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Hon Simon Crean’s speech at Australia Council 40th anniversary cocktail reception

Feb 19, 2013

Australia’s Indigenous heritage is central to our national identity.

As home to the oldest living culture on Earth, producing some of the most exciting and dynamic art forms on Earth – and here in the National Gallery we can see the richness of our Indigenous culture and also gain a real appreciation of wider diversity of cultures at play in Australian creative expression.

Australia Council – a success story of a dynamic society and economy

Tonight I want to move from talking about the arts to the broader issue of why Australia has been a success story as a dynamic society and economy.

Rupert has outlined the steps which led to that first meeting of the Australia Council 40 years ago.

Steps that were laid by Prime Ministers Holt, Gorton and taken up by the Whitlam Government in the establishment of the Australia Council.

My father was the Treasurer in that government and was prepared to fund it.

I keep making this point to Wayne Swan when I’m arguing our position in terms of the National Cultural Policy.

I argue that the story of the Australia Council fits into the broader history of our economic and social resilience.

When Australia began on a path of  welcoming a diversity of cultures to become part of our nation, when it opened up to the international economy in the 1980s, when it remade its industrial relations system and deregulated its banks, Australia reaped a rich reward.

When one thinks of the big reforms that this country went through in the 80s and 90s in particular, the economic reforms, it really did set this country up in terms of the economic miracle, the opening up to the rest of the world, to compete.

I don’t think there’s been as much recognition with the importance that the arts has played and the development, through the Australia Council, of that important Australian brand.

Not just in innovation—but around creativity, individualism, expression—all those aspects that Australia is recognised for.

In earlier times, Australia was a pioneer in social reform and was internationally known as a country of opportunity and fairness.

It is a track record in boldness in facing up to the challenges before us, and a willingness to reform and remake our institutions and agencies to fit the times.

In establishing the Australia Council, the Government was recognising the swell of creative talent that was behind a new creative confidence and uniquely Australian voices in our national storytelling.

The Australia Council was the government’s investment in realising the opportunities which were before us in developing that talent.

And it has brought us a huge return on that investment.

Forty years on we face another turning point—where digital technology means that our musicians, screen industries and actors are part of a global cultural marketplace.

At the same time our young people are increasingly making their own art and blurring the line between community, commercial and non-profit cultural sectors.

Increasingly, design, design-thinking and creative solutions are important in innovation systems and linked to increasing productivity.

It is this development of the creative class that is so important to our future because in the global economic opportunity, it’s no longer just about innovation. We have to invest more in the creativity, in the design and the thinking that comes from that.

In my view the artist is central to that creativity.

It is an exciting time of change, and as Minister it is even more exciting to  see the extraordinary energy and passion that a new generation of artists and creators are bringing  to bear.

That is why this Government has embarked on a new national cultural policy—it is time once again to make our institutions and agencies fit the times, and  realise the opportunities.

We have reformed support for the screen industry, and are now finalising our response to reviews of the Council and of our philanthropy and business partnership policies.

There is also a new arts accord, in partnership with all the governments around the country.

Partnership with government, partnership with the private sector, partnership with the not-for-profit sector, partnership with philanthropists.

I am deeply appreciative of the support of the Council through this long process, as well  as the Council’s own commitment to meet the challenges that this new environment is throwing up.

Return on Investment

Tonight’s celebration comes hot on the heels of Gotye‘s success at the prestigious Grammy Awards.

He scooped the pool with three awards, including the marquee category for best record and the first Australian to win multiple Grammys for the same release.

In 2011, Gotye received $10,000 from the Australia Council.

This funding allowed him to showcase his talents on the world stage at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York.

At the same awards but in a totally different category Australia was also able to celebrate the achievements of Australian flautist Tim Munro, who took home two Grammys with his Chicago-based ensemble Eighth Blackbird.

Like Gotye, Tim is also the recipient of Australian Government support, through the Australia Council in the early stages of his career.

Tim is also giving back to emerging artists.

Today, in fact, Tim Munro takes up a role as an international music mentor with the Australia Council’s JUMP Mentoring program, where his experience as both a performer, and teacher, is helping shape the next generation of musicians.

Gotye and Tim might be our most recent artists to gain worldwide recognition but they join a list-four decades in the making – that celebrates and supports excellence in Australian art and culture.

Grants made in the first year – 1973/74

Forty years ago, in its first year of operation, the Australia Council dedicated itself to supporting excellence.

Those initial grants went to some of Australia’s most talented young artists.

A young filmmaker by the name of David Gulpilil received funding to attend the Australian Film Television and Radio School.

Writers, poets and playwrights including Thomas Keneally, Ruth Park, Les Murray, Frank Moorhouse, David Williamson and Thea Astley were supported with commissions, fellowships and grants to travel.

Composer Ross Edwards received a fellowship to make recordings of his orchestral work and Don Banks received funding for a new commission.

At just 16 years old, musician Dene Olding, received funding to study at Juillard in New York City.

Dene, of course, has gone on to be Concertmaster of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and now at the Sydney Symphony.

Shirley McKechnie received $1,000 for research that took her to some of the world’s best dance training academies. Among her many achievement’s Shirley established Australia’s first degree in dance at Deakin University, was a founder of Ausdance, received an OAM and an honorary Doctorate from the University of Melbourne and has continued to pursue excellence as a researcher, writer and philosopher on contemporary dance in Australia.

Visual artists David Aspden, Fred Cress, Janet Dawson, Roger Kemp, Edwin Tanner, Dick Watkins, Ken Whisson, Alan Mittelman, Bea Maddock and Peter Tyndall received funding.

These celebrated visual artists are all represented here, in the National Gallery of Australia Collection.

Let’s be clear. Australia Council funding is not about picking winners—it’s about the pursuit of excellence.

From the outset, the Australia Council has focused on backing local companies making new work aimed at creating a sophisticated ‘Australian voice’.

In the last 40 years significant leadership roles at the Australia Council have been filled by Dr Jean Battersby, Geoffrey Blainey, Donald Horne, Hilary McPhee, Michael Lynch, David Gonski and James Strong.

Under their guidance Australia has gone from receivers of others cultures to proud producers of our own.

By investing in the arts we reach into every community and culture in Australia.

The arts are the bedrock of a creative economy and are a key contributor to Australia’s prosperity and pride in our heritage.

There is the social return from them, in terms of the return to the nation in terms of appreciation of heritage and culture, of expression, creativity and self empowerment.

In economic terms, our comparative advantage and strengths are going to be determined by how effective we are in investing in innovation and creative design and the arts is a vital piece of the puzzle.

Finally, on this very special night it’s worth recalling a passage, from a paper written by Professor David Throsby.

David pointed out in his paper that the very first recorded example of government patronage of the arts in Australia dates back to 1818-19.

The poet Michael Massey Robinson was granted ‘two cows from the government herd for his services as Poet Laureate.’

All I can say is that we’ve come a long way in government support for the arts.

I look forward to celebrating with you tonight and building upon and strengthening those foundations for the next 40 years.

Thank you.