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Australians need to 'out' themselves says Australia Council chairman Rupert Myer

What’s a typical Australian? More than half of us have a parent who wasn’t born here. Most of us live in a city large even by global standards. Relative to the rest of the world we are rich, and we live a long time. And — here’s the surprise –almost all of us participate in the arts, and half of us make art.

This is not our self-image, nor is it how we project Australia to the rest of the world much of the time. The archetypal Australian, partly borne of our literature and film, is a bushman with grandparents from the ‘old country’, passionate about sport. You say, “Surely, that’s out of date?” Pull out an Australian passport, and its images are flora and fauna, bush scenes, and the only building is an outback pub.

Over the past few decades, Australia has transformed itself. We have moved into cities, grown service industries, welcomed migrants from all round the world and changed the national diet from ‘meat and three veg’ to a kaleidoscope of variety, taste and imagination.  We have also embraced the arts.

According the survey released last month by the Australia Council, The Arts in Daily Life: Australian Participation in the Arts, 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, old-style — or timeless — 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 surprisingly small. For all these groups, their participation is often not much different, and invariably 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. We owe it to our children to give them the opportunity to “be Australian” by participating in the arts.  For 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.

But this participation remains a guilty secret for many — part of our self-image as individuals, but not part of our self-image as a country. A recent television program identified sports at the top of the scale as ‘dinky-di Australian’, and the arts as, well, un-Australian (surely it’s even more un-Australian to use tired, clichéd language). A challenge for the arts in Australia is to ensure that Australians know that their fellow Australians share their secret passions.

Ironically, as participation in the arts has grown, a lot of arts policy has focused on the instrumental value of the arts — what they do for the economy, for regional development, for academic achievement. Some suggest that this is a response by the cultural sector to governments at all levels placing greater scrutiny on spending across all sectors of their economies. Accordingly, activities that have intrinsic but unquantifiable value struggle to justify the allocation of taxpayer funds. The arts do have instrumental value, and creative industries in particular will increasingly underpin our economic future. At the same time it is imperative that the cultural sector confidently articulates the intrinsic value of the arts to policy makers.

We should give up on the guilt complex. Apart from anything else, it’s not working. For most Australians, the impact of the arts on the economy is minimal. In fact, if one excludes the many commercial activities that rely on creative individuals (many of whom trained in art schools), the arts are not a particularly large part of our economy. But then, that’s not the point, as most Australians understand. For four in five Australians, the arts are valuable in themselves — they make for a richer and more meaningful life. They’re seen as important in self-expression, thinking creatively, dealing with stress, and community identity.

It’s time we outed our national love affair with the arts. They’re not a niche activity. Instead they are all but universal in Australians’ lives. There’s no need to be embarrassed about how we find them inherently valuable, and part of a better life.

Rupert Myer is chairman of the Australia Council.

4 responses to “Australians need to 'out' themselves says Australia Council chairman Rupert Myer

  1. Mr Myer has got it all wrong and I think the choice of image used by Crikey is intentional by the way. Rupert Myer is a ‘drip down’ at heart. Yet again the public need to be too what to like, how to think, how to act. It is an elitist attitude still. In many ways we are still in the 18th Century when it comes to who controls the means of the production of meaning in the the Yarts. Meyer is right, Australians don’t need to see any economic benefit in the Arts because they don’t need to see any economic benefit in sport, Breaking Bad, GOT, Gaga or ABBA! Come of your high horse Mr Meyer. No one cares about ‘outing’ ourselves as arty farty! All human being are creative whether it be gardening or watching TV or gaming or not doing anything! All are creative in their own way.

    1. Every day I meet people who yearn to be involved in the arts. Sometimes they stare open mouthed at the work in the gallery, sometimes they ask if it’s ok to be a complete beginner when joining an art class. There has been a change in the last few years where ordinary people sense that a life lived without visual arts culture is a life less rich. In Hobart, there’s no doubt that Mona has shifted perceptions and Hobartians feel a sense of ownership whether they are fine artists or totally new to this form of culture. A trip to Sydney’s Biennale surprised me by the overwhelming enthusiasm of Sydneysiders for the outdoor events. Saturday night, George St was closed and hundreds of people walked down the centre line to the harbour. They pushed strollers, carried infants, danced up and down the gutters and thronged to see the light shows. On the grass in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art little picnics in the dark were lit by glowsticks and lit whirly gigs as families embraced the lightshows on the buildings. It’s possible to dismiss all this as bread and circusses but it seems to me that whether the customer looking for something blue to go in her lounge room has been inspired by a home decorator magazine or a personal aesthetic imperative it really doesn’t matter. The visual arts is transformative on many levels and whether a person wants to enter the arts through practice, or by accepting the artist’s invitation to partake in their unique vision by viewing or purchasing work we are all better off.

  2. I reckon a big artistic endeavour that’s been omitted here is gardening, a very creative activity that engages one’s mind and body and produces emotionally stimulating and thought-provoking creations which add depth to one’s appreciation and understanding of the natural environment. Even a lot of my vegie gardening turns out to be purely artistic, as the produce fails to reach our kitchen, being appreciated along the way by various wildlife.


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