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Sam Walsh, incoming Australia Council chairman on creating art in critical times

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.

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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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7 responses to “Sam Walsh, incoming Australia Council chairman on creating art in critical times

  1. I suspect will be on my death bed and will be reading this same cliched BLURB from another CEO, just like all the last ex CEOs at OzCo.

    I didnt need to read it properly because I am sure its just cut and pasted from the previous ex CEO blurb about Humanity, story telling blah, blah, blah.

    The sad thing is no one believes this rubbish, we never did. There will another ex CEO in the same position in a few years…meanwhile Death comes ever closer.

  2. Yes but.
    What, for me, as an older person, is important in this culture, is the word, respect, in all ways. Not just for artists (I’m one) but anyone in areas to do with people and development.
    Like the Arts, anyone who works with or for people as in education, health and especially child health and education are, like artists deemed (or assumed) to be doing it out of a sense of mission, therefore payment may never be an issue – because “they’ll do it anyway and, apart from that, it is not empirical. They just create experiences.”

    People who work in these areas need to be seen as being rewarded, not paid. They contribute directly to our future.

    That is, historically, the underlying mindset that needs to change – at a government level, that has to change before there is any visible … change.
    Otherwise, we’ll continue to live (as we have done and do) in a world of evolving press releases. And more of the same.
    I’ll never forget a Barry Jones interview on 3 RRR at 2.00 am on the morning before Keating lost Government. I was driving home after a gig and he eloquently silenced his Melb. Herald headline reading interviewers before embarking on an impassioned (non-partisan) talk on the importance of being involved in democracy. Of voting and contributing. Of not giving up.

    The problem in ‘Official’ or grown-up political Australia is that they no longer value people, their contributions, except as ‘grabs’ or opportunistic point-scoring. The numbers have become so big as to be conveniently meaningless.
    As a Russian, anti-Soviet historian once said it’s easy to imagine one person’s death, less easy for ten, but what about a hundred dead or thirty-two million – impossible.

    Articles like the above could be useful if they were able to ‘deliver’ broad change not only in the Arts but with our other ‘human service’ (ugh! the term) colleagues.
    Artists are ‘human service devices’ no different from the others who share and vocalize the same kinds of concerns.

    We now have a Chairman who has experience of both sides.
    Will he do the right thing in supporting people and development, not profit or outcome in this resource-rich country?

  3. While the language around arts/culture/science remains as it is; that is to say of very little value to the current political landscape, it doesn’t really matter who’s in charge of the meagre funding allocated.

  4. Imagine if 62% of our rulers (members of Parliament) were unelected, there would be a revolt, not to say a revolution. Yet this is what we have to put up with in regard to the way $188.424 million (the OZCO budget) is collected democratically by our government (via taxes), but handed out with no democratic peer reviewed accountability whatsoever to the 28 companies in the MPA (Major Performing Arts).

    These companies exist to defend and exercise power and privilege. As such this giant slush fund reflects the widening gap in late Capitalist economies between the 1% and the rest. (Support of Bangarra is liberal tokenism to make the rest feel comfortable with the massive take from the pudding).

    This MPA state of affairs has existed for nearly 20 years and nobody in the Australian arts world ever questions it – not even when ex-minister for the arts Brandis stuck his nose in the trough for an extra hand out to his mates.

    OK so there is a board of power elites that we are told overlooks the 28 companies in the MPA, but who elects them? No one. Since almost no company has been kicked out of the MPA or been allowed to join in all this time, it is fair to assume that the whole game is sewn up and will remain so. To put it plainly, they have their hands down each other’s pants.

    The premise for this squandering of resources is that big ticket items like grand opera are expensive and must be part of Australia’s arts culture and as such large amounts of plunder must be quarantined for its existence. WHY? Since when has big equalled beautiful? The continuing cost of the endless repetition of overseas Hochkultur in insanely costly buildings does not constitute a living culture relevant for the times in which we live. If wealthy people wish to gorge themselves on Wagner or Puccini – then send them off on a package tour to Bayreuth or La Scala – it will be heaps cheaper and they will get something approaching the real thing too.

    This is my proposal. For 3 years put the MPA out to grass and use that money to generate a genuine home grown culture of small and innovative arts practice. The methodology of peer review grants functions quite well – small amounts of money used for maximum output and transformative results. MPA companies should have to argue their case competitively every year to a democratically representative body of musicians. If they can’t do that, then go find more Gina Rineharts.

    3 Years funding (using the MPA quarantined resources ) for individual artists and small organisations would transform the culture of Australia and yes, it would be revolutionary.

    The Australia Council is currently considering the status of the MPA. Make a noise and demand change, if you can’t be bothered, then don’t complain as those who have political and cultural power grab even more!

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