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Rupert Myer speaks at Council’s 40th anniversary

Feb 19, 2013

This evening we are honoured by the presence of a significant number of distinguished guests.

I believe their attendance is both a testimony to the achievements of the Australia Council over four decades and is an acknowledgement of the deep significance of culture and the arts in all our lives.

I would particularly like to acknowledge:


  • The Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government, Minister for the Arts, the Hon Simon Crean.
  • Shadow Attorney-General and Minister for the Arts Senator the Hon George Brandis SC.
  • Senator Gary Humphries and Dr Andrew Leigh MP, ACT Deputy Chief Minister and Treasurer Mr Andrew Barr and ACT Minister for Arts, Ms Joy Burch.


I am delighted that the Diplomatic Community is with us this evening.

So many of Australia’s closest friends are represented including the Ambassadors of Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Japan, Laos, Russia and the United States of America as well as the High Commissioners of Canada, India, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea and further representatives from the embassies of China, France, Germany, Great Britain, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Thank you all for attending this evening. The cultural ties between our countries create enduring bonds of substance and are at the heart of our understanding of each other.

Further, I would like to welcome the secretaries of Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sport; Health and Ageing and the ACT Chief Minister and Treasury.

Finally, I would like to welcome all of the artists with us this evening, Australia Council supporters, our Canberra arts portfolio colleagues and my Council colleagues

I would like to acknowledge we are gathered this evening on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal and Nyambri people, and pay my respect to elders both past and present.

As you might imagine, it is a particular pleasure for me to welcome all of you, on behalf of the Australia Council, to this reception here at the National Gallery of Australia in this magnificent Gandel Hall, in the year of Canberra’s Centenary.

This Gallery is a living, breathing example of how relevant a national cultural institution is to the nation’s balance sheet as well as its creative ambition. All the threads of contemporary arts policy, government investment, private support and institutional sustainability have come together in one place.

It is a place where scholarship, audience, technology, education, life-changing experiences, volunteerism, benefaction, national collections, government and corporate sectors all intersect so perfectly with the artist, artistic practice, creativity and the pure delight that stems from an encounter with an object.

I have now had the pleasure and privilege of serving the Council as its Chair for the past 7 months. I am very pleased and proud to be part of a truly great Australian institution.

Tonight is an opportunity for all of us at the Council, our Council members, the management and staff, to acknowledge our ACT based artists, arts organizations and community, our Canberra based arts colleagues and supporters from the Commonwealth and ACT Governments and to show our appreciation for the support the Council has received for over four decades from arts Ministers, their staff and departmental officials, and other Commonwealth and ACT agencies.

Tomorrow, the Australia Council will meet in Canberra almost 40 years to the day since it met, in its present form, for the first time.

It seems appropriate that the meeting will take place in the resonant surrounds of Old Parliament House – now the Museum of Australian Democracy.

It is the place where its enabling legislation was created and where its vision and initiative were given form by successive governments.

In November 1967, then Prime Minister, Harold Holt, informed the House of Representatives that a new Commonwealth agency would be formed to fund the arts in Australia.

That new body, arms-length and administered by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, with support from officials from other relevant government departments, and people from the arts, the law, the financial sector, and other areas of professional life, met for the first time under Prime Minister Gorton in July, 1968.

It assumed responsibility for theatre, arts and filmmaking and existed alongside the other agencies responsible for the arts – the ABC (symphony orchestras), the Commonwealth Arts Advisory Board (Visual Arts), the Commonwealth Literary Fund and the Commonwealth Assistance to Australian Composers. Some of these had been in existence for most of the last century.

Then in January 1973, 24 people were invited by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to form a new, but interim, arts council to assume the roles of the earlier body as well as a number of other boards and committees that had operated independently to that point.

The interim Council, whose funding allocation was significantly greater than that of the previous entities combined, met for the first time on 16 February 1973 and was asked to provide the government with advice on a more permanent structure for government administration of the arts.

In its inaugural form, the Australian Council consisted of seven boards including Aboriginal Arts, Crafts, Film and Television, Literature, Music, Theatre, and Visual Arts.

Ultimately the Australia Council Act 1975 was passed and the Australia Council, an arms-length statutory authority, was established, modeled broadly on the existing independent or ‘arms-length’ arts councils of Great Britain and Canada.

The remarkable “Nugget” Coombs was the inaugural Chair of both the precursor organization and the full statutory agency. He outlined his strategy at the time, calling on the Council to:

‘seek to ensure that, while the best is encouraged and those who produce it are given the greatest opportunity to achieve the highest quality of which they are capable, influences are [also] encouraged which run counter to the Establishment; that the new and experimental get effective opportunities.’

To many, these were lofty and even dangerous ideals, but Nugget’s formula of quality, diversity and innovation set the pattern, which the Council, as Australia’s main arts funding and advisory body, employs to this day. I think that we can say now with great conviction that a rich Australian culture exists and continues to develop rapidly. It is fresh, imaginative, connected, witty, at times irreverent, and with a consistent overlay of excellence

In an address last year in Brisbane, I mentioned that in thinking about turning 40, most 40 year olds experience a period of solid reflection about the achievements and disappointments of the past and about the ambitions for the future. I observed that the good thing about being 40 is that you still have plenty of time to keep imagining and inventing.

We have been busy examining our remarkable past and working to imagine a suitably ambitious future.

Right now, many arts policy matters are under consideration. This is an energetic moment with many possibilities. The fashioning of a new policy framework brings with it many opportunities.

I believe it is most important for those of us in administrative roles to place artists and those responsible for supporting artists’ right at the centre of our purpose, policy and decision-making.

I am pleased that the centrality of the artist is part of the culture and personality of the Australia Council and, I believe, this is evidenced by the care and respect shown for the artist in the work we do. This was also central to the founding vision of the Council and the enabling role of Government.

From the Australia Council’s perspective, the manner in which we engage with all artists, arts organisations, Indigenous communities and government in matters of public policy is guided by arts practice expertise, a well-managed and open process of arm’s-length, peer-review, collaboration between all tiers of Government and exposure to and dialogue with Australian and international audiences and markets.

The processes and programs that have been developed by the Australia Council have been admired and emulated in other jurisdictions, especially so with our use of the prism of ‘artistic vibrancy’, our measure of best practice, which now informs much international best practice arts funding. That is our IP and it has been developed with the assistance of many people in this room.

Through seeking leverage across the arts sector and with the Government’s enablement and support of cultural development, our ambition is to support Australia to advance as far again in the next forty years. The intrinsic and instrumentalist benefits of doing so are deeply intertwined, well understood by this audience and fundamentally important to the nation’s well-being.

This evening the Council and I, would like to acknowledge the vision and contribution of many Australians for more than four decades, many of whom are sharing this occasion with us tonight. Without your commitment, the Australia Council would not have achieved what it has.

Finally, thank you again for joining the current Council members and me this evening.

It is now my pleasure to introduce the Minister for the Arts, the Hon Simon Crean. Minister Crean has demonstrated a sustained and deep commitment to the arts and culture of our country. He has bought remarkable energy to the office and we have been highly appreciative of his tireless support and for his deep interest.

Now please join me welcoming him to the podium.