Rupert Myer AO, Alison Page, with an introduction by Alex Sloan AM
ALEX SLOAN: A very warm welcome to everyone here in this beautiful atrium at the National Museum of Australia, and to those joining us for our live stream. And I would really like to thank our Auslan interpreters this evening, [Amanda] Dolejsi and Sheree, thank you so much. A couple of local heroes standing right here. [audience member cheers] Exactly. Welcome to Their Excellencies. [crowd applauds interpreters] Thank you. They’ve done an amazing job during Covid, during the bushfires. They really are a couple of local heroes.
Welcome to Their Excellencies, the Governor-General, the Honourable David Hurley, and Mrs Linda Hurley; our speaker tonight, the wonderful Rupert Myer, his wife, Annabel, and family. It’s lovely to have you here.
I would like to acknowledge I am on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country and I’m personally thrilled that I live in a land that boasts the world’s oldest continuous culture. It thrills me every day when I think about that. I want to thank first peoples of this land, who have treated me with wisdom, kindness, respect and generosity and I’d have to say, a great deal of humour. To deliver the formal Welcome to Country, please welcome Paul Girrawah House. Thank you, Paul.
PAUL GIRRAWAH HOUSE: [Indigenous language] Good evening. [Indigenous language] I speak Ngambri, Walgulu, Wiradjuri language here on Country. [Indigenous language] Ladies and gentlemen, young men, young women, distinguished guests, Their Excellencies, Rupert and Annabel and the family, Mathew Trinca, Moorrinya and everyone else, [Indigenous language] it’s good to see everyone here this evening. [Indigenous language] It’s wonderful, it’s fabulous to be here. [Indigenous language] My respects to Ngambri, Gurmal, Walgulu, Wallaballoa elders past and present. [Indigenous language] My respects to all people from all parts of the country. [Indigenous language] Ngambri and Ngunnawal people welcome you all to Country. [Indigenous language] Looking to see and listening to hear and learning to understand. [Indigenous language] We listen to the old people. They show us the right path, the straight path on Country.
We’ve cared for Mother Earth since the dawn of time and evidence of our occupation, our sovereignty, can be seen everywhere throughout the land. Our Welcomes to Country are made in the spirit of peace and a desire for harmony for all peoples of the modern ACT and surrounds. Our main aim as local custodians is to establish an atmosphere of mutual respect through the acknowledgement of our ancestors and the recognition of our rights to declare a special place in the pre-and post-contact of the region. We warmly welcome everyone now living and working on our ancestral Country.
Excuse me, I just need a drink of water here. [Indigenous language] It means to respect, to uphold, go slow, be patient, take responsibility. [Indigenous language] Respect can be found in the journey of the bogong moths in the mountains. [Indigenous language] Respect can be found in the grinding stones and the carved trees made long ago in Country. [Indigenous language] Respect can be found in the rivers and the creeks quietly moving through Country. [Indigenous language] A respectful way of life cares for Country. [Indigenous language] Respect is taking responsibility for the now, the past, the present and the future.
The law of the land talks about giving respect and honour to all people in all parts of the country. Being patient, being polite and being gentle, then people will respect you. Our signature is in the land not just our DNA. Taking care of Country is important to us all. We must remember under the concrete and the steel and the glass of our cities and our Countries, towns, there’s a rich, powerful and compelling First Nation history, 65,000-plus-year-old history, that belongs to all of us – a shared history. We all have a responsibility in looking after the lands and the waters of this country. And with that, I’d like to share these words. [Indigenous language] Respect shapes us and lifts up the people. I was born here at the centre of my ancestral Country at the old Canberra Hospital. God bless it. And I know there’s some people here who were born in the old Canberra Hospital as well.
It’s our identity, it’s our belonging on Country. We acknowledge all the people born here on Country. No matter where you come from in this great country, we’re all connected somewhere. And it’s important that our culture and heritage is passed on, from one generation to the next, that embodies and preserves the relationship with the land. And it’s places like the NMA that house this story. And it’s important that places like the NMA are protected and our story continues on into the future. So with that I’d like to say [Indigenous language] Welcome, welcome. [Indigenous language] Thank you very much. [applause]
[Paul Girrawah House plays the didgeridoo]
MATHEW TRINCA: Thanks Paul for that great Welcome to Country. It’s one of the great pleasures of being the Director of this institution to know that the welcome that we have from the people of this place – the first peoples of this place – is so warm and enduring. And Paul’s a great friend of the Museum and I’m very grateful to him for that welcome to his Country tonight. Can I begin by acknowledging our guests of honour, His Excellency General, the Honourable David Hurley, Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia and Her Excellency, Mrs Linda Hurley.
