fields. In remarks about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, he said that the value of Australia’s investment in these disciplines will be ‘diminished if our practitioners operate without due regard for Australians, and their wants, needs, aspirations and concerns’ and that their work must ‘relate to valuable work in the social sciences and humanities.’ He said that these ‘disciplines are critical to our understanding and recording of our world: our cultures, our knowledge of society and the relationships within society.’

This is all good news for the HASS disciplines.  Indeed, I hope that my remarks have presented some positive signs for the humanities right now.  On an occasion when achievement and contribution in these disciplines is recognised, I would like to conclude by re-stating my conviction of how valuable and valued the HASS disciplines are.  In a culturally ambitious nation, their role is paramount. I also hope that you will agree that the Australia Council and CHASS share much common ground and that a great deal might be gained from some meaningful and valuable collaboration in the years ahead.

Thank you.