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‘The current state of Australian visual arts and strategies to reach desired futures.’ Remarks by Australia Council Chair Rupert Myer AM

Speeches and Opinions
Dec 04, 2014


I would like to begin by acknowledging that we meet on the land of the Gadigal of the Eora Nation and I pay respects to elders past and present.

Earlier this year at an exhibition opening in Rome at the Museo Carlo Bilotti of indigenous art, and the works of Giorgio de Chirico and Imants Tillers, I began my remarks by saying that, if that event were occurring in Australia, it would be customary to make the form of acknowledgement that I have just observed. I added that whilst we were a long way from Australia, it was impossible not to think of that custom and what it meant even from that distance.

A number of people present spoke to me afterwards and expressed appreciation that we follow a custom that pays respect to the original custodians of the land. We should not underestimate the significance of this protocol that has been practiced here for thousands of years. It is an important element of any ceremony and gives context and meaning way beyond just the words.

It is my pleasure and privilege this morning to offer some thoughts about the state of the visual arts in Australia today and to share some observations on what might happen next.

Out the outset, I had the privilege yesterday of attending the memorial service for a former Australian Minister for the Arts, who also happened to be Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam.

The Whitlam Government in 1975 passed enabling legislation to turn the Australian Council for the Arts, established in 1967 by the Gorton Government, into a separate statutory body, the Australia Council for the Arts with a greatly increased budget and a focus on the role of artistic peers to determine grants to Australia’s visual artists, writers, musicians and performers.  It was poignant that several speakers including Cate Blanchett and Noel Pearson specifically made reference in their remarks to the Australia Council and the transformative impact that it has had on the nation.

Amongst many forbears, I particularly acknowledge today Gough Whitlam’s leadership and inspiration.


Summits like this are great occasions and I am confident that this one will stimulate and inform and that each of you will take away new and useful knowledge and at least one inspirational idea, and probably many more.  The program virtually guarantees it.

NAVA was established ten years after the purchase of Blue Poles with which Whitlam will be forever linked.  NAVA’s mandate has evolved with the times to encompass visual and media arts, craft and design.   We’ve seen it develop important services for visual artists and arts professionals and organisations.

It has played a key role in debates on issues such as artist payment rights, copyright, moral rights, tax reform and resale royalties, and the arts curriculum for schools. These issues are still with us and form part of the matrix of discussions over the next two days.

In recognition of its national leadership role NAVA has received annual administration and multi-year funding support from the Australia Council since 1985.

The partnership between the Australia Council and effective national industry groups is essential. Neither one of us can do it on our own. A model of working collaboratively and sharing responsibility has strengthened many components of the arts sector.  Whilst from time to time, there may be differences of emphasis, perspective and opinion, there are many strong unifying big ideas.

I particularly want to commend Tamara and the team from NAVA for bringing the visual arts community together in this wonderful venue for this first ever National Visual Arts Summit.

Visual Arts Issues

And congratulations on having the vision to put together a program that confronts some of the most challenging questions of our times.

The topics are exhilarating and contentious. There are a couple of sessions that are shaping up to be of landmark significance including Dr Hong-Hee Kim speaking tomorrow about what arts organisations of the future will look like, a panel on what further big ideas are needed in Australian public arts policy, when censorship is justified, what it means to live in a borderless world, how the arts sector can be its own best advocate and what the notions are of the artist as citizen.  These are questions that speak to a confident, daring and engaged visual arts sector, grappling with modern complexity.

A bit over a decade ago when I chaired the Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft Inquiry, I described this sector as experiencing then chronic frailties, with its  ‘sustainability… affected by the closure of arts courses, the cessation of publications, inadequate access to new technology and underfunded organisations characterised by part-time staff working full-time, artists substantially subsidising their own sector’s infrastructure and diminishing financial reserves.’

The Inquiry found that there was evidence of fatigue within organisations and too few opportunities for artists to display their work or engage with audiences and establish sustainable careers.

I must acknowledge that Tamara and NAVA had lobbied long and hard for and played a critical leadership role in securing the Inquiry. NAVA recognised that the times called for a new push for the visual arts in Australia; a renewed understanding of their place in Australian life; a greater focus and clarity for our national ambitions; and more funding with more stable funding regimes.

CVAC outcomes – current scene

Fortunately, the Federal, state and territory governments of the day took notice and responded reasonably generously with funding increases and structural changes, principally through the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy but also through enabling legislation for a resale royalty and other legislative reforms supportive of artists, and to encourage greater levels of philanthropic support.

Whilst I know that some fragility remains today, and that many face challenges in their organisations, pleasingly within a few years of the incremental funding the sector was reporting significant improvements on most fronts.