You know it’s great to see you all here tonight. I think we have long anticipated this event and goodness knows haven’t we waited a long time to be able to do something like this. To see this wonderful atrium filled with people again gives me a great sense of pride and sheer delight. [applause] I do want to specially welcome our keynote speaker, Rupert Myer. Thanks for being with us tonight, Rupert. And the Chair of the NMA Council, the Honourable Warwick Smith and indeed fellow council members of this great institution here with us this evening. We appreciate your support and attendance.
Welcome also to Rupert’s wife, Annabel Myer, who’s here, and members of the family who are in the audience. I’m delighted that we’re joined by Alison Page, a descendant of the Walbanga and Wadi Wadi people of the Yuin nation and a member of the Museum’s Indigenous Reference Group and reference group for A New Approach. And Alison also will speak this evening. And my thanks of course to Alex Sloan, a great friend. Alex tried to suggest that she was less known now by the people of Canberra than she had been formerly. I said it’s not true. She’s still well known by and loved by us all. So Alex, thanks so much for being here with us tonight.
There are also people that couldn’t be here, sadly, who are with us virtually in the way of these things, in this time online. And so welcome to all of you who might be joining our streaming service of this address. It’s apt, I think, that this place devoted to the great stories of our nation is our venue for tonight’s Australia Speaks address. And my great thanks to the Thyne Reid Foundation for their support of the Australia Speaks series this year.
This address by Rupert Myer, the eminent Australian arts and cultural leader, entitled ‘Growing Australia’s Cultural Inheritance’ follows the inaugural speech in this series by Noel Pearson last year. Tonight’s address is, I think, full of ideas for our times – for these times – and it reminds us that arts and cultural enterprise lie at the very heart of who we are, of our lives. Never, I think, have we needed to hear that message more than now, with all that we’ve faced in recent times. Now, A New Approach – Australia’s leading arts and cultural think tank – was co-founded and is chaired by Rupert Myer. It grew from a collaborative initiative – an investment between the Myer Foundation, the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, the Kia Foundation – and now includes 11 philanthropic partners, many of whom are here tonight. And I am delighted the board, the reference group and staff from A New Approach are with us. And quite frankly I’m honoured to be a member of the reference group of that organisation.
Now, I think A New Approach – its work, the reports and other advocacy that it’s taken forward in the public mind – really demonstrates the power of philanthropy. And it shows us what we can achieve when we work together, devoted to this idea that we are so better joining together with others to advance our ideas than simply remaining alone. The Museum itself feels very fortunate to be supported by all its philanthropic partners. Tonight, we’re here in the Gandel Atrium and later this year we’ll open a new children’s gallery – the Tim and Gina Fairfax Discovery Centre.
It’s this kind of philanthropic support that makes it possible for us to do the work that we do, to produce work of the highest quality in the service of the Australian public and I want to thank you all who lend your support to this institution. It’s now my great pleasure to introduce the Chair of the Council of the National Museum of Australia, the Honourable Warwick Smith, to say a few words.
WARWICK SMITH: Good evening, everybody. Delighted that you could be here in such large numbers for this very, very special event. Firstly, can I echo the warm welcome to Your Excellency and Mrs Hurley. We are honoured to have you here as Canberra starts to move again, as the nation starts to move again. Sir, you couldn’t have picked a better place to be this evening, so thank you. Can I also say a very big thank you to Paul for your Welcome to Country. Very, very moving and very, very focused on what we do here at the National Museum of Australia, as our Director, Dr Trinca, pointed out.
I wanted also to take the opportunity to thank the many members of the ACT Government that are here and other people from government that are here, and thank them for being here. You just heard our Director say that we are able to produce what we do here for the last 20 years at the National Museum of Australia because of government support, because of philanthropic support and with community support. When civil society and government and philanthropy work together you see what we have achieved here.
My next big thank you is one that’s not actually scripted here but I thought it would be appropriate that you’ve just heard Australia’s foremost director of a cultural institution, Dr Mat Trinca. I’ve only been here a very, very short time. I’m not new to Canberra but I am new to the Museum. When I was in Canberra it was a hospital. Then something happened to it and look what’s taken its place. But it’s not a building, it’s about what you do in the building and how you lead teams. And for the last 10 years – and he’s only just warming up to the role, I could see his enthusiasm in his remarks.
