Please note: Some of the content on this page was published prior to the launch of Creative Australia and references the Australia Council. Read more.

Innovation and the Arts (The Arts: Genesis and Frontier of Innovation) – Rupert Myer AO

Speeches and Opinions
May 05, 2016

Hamilton Calder, fellow panellists, colleagues from the Australia Council, artists and arts leaders, ladies and gentlemen.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Kaurna people, and pay respect to elders past, present and emerging.

Thank you for inviting me. This is the fourth time and the third city in which I have spoken as Chair of the Australia Council at a CEDA event and I appreciate the privilege of doing so.

I have been imagining how Steve Jobs might have addressed this topic, Innovation and the Arts.  He might have shared with you how he studied calligraphy at university in Portland, Oregon, after having noticed how beautifully handwritten every poster was throughout the campus.

He acknowledged later in his life that calligraphy taught him about typefaces, varying amounts of space between different letter combinations and great typography.  In a recent obituary[i] of his calligraphy teacher, Jobs is quoted as recalling about the art form:

It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life, but ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me.  It was the first computer with beautiful typography.  If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.

He might also have referenced other key artistic influences in his life that contributed to products brimming with imagination, beautifully designed, elegantly packaged and creatively marketed, and made with materials, colours and operating systems all requiring invention.

It is the intersection of the arts and innovation that is at the heart of the products that Jobs produced and a key to his and to Apple’s success.  That intersection is the focus of these remarks.  The topic gives license to speak about the role of the arts as both the genesis and frontier of innovation.

The arts embrace broad expressions of human creative skill and imagination, practices, traditions and disciplines typically producing works such as painting, music, literature and dance, amongst much else, to be appreciated primarily for their emotional power.

While innovation is commonly perceived as a technology-driven phenomenon, it is in fact present in all forms of human endeavour, be that in science, medicine, social development, the environment, or the arts. It is important to every sector of the economy and every part of our social fabric.

Innovation certainly leads to the creation of new products, processes and business models. Equally, innovation expands our understanding of the human condition, furthering our insights into cultural systems and values, and understanding who we are as a people and a nation. It is a concept that, in one form or another, has endured for millenia.

Australia was a land of innovation long before the arrival of the first Europeans. The way in which the First Australians adapted and re-adapted to the challenges and conditions of this continent is testament to their inventiveness. Innovation is not commonly part of the historical narrative about our Indigenous peoples, yet the evidence of their initiatives is clear.

The inventiveness of the boomerang, the woomera and the yidaki (also known as the didgeridoo) are but a few of the more obvious examples.  However, it goes much further. In his 2014 book, Dark Emu[ii], Bruce Pascoe, one of our many great Indigenous writers, uses direct quotes and drawings from the diaries of early English and Scottish arrivals as evidence that Aboriginal people had a sophisticated understanding of agriculture, aquaculture, engineering and physics as demonstrated through innovative land and water farming techniques, housing constructions and the materials used to create effective tools and weapons. Many of these were inextricably linked to the centrality in their communities of cultural and artistic traditions.

An embodiment of this linkage between science and art is your very own son of South Australia, David Unaipon, commemorated on our fifty-dollar note. A Ngarrindjeri man, Unaipon worked in a seamless manner across the fields of philosophy, science, literature and music. His scientific works and inventions included in 1909 an improved and patented hand-piece for sheep shearing and, in 1914, he anticipated the idea of the helicopter, applying the principles of the boomerang.

In his 2014 Quarterly essay, A Rightful Place, Noel Pearson wrote that to grow socially and economically, people should hold hard to four things: Identity, territorial lands, language and culture.  He wrote of the importance of respecting memory, tradition, rituals and values as preconditions for change and innovation and that we risk being a‘smaller nation, with a smaller sense of our own possibilities’, if we don’t place our culture at the centre of what we do.[iii]

This is a great time to be having a conversation about innovation. In December last year the Prime Minister launched the National Science and Innovation Agenda – or, as he put it at the time, he ushered in the ideas boom, arguing that, with the mining boom receding, the purpose of the innovation agenda is to “help create the modern, dynamic, 21st-century economy Australia needs” by providing incentives for and rewarding innovation, entrepreneurship and risk-taking.

