Most people ‘get’ the importance of art but we can’t be complacent

Rupert Myer AMAs the nation’s principal arts body, the Australia Council has a statutory responsibility to recognise and reward significant contributions made by artists and others to the arts in Australia, and to promote an appreciation, knowledge and understanding of the arts.

This reflects the fact that, in any society, promoting the arts and ensuring appropriate recognition for artists is not something you can “set and forget”. Just as the preservation of our history, heritage and traditions – indigenous and non-indigenous – requires constant repackaging for new generations, the value of our cultural legacy and contemporary arts requires ongoing application and advocacy.

Fortunately, for many decades, Australian governments and private benefactors have ensured that artists have not been abandoned in the struggle to balance the competing demands on resources. Consequently Australia’s cultural competencies and international reputation have progressively strengthened, and our ambition has been rewarded. Governments and other supporters get it.

Similarly the general Australian public has increasingly embraced the arts and values the part it plays in their lives. The Australia Council’s research released in late May shows that Australians enjoy and participate in the arts in unprecedented numbers. Two thirds recognise that the arts have a significant impact on a child’s development, while 85 per cent of Australians think the arts make for a richer and more meaningful life. The number of people who have never attended an arts event is declining, down 8 percentage points to 29 per cent since 2009. Ninety percent believe artists make a significant contribution to Australian life and only a minority believes the arts are “not for people like me” (13 per cent).

The Australian people generally get it too.

On the strength of these numbers one could conclude the advocacy task must be getting easier. Perhaps it is, but we cannot be complacent. Unfortunately some who have privileged and regular access to our attention via print and electronic media continue to proffer an anachronistic view of the arts and artists and seem more comfortable feeding rather than questioning prejudice and false perceptions.

There was a clumsy attempt in The Age recently that relied on unnamed sources to raise doubts about the fairness of Federal Government support towards the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne. Talented dancers from all over the country who would benefit were disparagingly described as “young ballerinas” (presumably no male dancers need apply?), an image that neatly supports the unsourced quote from “a senior Liberal” about it being “a creche for some rich kids”. No mention is made that the school is a highly regarded educational institution of 50 years standing with an international reputation.

Similarly, we are told by our national broadcaster in relation to the detention of a prominent Australian Chinese artist, Guo Jian, that the Chinese Government must be paranoid because “they’re getting down to artists in terms of those being detained”. ‘Down to artists?’ The presumption on the AM program last week is that artists couldn’t possibly be as threatening as “church leaders, professors, other academics and reporters”. One might assume then that the decision to display a tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica on the wall of the United Nations building in New York City is just for decoration. This idea that artists and the arts have no real influence is contrary to the research and historical precedents.

Not everyone in government, the corporate world, or philanthropy “gets” the arts. That’s OK because most do and make their best efforts to support and enjoy the arts in the knowledge that they matter for our personal well being, our collective sanity, our economy and our pleasure. Some with the power to influence through the media are not keeping up. And by not keeping up, they are perpetrating outdated ideas with fading relevance.

Most people ‘get’ the importance of art but we can’t be complacent
by Rupert Myer AM – Chair of the Australia Council for the Arts

This article was originally published on the Australia Council website on 12 June 2014. For more information, visit: for details.

Image: Rupert Myer AM