So it’s he and his team that make so much that is possible in doing the things that we know we need to do in the pursuit of recognition of culture, recording of culture – our ancient culture, our modern culture – and you cannot do it without deep commitment and professionalism that’s epitomised by Dr Trinca. So to you Mat, my new friend, thank you very much for coming tonight and doing such a sterling job and speaking.
These days I’m a banker and could go to the top of the class for...[laughter] I wanted to also acknowledge a fellow Chair that’s here this evening, of the National Library, Brett Mason. You are unfortunately on the wrong side of the lake but we do welcome you here very much and the institutions that make up the focus for culture in our nation largely exist in our national capital. And the support that governments must provide – and should provide – and the philanthropic sector provide is always a challenge. Administrators will tell you that. Certainly, new board chairmen will tell you that. But nevertheless, it’s a deep commitment that we all must make.
This institution is very well equipped to tell the complex story and promote discussion about Australia, its deep history and also to look towards its future. I have to say that Rupert Murdoch – Rupert Murdoch, isn’t that a collapse. You can tell I’m from the news era. Rupert Myer and I have been acquainted since the 1980s. He’s an icon in the culture and the arts world. He and Annabel and the family that are here – at least four of their six children are here tonight – we welcome them warmly. For Rupert, this is the third time he has written this speech. Australia Speaks was to be a while ago and then something intervened and some of you have been wearing the masks that show what did intervene. Then it happened again and it’s only a near-miss tonight so this is the speech that Rupert’s been wanting to give for quite a long time. And when you hear the speech, you will understand why. We are all going to be so impressed with the deep thinking that has gone into his speech. 'It’s on our watch. It is on our watch. What do we do?’ is the theme of what he’s going to say.
Some of you know Rupert – University of Melbourne, Cambridge University, Degrees in arts and commerce. In 2005 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the arts and culture. And again, in 2015, an Officer for his services to community and the arts. He’s chaired the National Gallery of Australia here in this city. He’s chaired the Australia Council. He’s the only person in Australia ever to chair both of those key bodies. He chaired the Opera, Capital Opera Fund. He used to be a regular person speaking to me about opera. I don’t look as though I’m the one that – I didn’t know much about opera but I knew what he wanted to talk about.
He’s been a member of the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia. He’s been on the [board of the] National Gallery of Victoria. He’s been on the board of the Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft [Inquiry] and did a seminal inquiry into that area. And Rupert comes – if I might say – from a family that has committed over generations to the support of culture and arts in our nation, not just in Melbourne but more broadly – and you can see here in Canberra. And I know as a friend, it was a big loss when Bails Myer passed away in his late 90s just recently. But this family has endured in its commitment to our nation, to its culture and to our art and our appreciation of it. And also sponsoring good cultural policy at all levels of government and throughout the community. I don’t think Australia Speaks could pass by a man like Rupert Myer to be our keynote speaker and please, I welcome him tonight to address us. Rupert.
RUPERT MYER: Thank you Warwick, that was a lovely introduction. No pressure. I look forward to hearing what I have to say. Thank you for your remarks and thank you Paul for a beautiful Welcome to Country. Your Excellencies, other distinguished guests, all attendees, I begin this address titled ‘Growing Australia’s Cultural Inheritance’ by recognising that over vast tracts of time and across our whole continent, an unbroken passaging of cultural materials, of learnings, of knowledge, of language, of skills and of stories has occurred. And I acknowledge that this event is occurring on the lands of the Ngunnawal peoples. I pay my respects to Elders past and present.
Whilst we’re all familiar now with the symbolism of this form of words, it is well to pause and think beyond that symbolism to acknowledge that we are on Aboriginal land in a very literal way. I’d like to acknowledge all of the National Museum of Australia staff, Warwick and Mat and the whole team here. And also my thanks to Alex Sloan and to Alison Page, who you will hear from shortly, and A New Approach CEO, Kate Fielding, and my fellow board members and reference group – and it’s really nice to welcome my wife and family here too.
I’d like to recognise the death of Neil Balnaves, who did so much to support the arts and cultural life of our country. Our thoughts are with Diane and his family.
It’s a great honour to have been invited to speak here in front of this audience in Canberra and the wider audience on your devices, all the way from Rapid Creek to Merricks North. Thank you all for attending too.
