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‘Why supporting the arts makes sense for everyone’ 11 November 2016 – Rupert Myer AO

Speeches and Opinions
Nov 30, 2016

My hunch is that this is one of the places on the planet, which truly, madly, deeply gets why supporting the arts makes sense for everyone.

You are first amongst the growing number of Australians who experience and participate in the arts as part of their every day, and you already believe that the arts enrich and create meaning in peoples’ lives, that they have the capacity to unify communities, activate spaces, promote sustainable development, investment, tourism and economic activity, supplement education and improve health, increase well-being and shine the spotlight on local, national and global issues.

These are often referred to as the instrumental benefits of the arts, that is, what the arts do.  They are quantifiable and demonstrably prove the link between the arts and great community outcomes.  Of course, they are inextricably linked to the intrinsic cultural benefits and these are harder to measure with such precision.

In an attempt to channel some of these intrinsic benefits, I am going to share a couple of observations with you.

Recently, I was sitting at the entrance to the Tasmanian Museum and Gallery, just there, and I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation, close to closing time, between an elderly male visitor and the person on reception.  The visitor wanted to speak with someone at the museum who could assist him in determining whether some skeletal remains that he had found near his home were of a thylacine. That is meaningful.

Each one of us has connections with our cultural institutions: a sense of being part of them, not apart from them, a feeling of belonging, attachment, accessibility, proprietorship even.  We perceive them as informed, authoritative and influential in the curated experiences that they create for us, and as places of exchange, pleasure, delight as well as awkwardness, confrontation, disappointment, enlightenment, challenge.

A few weeks ago, on a cold late winter day at dusk, I sat in the pavilion at Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park.  What a brilliant tough inner urban opportunity, squat and lithe, translucent, perched on the edge of endless possibilities.  What a discovery for me and for which GASP’s Director Jonathan Kimberley is no doubt growing a compelling vision.

Up the road at Contemporary Art Tasmania there is an exhibition of paintings entitled, ‘Tiefenzeit’, by Australian artist, Tricky Walsh, which is the culmination of a three month Australia Council residency last year at one of the most influential residency programs in London.

In literature, in addition to many obvious examples of some of the world’s greatest authors living here, just this week, Sarah Holland-Batt who is poetry editor of Island Mag was awarded a Prime Minister’s literary Award for her book, The Hazards.

Opening last week, MONA is presenting a quite exceptional and extraordinary exhibition entitled, On the Origin of Art, that explores what art is from the perspectives of four non art historians, namely leaders in bio-cultural science and philosophy. I can’t resist saying how much I was quite unexpectedly deeply moved by one of my favourite music videos of all time being legitimized as an artwork alongside objects from different centuries and other places.  The masterpiece of a musical performer who grew up in Balnarring, Victoria is one object removed from, amongst a great deal else, an ancient hand axe, a shell necklace and some of the most influential artists of today and of all time. It is bewitching, beguiling and deeply satisfying.

A number of us in this room are anticipating attending tonight a performance of the TSO. Exactly what is it that we are anticipating? I suppose it is a shared experience of Australia’s most recorded orchestra comprising talented musicians drawn from this community being enthusiastically and skillfully conducted, and playing some of the most beautiful music ever composed on this planet. That’s something. We are promised elegance and nuance, the alluring, vigor, tenderness.  That’s what music is.

And just to give some further context, we will be watching a Japanese conductor conduct, and be listening to a French pianist play a music selection of a concerto, composed in Egypt by a Frenchman, a symphony composed by a German and first performed in Leipzig and an orchestral work composed by a Japanese composer whose influence, incidentally, was significant for a number of Australian composers.

I know that you know about the observations that I have just shared and the nature of what is culturally intrinsic to what is happening here. I hope that you recognise that it is extraordinary.

The artistic and cultural landscape has changed almost unrecognisably and now it is timely to think of what might happen next.

First, I believe that there is an imperative to bring the whole community on the journey.  For all of the success of the last several years, some of Tasmania’s communities continue to experience complex barriers to economic advancement, community participation and wellbeing. Many in the community are being left behind.

If we are to have learned anything in the political ruptures of the very recent period, it is that our arts and cultural activities are part of, and for, the whole community.

Second, with the achievements to date, there is a generational opportunity to create right here and now new resources and new opportunities for artists, composers, writers, dancers, performers to live, to study, work, form partnerships, take residencies, present, perform, be critiqued and reviewed.  Developing those specific opportunities is a key priority.

Third, increasingly, there is a decent chance that Europeans, Asians and North Americans will interrupt their summer sojourns to high tail it here for Dark MOFO’s mid wintriness, long nights and experience ‘south’ with all that is implied by the ‘otherness’ of the cultural expression of this place. The often-cited MONA effect is a hugely significant part of that disruption to the migratory patterns of cultural participation and, prospectively, there are many other opportunities yet to ensue.

Fourth, I submit that there is a real case to lead government here and not be led by it. Tasmania is streets ahead on this with the models of co-investment, collaboration, co-creation.  However, government is still absolutely critical in that world. One of the key advances over the next several years would be to move away from seeing government funding for the arts as ‘support’ and ‘subsidy’, replacing those old concepts with the notion of ‘investment’.  Subsidy and support imply market failure and a mendicant relationship.  The language of investment, with the expectation of long term, sustainable and beneficial outcomes, propels the arts to be dynamic and enduring.

Government’s promotion of private sector investment into the arts will also be critical.  The Commonwealth government pays for philanthropy, as it loses the revenue through tax deductions.  Therefore, the State Governments should promote it.  To create a culture of giving, you have to start with a culture of asking and support it with a culture of thanking.  We already have a great architecture of incentives to promote philanthropy.

One further orientation of government should be to ensure that our key tourist messages of sun and sand and natural beauty are entwined with cultural seductions.  Many we are trying to attract here can’t swim, don’t sunbake and are terrified of spiders and snakes.  Our promotional campaigns need to give emphasis to the great cultural experiences on offer.

Finally, a future here could be built where the status of the artist is raised, where respect and recognition is afforded to those who make the choice to be artists and creators. Creative originality has become deeply under-valued in the wake of the IT revolution with the conventions of copyright and intellectual property slipping into obscurity with income levels for artists sliding away.  Most artists still struggle to make a living.  This is entirely reversible. Creating a place where there are new models for financially and fairly rewarding creative innovation would be a great path to follow.

When the Australia Council set its strategy two years ago for Australia to be a Culturally Ambitious Nation, it was intended to be a call to the entire cultural sector to mobilise.  We wanted a strategy to reflect elements of pride in what we have but impatience and dissatisfaction as well.

Pride in what we have and impatience to make it better are generally two pretty good motivators for private sector support for anything.

Rupert Myer

11 November 2016