Sam Walsh took up the chairmanship of the Australia Council last month. The former global head of mining company Rio Tinto is known in arts circles in Perth and London, but little is known about his intentions for the arts as he takes the helm of the country’s most important arts funding body.
In this, his first public statement since taking up the Australia Council role, he writes exclusively for Daily Review on how he views the role of the arts in the nation’s identity and economy. These views might be seen by artists, and the arts companies the Australia Council funds, as a guide to how he might shape theirs and Australian audiences’ future.
My personal passion for the arts is deep-seated and I have long recognised its immense public value, both to the lives of individuals and society more broadly.
As the newly appointed Chair of the Australia Council for the Arts, I feel fortunate to come to the job at a time when there is a real strength and diversity of creative ambition, enterprise and achievement.
We are a nation that recognises the value of creative expression. Australia has a rich and evolving culture with a multitude of individual and collective voices; a culture built on freedom of expression, an openness to ideas, experimentation, and risk.
To this end, promoting and protecting the role of artists is crucial to Australia’s future economic, social and cultural prosperity.
I believe that the arts are an expression of what it is to be human; a quest for discovery that invites understanding and empathy.
In my view the arts are an intrinsic part of the fabric of our lives. This is borne out in the recent research of the Australia Council, Connecting Australians National Arts Participation Survey, which found that 98 per cent of Australians engage with the arts, including a significant increase in engagement with First Nations creative practice and work. Most heartening is the pivotal role of the arts in the lives of younger Australians and how responsive they are to new ideas and creative opportunities in the burgeoning digital and screen cultures.
Whether its 2018 Red Ochre recipient John Mawurndjul’s exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, a bold re-awakening of Verdi’s Aida, or a novel by Kate Grenville, one of Australia’s most celebrated writers, the arts are all-encompassing. My commitment is to do all I can to ensure our arts at every level are nurtured and not diminished, undervalued or compromised.
A rich, vibrant culture is dependent on public investment and resourcefulness, as well as the ongoing support of private companies as partners, sponsors and benefactors. The arts gain momentum and growth through collaboration. There is much at stake in the next chapter for the Australia Council, the arts sector, and Australian audiences, given the accelerated change on many fronts, including the media landscape.
New and appropriate business models will need to come into play to adapt to digital environments and generate sustainable creative endeavours that are both economically and culturally crucial. Fundamentally, I believe that the arts are an expression of what it is to be human; a quest for discovery that invites understanding and empathy.
I understand that my business credentials in running a global FTSE and ASX 20 company have come under question in some areas through unfounded speculation and innuendo.
As former Chair of the Art Gallery of Western Australia and Black Swan State Theatre in Perth, I have nothing but admiration for artists of all disciplines and from all walks of life as they interrogate, interpret, provoke and invite us to share their imaginative gifts and transformative wonders. Art is vital to a rounded, stimulating and rewarding life. Artists make us laugh and cry, rally and think. Artists challenge, inspire and illuminate us.
Our arts and culture are among our most powerful assets.
In an increasingly globalised world, the arts are one of Australia’s core strengths and go a long way to defining our national identity and building connections with others.
As the Chair of the Australia Council I want there to be a unity of purpose and fair-minded approaches that positively impact the arts while enabling artists to play to their strengths. I am a persuasive advocate of greater public investment in the arts sector to strengthen the role that the arts play in society. Through the arts people connect, empathise, share stories and perspectives. Through the arts people are recognised and recognise each other as members of diverse communities. The arts shape and express Australia’s cultural diversity. The arts have a pivotal role in the social cohesion of our communities.
I come to the job with considerable business and arts experience, including founding the WA Chamber for Arts and Culture, as a former Chair of the Australian Business Arts Foundation, Chair of the Black Swan State Theatre State Theatre and AGWA and a Director of the Royal Opera House and Ballet (Covent Garden). The arts have long been an essential part of my life from the time I grew up playing the piano and trumpet, acting in school theatre and singing in church and university choirs. These experiences have shaped my understanding and appreciation of the essential role of artists and my resolve to support the arts both in Australia and internationally.
I understand that my business credentials in running a global FTSE and ASX 20 company have come under question in some areas through unfounded speculation and innuendo. Regardless, I am extremely proud of my achievements with some of the world’s leading companies, including GMH, Nissan and Rio Tinto, and just for the record, I have neither been accused of anything untoward by any of them, nor charged with any offence whatsoever by any agency. Suggestions I see to the contrary are most unfortunate and, in some cases quite malicious.
It is imperative that the Australia Council supports a wealth of ideas, promotes growth and engenders a robust culture that values freedom of expression.
Putting this aside, I am determined to make the Australia Council a pro-active and powerful advocate for the arts, to provide cohesive, unified leadership and to champion a vast array of practitioners and communicators while never losing sight of their inestimable public value. I view the Australia Council as an enabler; not only of artists but also of investors and stakeholders, philanthropists, and benefactors, for whom the arts are central.
Like my predecessor, Rupert Myer AO, I have enormous admiration for the passion, dedication and achievements of Australia’s emerging and established artists, and the high-achievers and role models who inspire, mentor and continue to produce exemplary work. We are, however, at a critical time in Australian cultural life. Government and business must address the financial imbalances and struggles faced by many of our practising artists.
Artists need to have sustainable and successful careers. Respect is important but action is needed to ensure that the enormous contribution and value of artists to our culture, identity, economy and legacy, are not eroded or further compromised.
The Australia Council’s findings in its extensive research report Making Art Work: An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia by David Throsby and Katya Petetskaya, highlights serious challenges around how art and creativity are valued, despite their enormous contribution across all facets of our lives, including our economy. I am a committed advocate of Australian storytelling and recognise that they benefit of all Australians, then issues of remuneration, support structures and safeguards must be taken seriously and acted on.
It is imperative that the Australia Council supports a wealth of ideas, promotes growth and engenders a robust culture that values freedom of expression. We have a responsibility to recognise new and progressive art forms, and to support and protect our cultural heritage and future.
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