Given current restlessness, both globally and across our own communities, it’s certainly timely to be having such discussions right now and to be doing so in our national capital. In the context too of the reopening this week of our international borders and the possibilities that will bring, I sincerely hope that these remarks live up to the high expectation of the Museum’s Australia Speaks series – that being to engage Australian audiences with big, bold ideas about the future of our country.
As I was completing these remarks in late January, my father died aged 96. Unsurprisingly, my focus turned to what he meant to me and to our family, to his life and legacy, his work and service, to who and how he was, to the world that he inherited and to the one he left behind. Dad lived every day to the full and maintained throughout his life an almost childlike curiosity about everything around him as well as a prolific and undiminished imagination. He loved drawing on his elephantine memory and amongst much else, his personal engagement with a multitude of art forms and cultural organisations, along with a lifetime of first-person singular and shared cultural experiences.
He could draw linkages between playing a violin for 90 years – he was still taking lessons – with art research undertaken in the 1970s, with the growth of philanthropic support for arts and culture in the country and the construction of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl with good public policy and arts and culture, to why these concerns mattered hugely to him during his lifetime and would, in his view, to all the lives that follow. He was an optimist and he believed that each generation had the power, on their watch, to make change for the better. Indeed, he considered it each generation’s key responsibility.
In reflecting on his traits and in thinking about this topic, I want to make it our nation’s urgent business – on our watch – to truly know what our shared cultural inheritance is, to understand why it matters, to help to grow it and to ensure that it maintains its relevance for future generations. We are already confident that arts and culture have successfully influenced and transformed our nation. They build stronger, more cohesive communities, grow our national financial wealth, drive innovation, improve physical, mental and emotional health outcomes, lift educational standards, enhance trade and diplomatic relations and consistently contribute to areas of higher than average job growth.
The detailed recent research undertaken by A New Approach into the views of middle Australia informs us that this low and middle income group of swing voters living in regional and outer suburban Australia believes that arts and culture are what makes us human and that without it, as one of our research participants said, ‘you may as well live on Mars’. Our success as a nation is primed by our approach to life, our histories, our education and our proximity to many different cultures in one place. Ours is not a derivative culture. It is anchored with the stories and practices of Indigenous Australians and it evolves, as our nation does, moment by moment.
It is highly contemporary, fearless, fresh and vital, witty, immersive. The beat of our lives is diverse. Simultaneously, our ancient rock art, Italian opera, Sri Lankan dance, Greek pottery, bush poetry, digital immersions, moving image, remote music festivals and the quiet contemplation of an object held in a collecting institution. Culture is a public good. It benefits society. The more it is developed and used, the stronger it becomes. That is what a public good is. And like other public goods, this benefit can be difficult to quantify. We struggle to place a value on the senses of taste, sight, touch, smell and hearing. We might ask ‘How much is a honey bee worth?’ ‘How much is a high C worth?
What can be commonly agreed is that the expression of culture, the participation in culture and the transmission of culture are not exalted ideas sitting at the periphery of life. They are concepts at once central to our everyday, garden-variety, commonplace experiences and inalienable from our species being. We are keen cultural consumers. Eighty-two per cent of us report attending cultural events and venues over a year, compared to 64 per cent in the European Union. Notwithstanding how robust this sounds, culture can be fragile and easily under threat. It needs our constant maintenance, close care and attention. Whilst it is obvious that our artists and our entire creative community are talented, resourceful and respected, we must develop and support these voices. We have done so in the past, and we see other nations do it. Artists need to feel confident and the whole community needs to feel confident too.
There are concerning signs that we are taking our culture for granted. Australia is towards the back of the pack amongst OECD nations when it comes to government investment. Australia is currently ranked 23 out of 34 countries for cultural expenditure amongst our OECD peers. And our investment in culture by all three levels of government, is not keeping pace with population growth, with A New Approach’s analysis finding that there has been nearly a seven per cent decrease in cultural funding on a per capita basis over the last 12 years.
I welcome the recent bipartisan recommendation from the federal standing committee on communications and the arts that the Commonwealth government develop a national cultural plan. This would build on the inheritance that we have received and more importantly, grow this legacy for generations to come. A good plan to make this happen is not a ‘nice to have’, it is essential. In the context of our society, our ambitions as a nation and as a people, it is a critical imperative to have solid national public policy foundations designed to promote, value and prioritise culture and the arts.