Amongst many of the improvements, there are now more opportunities across a broader cultural infrastructure for artists to create and show new work. There are major, internationally renowned museums plus local festivals taking visual arts outside the normal parameters of engagement.  Galleries both public and commercial are showing contemporary visual arts and craft and supporting artists to make ambitious new works. Australian artists have greater visibility than previously, more often being invited to participate in biennales, triennales, art fairs, exhibitions of works, commissions and speaking engagements.

This environment has been enhanced by private art galleries here and overseas, many open to the public and some occasionally or not yet, collecting work, commissioning artists and lending works nationally or internationally. State and Territory, Capital City and local Governments have increased their commitments to cultural policies, public art, artists-in-residence programs, festivals and other opportunities to present the work of artists.  Large crowds are attending events where the work of Australia’s visual artists can be see including numerous art awards and prizes across regional galleries, portrait exhibitions, travelling exhibitions and art projects and installations.  There is a healthy eco-system presenting opportunities for artists, audiences, collectors, curators, gallerists, writers and educators.

Pleasingly, since the introduction of the resale royalty scheme in 2010, more than $2.5 million in royalties has been distributed to more than 900 artists from the resale of over 9000 works. Most royalties have been between $50 and $500 and indigenous artists have accounted for over sixty five percent of recipients.  These results underline the success of the scheme.

There is also a broader conversation about the opportunities and benefits that arise from cultural diplomacy, creative work forces, artistically engaged and connected communities, and an imaginative population.


Longitudinal research of the arts is an essential element of advocacy.  We are now able to talk far more confidently than we have in the past about what is happening. The Australia Council 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 survey 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.

According to the survey, 19 in 20 Australians participate in the arts. That’s if you include reading — dominated by reading novels. Four in five Australians participate in arts other than literature. One in two Australians make art. All of these numbers have increased since the last survey in 2009, and they’ve come a long way since the first survey in 1999. Over the past four years the big changes are increases in the number of Australians making music — playing an instrument or singing in a choir — and the number of Australians making visual art or craft. At the same time, as the use of the internet and electronic devices rose, all forms of visual art-making rose too.

Of course, some Australians face real obstacles to their engagement. Those with a disability, migrants, and regional residents are less likely to participate in and make art. But the differences overall, and for individual art forms, are generally at least two thirds of the participation rate of the general population.  Childhood experiences are vital to making things even better. People who were regularly taken by their parents to arts or cultural events are almost twice as likely to make art in later life.  The arts are now all but universal in Australians’ lives. Fifteen years ago, one in three Australians thought arts were ‘not really for people like me’. Today it’s only one in nine.

When it came to other attitudes 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 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.

Public Policy/Cultural Ambition

Public policy is very important: getting the right policies in place; monitoring their progress; adapting them over time.  There are a number of examples that demonstrate how important it has become to be highly strategic in positioning a nation’s artists and their art.  Often with a few deft policy interventions such as artist residencies, engagement with important curators, collectors, gallerists and writers, professional development and participation in significant events, the perception and reality of a nation’s creativity can be greatly enhanced.

Elements of that strategy are displayed in the significance that we place in Australia’s participation in the Venice Biennale.  If you have been following its progress, you would know that Australia’s new pavilion is well advanced and will be an important addition to Australia’s cultural infrastructure.  It is highly strategic for our visual arts to be represented in this way and we fully expect that Fiona Hall’s installation will give strong visibility to our entire visual arts sector.

The notion of a cultural ambition is not just about high-level policy. It can only succeed if it is embraced by artists and arts organisations.  I encourage you with your submissions to the Australia Council and, frankly, to all financial partners from whom you seek financial support, that you express the full extent of your ambition for a project.  The new programs are designed specifically to challenge you to think through the stages of a project and what you wish to achieve over a decent period of time.  If the Council is asked for an airfare, whilst we know it may make all the difference and we can support the request, is that really the best you can do?  Is that really the way that you want the national arts funding agency to partner with you? Does that really express the extent of ambition, experimentation, risk taking and adventure in your practice? I encourage you to spend time thinking carefully about how best to draw on the deep resources, knowledge and skill base of the Council, our access to local, regional national and international networks and our enthusiasm to make a difference.

Future challenges

In the context of working collaboratively, even as we respond to the challenges of the past, a range of complex new and emerging issues must be addressed if we are to achieve the full potential of Australia’s visual arts sector in future.

To name just four areas:

• Artists’ incomes and fees remain a major issue.

• Rising commercial rentals, inadequate spaces, insecure tenancies and the impact of urban gentrification are all reducing the availability of affordable spaces for artists to work and exhibit.

• There is the ongoing issue of career sustainability for mid-career artists.

• And there is still a clear need to increase the visibility of Australian art within international markets, and – a personal passion of mine – the need to tour contemporary art within Australia’s regions.

Progressing these matters will require continued researching and documenting the issues, the development of evidence based and sustainable policy proposals, and good old-fashioned lobbying.  We all share a role in these actions.