There is a rich conversation still to be had about the connections between the arts and community, technology and innovation. These are the connections that are shaping the way we’re now thinking about national prosperity, gross domestic product, national income and international exchange.

There is a growing momentum around the world to give the arts a stronger role in addressing the major global issues of our times, issues like sustainability, social justice, development, citizen engagement, identity, global recessions, digitisation, and large-waves of immigration.

While the spotlight on innovation is welcomed by the arts sector, we are keen to see the policy unfold to recognise the critical interface between science and the arts, linked as they are by the common threads of creativity and invention. We in the arts are conscious of the public perception that science equals investment and arts equals subsidy. This is a stereotyping that we are working with significant focus to disperse, both in rhetoric and in reality.

At the time of the Innovation Agenda launch, some members of the arts community expressed some dismay at such a detailed agenda for innovation being promoted without reference to the arts. There was some relief when, in February the Federal Arts Minister, the Hon Mitch Fifield responded by assuring the sector that he sees the arts as very much part of the innovation agenda and that the Agenda in its current form is “the first word, not the last word, on innovation”.

This sentiment has a theme that reverberates in other parts of the world. Recently, Canada’s Liberal government announced that it would invest nearly $1.9 billion ($1.4B USD) over a five-year period in various cultural industries.  The 2016 Budget reads:

Our cultural industries represent a key sector of our economy and the intersection of art, science and technology offers infinite opportunities to innovate and problem solve.  Investing in the Canadian cultural sector helps to create jobs, strengthens the economy and ensures that the unique Canadian perspective is shared with the world.”

The Australian Government’s Innovation Agenda aims to “drive smart ideas that create business growth, local jobs and global success” with increasing value being placed on the “development of ideas, collaborative thinking, and innovative solutions to complex problems”.  These are core skills honed and refined in pursuing arts subjects, as well as science subjects. Here we find the intersection of science and the arts, with innovation.

The Agenda is framed around four key pillars:  capital and culture, collaboration, Government as an exemplar and talent and skills. More simply put, that is backing our entrepreneurs, working together, leading by example, and developing talent.

The arts happen to be very good at the development and expansion of those skills for a broader application.

The Australia Council has a history and tradition of investing in social entrepreneurs through a range of funding arrangements over many decades. One of the most important and sustained of those in which we invest is the Synapse program, undertaken as a partnership with the Australian Network of Arts and Technology based here in Adelaide. Synapse includes a residency program in which artists are placed in science organisations and collaborate with scientists for a period of time. For the past 14 years, the partnership has been a catalyst for experimentation across art, science and technology. The program is unique in offering intense periods of research and creative exchange between professionals that can lead to the transformation of practice within both the arts and science.

Arts practitioners are also great collaborators. As many art forms, particularly the performing arts, are primarily group experiences, the arts become a prime tool for understanding and building skills in collaboration as a generic skill applicable across any number of disciplines.  Some of the most groundbreaking artistic work has resulted when artists with knowledge and experience from distant genres and unrelated forms collide and spark new ideas.

Looking at the third pillar of the Agenda, namely Governments leading by example, the value of immersion of the arts across diverse portfolios of government has been proven many times over in areas of Health, Education, Communications, Defence and the Environment. The arts and culture have a powerful halo effect on political exchange projecting a country’s values and beliefs.  It is hardly surprising that emphasis is being placed more often on culture first, business second.

The last pillar, developing talent, places significant emphasis on expanding opportunities within science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, commonly referred to as the STEM subjects

There is justified concern in the secondary and tertiary education sectors that, without strong STEM skills, young Australians will not be well equipped to create and utilise digital technologies, or to work across industries throughout what will inevitably be diverse careers. Women are significantly under-represented in STEM courses in schools and universities, and in the careers for which these skills are essential.