I just want to take a moment to honour this. Across the political spectrum there is agreement that arts and culture play a central and valued role in this country. For those who create, you are seen and valued. For those who draw joy and courage and hope from music, from story, from an institution like the one we are in today, you are the majority. And it’s time we celebrated ourselves as a culturally ambitious nation. So, what might a national cultural plan look like and what might its key elements comprise? Such a plan should be expansive, ambitious, universal, forward-looking. It should not be limited nor bound by time. The four key elements to emerge from it should be firmly bound in four realms the personal experience, our communities, our institutions and the whole of our population.
I want to explore these four aspects through four stories, of a stranger, a house, a museum and a nation. I want to convince you that as a nation we are ready to take a really significant step. From the evidence that’s been built up progressively by a New Approach through report after report, along with decades of sound research from across the country, it’s apparent that there is a deep yearning amongst Australians from all walks of life for cultural engagement. This is evident in our behaviours, our preferences, how we choose to spend our time, what we prioritise for our families and our children. This is not the time for some version of maladaptive daydreaming. This matter of developing a plan is critical and urgent. It is work that needs to shed light not heat. It requires us to hunt quietly, to think deeply, to listen carefully, to learn from the Indigenous heart of our nation. Let us commit to do this on our watch.
So the first story about a stranger may be familiar to a couple of you because it’s a story that I like to tell and I certainly think about it often. Towards the end of my term chairing the National Gallery of Australia and during the famed Fred Williams exhibition, I was walking across the bridge from the Portrait Gallery towards the National Gallery entrance just on closing time when I was approached by a stranger leaving through the Gallery’s revolving doors. The stranger told me that she had followed Fred Williams’s work for many years and had just visited the exhibition. She told me that the exhibition took her to memories of times and places she had shared with others close to her. She told me how Australian it was and how it made her feel.
Without knowing who she was or why she felt compelled to share the meaning of her experience with such urgency, I felt certain of this exhibition in such a welcoming community space had meant an infinite amount more to her than just paintings on a wall. I thanked her for what she told me and she thanked me for listening. We never saw each other again but that singular and expressive moment, which forged a connection between two strangers, has remained deeply moving for me. The poignancy of this encounter was sharp and knowing that in this place, such memories and meanings have been repeatedly transmitted by Indigenous Australians.
I was fortunate to be raised in a family where opportunities to engage in arts and cultural experiences were afforded to me from the time that I was a child. Knowing exactly where to go in the labyrinthine National Gallery of Victoria to encounter McCubbin’s pioneers, joining family members at performances of Nicholas Nickleby, Hair or Equus, being instructed to read certain books at certain ages and mostly, but not always, doing so, being taken to rock concerts, movies, spectacles, artist studios or yodelling nights, I had a way in, where a multitude of experiences were available and encouraged. I’m also fortunate to have had opportunities to be part of caring for and growing a fair few of our cultural institutions. Meeting many of our great thinkers and doers in arts and culture from cities, towns and remote communities here in Australia, to global gatherings in Asia, in Europe, in the US and South America has been one of my greatest joys and one that I’ve been lucky to share quite often with my family.
Arts and culture have been a lifelong and life-shaping part-enthusiasm, part-obsession. But when I reflect on this infatuation with creativity and its expression and what it truly means in my life and the lives of others, I’m always drawn back to this story of a stranger. When we measure the performance and impact of public art galleries, we would count the stranger as one. But what a hopelessly inadequate measure this is. The value of arts and culture is cumulative over centuries and across places. It deeply impacts billions of lives. These singular moments happen, filled with joy, pain, meaning, enlightenment, transformation. The true value of these will never be known, neither for the stranger, who was so moved by an exhibition that she would share it with another stranger, nor for the nation whose collective investment over decades into the myriad of our cultural institutions, and in that specific instance, our National Gallery, made that moment of connection possible.
The sum of all that investment has created one critical element of our cultural inheritance. Recently at an event at the State Library of Victoria to mark his retirement after a decade as president there, John Wiley defined that version of cultural inheritance for that one institution by saying:
‘This place is about an idea. One that’s remained unchanged since the Library was founded. An idea that we should have an educated society, a civilised society, a society that values knowledge and learning, that seeks to provide equal opportunity, that seeks to inculcate in young people a love of reading and books. That’s what this Library is all about. We’re free, we’re open to all, we’re democratic, we’re committed to knowledge and learning for everyone without regard to what postcode you live in, what political philosophy you subscribe to, how much you earn or what language you speak at home. This is a core pillar of a free, democratic and informed society.’