Strategic Plan

Many of you would know that the Australia Council launched in August a strategic plan through which we are positioning the Australia Council to reflect and support a culturally ambitious nation.  We identified four key areas of focus being that Australian arts are without borders, Australia is known for its great art and artists, the arts enrich daily life and Australians cherish Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture.  Since then, there have been presentations and workshops around the country involving artists across all art forms discussing the new funding programs and peer review processes.

Whilst I do not intend today to dwell on the programs and processes, each one of the four key areas of focus is of equal value and importance and presents many opportunities for visual artists and arts organisations.

Importantly for this audience, we recognise that artists work locally, nationally and one third already engage internationally on a regular basis, that they are actively engaged “artist to artist” led conversations and interactions and that they are finding global audiences with their work.

A plan has already commenced to employ a number of International Development Managers, whose role will be to develop networks and opportunities for Australian artists.  Central to this is the concept of mobility, meaning not just “touring support”, but longer-term engagement through these new networks, markets and opportunities.

Central to the plan is our new streamlined grants program with five clear grant categories.  Equally important is a strengthening of support for arts organizations: new opportunities for one, two or three year project support, matched with the availability of six year funding programs for arts organisations.

We will be announcing increased opportunities for all Australian to learn, engage and experience Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, and will support the development of new large scale works across all arts practice areas.

The strategic plan has a five-year horizon and there will be further announcements ahead that will support these areas.  We hope that many in the room today will share in and be a part of the new arrangements.

I also encourage you also to be aware of the philanthropic initiatives being implemented by Creative Partnerships Australia, some of which are very well suited to individual artists, particularly registering with the Australia Cultural Fund.

I would like to make a comment on peer assessment.  This is central to the past and the future of the Australia Council.  We have established bigger and broader pools of peers for assessment purposes and this will give us the flexibility to match the right peers with the right applications.

Under the new model, all art forms have access to the same programs, but the peer assessment remains art form specific.  Alongside area of practice expertise, peers will also bring specialist skills in the area relevant to the strategic plan and the assessment criteria – such as international activity or audience engagement.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peers will continue to make funding decisions on all applications submitted for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peer assessment.


I know that many of you will be keen to know about what comes next with the Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy.  It remains a key element of support under the new arrangements.

The Australia Council has been working with the Federal Government, states and territories to define a new VACS framework.  NAVA of course has also been closely involved with its usual eloquent and persuasive advocacy.

A new Visual Arts and Craft Strategy policy framework was agreed on at the Meeting of Australia’s Federal and State cultural ministers on 10 October this year in Alice Springs.

This will update the original VACS objectives and set out the processes for future funding decisions under the strategy.

The Australia Council is developing an implementation plan for VACS in consultation with the Ministry for the Arts and state and territory agencies. And further information on the framework and timing of implementation will be provided in due course.

It would not be appropriate to pre-empt the Minister’s announcements but what I can say is that the new VACS framework will sit within and support the Australia Council’s new five year Strategic Plan as the main framework for supporting artists in the future.


I return to the theme of advocacy partnerships with the Australia Council.  We play a vital role in advancing the visual arts in Australia, both in research and advocacy for the visual arts, and in developing suitable financial and other support mechanisms for individual artists, the profession and the broader visual arts community.

Resources that are available include the Australia Council published Talking Points – A Snapshot of Contemporary Visual Arts, by Phip Murray, which captured current thinkings in the sector about the issues affecting the visual arts in this country from artists, producers and curators, museum and gallery directors, commercial gallery directors, board members, collectors and patrons of contemporary visual arts.

The aforementioned Art Facts are a new base of statistics about the arts in this country, providing a clear fact base from which to make decisions about the future.

Additionally, the Australia Council has been funded to deepen its research on the arts sector as a whole through data analysis, in-depth research projects, an evaluation of Council activities and an annual State of the Arts compendium report.  This report will provide the sector and key stakeholders with an annual snapshot of sector growth and sustainability including measures and predictors of key aspects of the industry. It aims to become the lead advocacy tool for the arts.


My conclusion to the visual arts Inquiry stated that the challenge is to maintain and develop a contemporary visual arts and craft sector bristling with vitality and built upon the multiple talents, imagination and commitment of independent artists and craft practitioners.

That challenge hasn’t gone away. No one can ever rule out a return to fragility, so the work must go on with each new generation.

However, our nation’s attitudes towards the arts have improved significantly and there is an exciting new contemporary visual arts global cartography, filled with promise.  It will require skilful negotiators and mediators to make the most out of what exists.

I encourage you in your endeavours and I also encourage you to engage with us, collaborate with us and challenge us.  We are seeking great ideas.

This conference is another step in our quest to secure Australia’s future as a culturally ambition nation.

I wish you a successful, stimulating and enjoyable conference.