Broad advocacy has now developed to transform the STEM subjects with the inclusion of an A for arts. This advocacy is based on the view that, on their own, the isolation of STEM subjects from the arts leaves them incomplete rendering the society in which this occurs vulnerable to unbalanced and unsustainable progress. The focus of that transformation ought to be from STEM, not to STEAM, which is so 19th Century, but to TEAMS, with the arts at the centre of the conversation between technology and engineering, maths and science and the acronym a constant reminder of the benefits of cross-discipline collaboration and cooperation.

As both an evolving and ancient concept, TEAMS has a range of interpretations, though its key aim is to highlight the closeness of the disciplines through the common element of creativity. In the educational context at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, TEAMS would involve the development of inter-disciplinary curricula that foster cognitive, social and emotional abilities in young people.

The philosopher Martin Buber wrote in his “Paths in Utopia,” that a good and great idea will rise again when idea and fate meet in a creative hour.  The spirit of the age demands that it does.  However, beyond core beliefs, policy makers demand an evidence base that confirms the value of public investment in the arts. The measurement of cultural value requires a sophisticated language and a framework that sits both alongside and apart from its instrumentalist benefits and economic contribution alone.  Some of that important work is being undertaken in an ARC funded project, Laboratory Adelaide: The Value of Culture, led by Julian Meyrick.

The role of the Australia Council is to foster and pursue cultural ambition across the nation. Our vision for the arts has been developed through sustained dialogue with artists and all those who present, produce and support the arts. In that context, we have framed our Strategic Plan and shaped our priorities around pursuing our vision for Australia as a culturally ambitious nation.

The Australia Council is a funding body. Yet distributing Commonwealth funding is by no means the only thing we do.  We approach our role more broadly as a key advocate for, and investor in, our country’s artistic and cultural future. Part of our own innovation agenda includes supporting arts organisations to respond to the dynamic economic and cultural environment by creating new business models. We are just one of many partners involved in the development of the arts sector and in that context we actively work with other parts and levels of government, as well as seeking to attract new investors and partners.

Every moment has a context and, right now, that context is the sum of an imminent Commonwealth Government Budget with whatever policy and spending implications it carries for the arts; an election campaign in which the arts might have a higher profile than previously, especially in South Australia where there have recently been significant public meetings; and the announcements of the Catalyst Program funding outcomes and the Australia Council’s four year funding outcomes for the small to medium arts sector.

South Australia has a long history as a State that has embraced and embodied arts innovation and cultural leadership. It was well ahead of its time in projecting the arts as a central element of its wealth as a community and to its long-term prospects.  Since the publication of Richard Florida’s best-selling book “The Rise of the Creative Class” more than ten years ago, and much subsequent literature, we’ve become more and more aware of the value of a creatively vibrant city as a desirable place to live and to which to attract a high quality workforce. The industrial transformations facing this city and State will be impacted by the quality of the creative life on offer.  Central to success is the ability to attract and retain the human capital necessary to seize the opportunities created by an innovative economy and society.  Having a strong arts sector, well-resourced arts organisations, artists across and between disciplines experimenting and testing boundaries, are now global prerequisites to secure that talent.

Innovation arises from critical thinking. It advances and facilitates change. It is transformative, transcends disciplinary boundaries, changes established patterns and can stimulate human behaviour and response in unanticipated and unpredictable ways.

Innovation is not the domain of any one discipline but is driven from the successful interaction of many disciplines and diverse ways of thinking. If we are to really capitalise as a nation on the “ideas boom”, we need to deepen and widen our concept of innovation to seek convergence between scientific, technological, artistic and societal imperatives in pursuit of an innovation ecology that will continue to shape both our future prosperity and our identity in a challenging and dynamic world.

Whatever our endeavours, be they technological, engineering, maths or the sciences, placing arts at the centre of our innovative hubs, will garner greater innovation and lead to wealth beyond simple monetary wealth but cultural, societal and spiritual. If you want to lead the world in innovation, hire an artist and let them inspire your TEAMS.  If that happens to be a calligrapher, I am sure Steve Jobs would agree.

Rupert Myer

[i] Obituary of Robert Palladino, The Art Newspaper, Number 278, April 2016

[ii] Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu, Magabala Books, 2014

[iii] Noel Pearson, A Rightful Place – Race Recognition and A More Complete Commonwealth, Quarterly Essay 55, 2014