I really like John’s words and we should all have our own version of them. We should also know that our nation’s cultural inheritance begins with Indigenous cultural practices observed over millennia. Australian society is still coming to know and appreciate this part of our inheritance, as we grapple with our responsibility for the profound disruption of First Nation societies over the last two centuries. There is both generosity and a profound resilience in how Indigenous communities teach each one of us and share with us their cultural practices and storytelling – we had an example tonight – and yearn for us to know more about them, to show respect towards them and take pleasure from them.
We honour this inheritance in an increasing number of ways, as that generosity is reciprocated with humility, deep gratitude and wondrous appreciation. In this context of a rich and multifaceted cultural inheritance what would happen if we didn’t measure the stranger as one? What if we all speak like strangers and reveal what cultural experiences truly mean to us? What if we recognise and speak fulsomely about the entirety of our nation’s cultural inheritance? How might we choose to act if we could? What would happen on our watch?
The second story is about a house, one that speaks to how the places we inhabit become linked to our cultural inheritance. Last year, at the Annual General Meeting of the East Melbourne Group, one of Australia’s earliest residents associations, I’d been invited to speak and chose as my topic the theme of cultural inheritance, specifically as it relates to that small suburb where we live, directly abutting Melbourne’s CBD and the Melbourne Cricket Ground. We were located that night in the carpeted quietude of Holy Trinity Church. I told the story of how East Melbourne had become my home from my mid-20s and has remained that way almost 40 years later, along with Annabel and our family. I shared with them that as residents, we all hold, and are custodians of, a cultural inheritance and cultural gifts that have been passed down to us.
On that autumnal night, I positioned the house in which we live as an anchor. It was built in 1886 for William and Margaret McLean and their family and was named after a McLean family house on the Isle of Mull. William and Margaret were born in Scotland and emigrated to Australia mid-19th century. William’s business, McLean Bros and Rigg, iron mongers and general merchants, had grown rapidly with Melbourne’s population growth and prosperity. In 1887, he was elected President of the YMCA and was a leading member of the Collins Street Baptist Church. Margaret, his wife, who had undertaken teacher training at the newly formed Melbourne Training Institution for teachers in the 1860s, played an important role in Australian female suffrage and women’s rights. She was one of the founders of the Victorian branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and instrumental in many other women’s organisations. She was also the first to sign the wonderfully named ‘Monster’ Women’s Suffrage Petition of 1891. Margaret used her home to promote the causes she espoused.
After financial difficulties that were experienced during the 1890s depression, the house was sold by the McLeans to Miss Elizabeth Glover in 1902 and converted into a training home for nurses. Miss Glover was an English-trained nurse and leader in the movement calling for nursing reform, and was one of the initiators of the Victorian Trained Nurses’ Association. After a short time, she converted the building into a hospital, of which she was both Proprietor and Senior Matron. Through various other iterations over the last century of being a private hospital and then a nursing home, in 1990 the building was sold at auction by its owners to Annabel and me. In that talk, I posed the question of our community’s cultural inheritance from just this one house, in one suburb, in one Australian city.
It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to think of the energetic expression of Scottish heritage, the education needs of nine children that they had at the time of Federation, the business vicissitudes of being an iron monger and general merchant in an evolving economy, the rallying of support for the temperance and suffrage movements, the achievement of the vote for women, the promotion of faith and worship, the development of nursing and medical innovation and the application of the applied sciences. What role has one building played in shaping and housing a shared cultural inheritance for this community? This is a cultural inheritance that plays to communities – the local, the specific – as well as having a role beyond that set aside for broader impact. Beyond a single dwelling, the breadth of a cultural inheritance for an entire city or nation, ranges from what are the obviously identifiable cultural expressions such as literature, visual and performing arts, music and dance, through to the institutions that support them, to the localised built environment and onto the values that shape our lives.
Cultural inheritance is dynamic, multi-layered and ever-changing, as our understanding of places and communities grow. It’s a concept that undoubtedly expands and contracts, and its usage as a public good is open to wide interpretation. From the work that A New Approach has done with middle Australians, this expansive, inclusive definition of arts and culture, is one that chimes true for the many everyday Australians who value the role that it plays in imagination and inspiration as well as bringing people together and creating a sense of belonging. This sense of belonging, the sense of being ‘at home’, is something we would all wish for in our families and in our communities. It’s an essential binding together, without becoming bound in the restricted or oppressive sense. Arts and culture have a very particular role to play here, beautifully drawing us together while leaving plenty of room to breathe, making this role for arts and culture available, inclusive, expansive and inviting, especially as we recover from the last few years, is work for our watch.
The third story is about a museum. The one we’re in tonight, in fact, conveniently. Nowhere is cultural inheritance on better display than right here at the National Museum of Australia, and three recent exhibitions have expressed this extraordinarily well. Each one took an aspect of our shared cultural inheritance, revealed a deep understanding of it from those closest to it whose knowledge was shared in a way that was intelligent warm and embracing.
The exhibition Encounters presented objects from Australia’s First Nations peoples that have been collected by both the British Museum and our National Museum. One of the key themes was to reveal the voices, emotions and stories connected to these objects. The manner in which that was done gave a powerful voice to each object itself, speaking from the past, to the present and the future, bringing alive one of the key tenets of Indigenous culture – the transcendence of time. Over seven years, staff from both museums worked with 27 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities around Australia. One of the storytellers for the exhibition, Wukun Wanambi, from north-east Arnhem Land, characteristically said it so clearly, ‘My history is alive today. My history keeps on building up. My identity is stronger, it is not dying. The more I share, the stronger I get, the more power I get. That’s why, when we put a larakitj as a piece in a museum, it has got the power.’
The exhibition Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, now on tour in Europe, was an Aboriginal-led exhibition that took visitors on a journey along the epic Seven Sisters Dreaming tracks through art, Indigenous voices and innovative multimedia. During one of my Australia Council board meetings in Canberra, the National Museum hosted us, as Margo Neale knows, and took the entire board and executive through the exhibition. It was a highlight of our time together. We all got to experience firsthand the generosity of a welcome where each visitor to the exhibition was invited via sophisticated digital means to accept the story as a story belonging to all Australians. This was an unforgettable memory and gave a magical context to what we experienced. A highlight was being transported virtually to a place I’d been physically. The Cave Hill installation was presented in a digital dome that enveloped visitors before the virtual immersive became commonplace. The experience took the audience to Amata in north-west South Australia, to a deeply significant and sacred place and told the creation story contained within it.
The recently completed Endeavour voyage: The Untold Stories of Cook and the First Australians explored views from the ship and the shore on the 250th anniversary of the 1770 journey. It was such an intelligent and beautifully presented retelling of the story of the arrival of the Endeavour and the journey that was taken up the east coast of Australia. Speaking about her film The Message, which accompanied the exhibition, Alison Page refers to the complex inheritance and how to animate it for a new generation to maintain its relevance and power. She says, ‘Like Aboriginal painting, the meaning takes deep diving to fully understand all its layers. While some of the scenes will reflect historical perspective and records, our main aim was to engender a visceral and emotive response through a highly engaging and sometimes challenging visual narrative.’
With these sublime exhibitions there is a metanarrative emerging that speaks respectfully and generously to our shared cultural inheritance. These exhibitions are community-based, nationally significant, internationally applauded. They have each presented important issues right at the heart of the future of the nation. These exhibitions assert that this country resides in a land of place and culture, with stories that cross the country. And they do so in the exact way that a national cultural institution should be acting: telling stories, making arguments, presenting objects, building memories, celebrating and growing our shared cultural inheritance.
I’d like to make a comment about all of the national cultural institutions and those cultural institutions in other jurisdictions. Whilst they are places of scholarship and research, of discovery and illumination of facts and contested perspectives, they are also something else. Their treasure is not just in the collections, it’s in the people who are drawn to each of our cultural institutions to serve the general public, our fellow Australians from all walks of life who thrive on their ability to access what exists within them. Some of the finest cultural leaders in the country have been assembled to run them and in turn, they have gathered great teams around them. Their professionalism and talent form part of our inheritance too. Our nation’s leaders need to know this profoundly, and for all our sakes, take pride in what we have. Let these special places inspire and flourish on our watch.
Finally, the story of a nation. Within an Australian context, we participate daily in the ritual of claiming our pasts and of hyphenating our Australian-ness to something else. Just to use my own background, I am Australian and on my grandfather’s side, of Jewish-Russian descent. In fact, modern-day Belarus descent, but that adds further complexity and further hyphenating. My surname was my grandfather’s original middle name, which in turn had been the name belonging to his oldest brother. And that is only one quarter of me. You might ask, ‘Where did the other three quarters go in my cultural identity?’. Of course, there are lots of stories about those parts as well. One of them is that I’m an Anglican and have known nothing else. I become a wreck when I attend Fiddler on the Roof. I’m a Melburnian with a Sydney-born mother. In Australia’s model of cultural inheritance, I am able – and have implied permissions to participate – in as much of this as I choose. In our Australia, I’m able every day to share the cultural inheritance of others.
How do we best assert confidently and knowledgeably about who we are, what we have inherited and how we value the traits, nuances and vastness of that inheritance – a cultural inheritance that is of the whole world? The Australian Bureau of Statistics confidently tells us that nearly every single country from around the world was represented in Australia’s population in 2020. This single phrase very powerfully illustrates that the heart of our cultural inheritance is both very deeply of this place through our Indigenous cultures and very much of the world. Perhaps to paraphrase Saul Bellow to the question, ‘Who is Australia’s Tolstoy?’, the answer for all Australians can be Tolstoy. This simple answer exudes a confidence and a hope for an achievable cohesiveness that belies the question’s hidden complexity.
Illustratively in 2018 at a retrospective in Riga, Latvia, that I opened, the Australian-born artist of Latvian descent, Imants Tillers, placed a puzzle before his audience by naming the exhibition Journey to Nowhere. Tillers was inviting each of us to think about what makes somewhere ‘somewhere’. This is a fine puzzle and a decent challenge for each of us to think about our own cultural markers and how to form a society that knows itself culturally. We Australians specifically are challenged to think about how people’s coming together for us right here and for others, in a distant land, can develop cultural confidence for ourselves derived from our unique histories and circumstances, synthesising new and old stories. Cultural confidence as an idea is certainly not a new concept to our continent. Culture through its expressions and practice has not just been central to all facets of life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it sits at the threshold to belief, knowledge, even existence itself. Culture animates the past, every present day and the future. Our understanding of this is central to how we must think about our Great Southern Land.
In Noel Pearson’s powerful narrative of the formation of our unique Australian identity, he describes three epic journeys to our continent the first out of Africa over 60,000, years ago, the second of and others of the 18th century being journeys of discovery and of the Enlightenment, and the third being journeys of individuals and families escaping persecution, prosecution, war zones or seeking economic improvement. In that narrative of the three journeys we all belong. The point of this and the generosity of it is that we all belong. We all belong and contribute to this shared cultural inheritance. All those that I’ve mentioned in these remarks tonight, all those in attendance tonight, all 26 million of us, we all belong.
At the heart of our cultural expression, inspiration and that belonging is the entwinement of each other’s journeys. Individually, they are extraordinary enough. However, woven together, these journeys create and assert a cultural power unique to our nation. Our nation’s culture exudes a confidence and knowledge about how the world is. There are people from every single country on earth here. Our shared culture shifts our boundaries, grows our relationships, and gives multiple meanings to our personal and community identities. It exerts an influence over us, cajoles us, and charms us into thinking deeply about these matters. That is our culture’s power. It contributes mightily to explain ‘us’ to us and ‘us’ to others.
A stranger, a house, a museum, a nation. Our personal experiences, our communities, our institutions and the whole of our population. These four stories and the realm of ideas attaching to each, when formed into a national cultural plan, will invite each one of us to turn our faces towards the sun to let it illuminate an inheritance which holds both incredible gifts and damaging legacies. Gathered here tonight, I ask you again, ‘What if we could recognise and grow the entirety of our nation’s cultural inheritance?’ I truly believe we are strong enough and brave enough to make this happen. How might we choose to act if we could? What would happen on our watch? While these are questions for all time, they are most certainly questions for our time. As we emerge from the global Covid pandemic, as we think about matters of constitutional recognition, as we bend ourselves to the arc of the 21st century and the need – both urgent and ongoing – to reaffirm around the globe a commitment to democracy, to freedom, to equity in their fullest expressions.
Surely it’s obvious by now Australia’s cultural inheritance is vast, profound, expansive, inclusive and consequential. Ample and detailed evidence has shown that our nation and this continent sit upon a profound cultural inheritance. All those chattels that are welded to us – the places, stories, objects, shared memories, institutions, collections, songs and compositions and performances – all of which cumulatively to explain us to ourselves and to others, they are born of this place and generously shared by this country’s indigenous peoples, and they are brought to this place from every nation on earth. We are the strongly blended cultures. There are 26 million direct beneficiaries of our shared cultural inheritance and this is our moment in time to recognise this and the criticality of the custodial role that each of us has in guarding and developing that inheritance.
I hope that we can collectively believe how important and enduring our cultural inheritance is, act with conviction and confidence, know that a nation’s pivotal consequential moments – the ones that define eras – are cultural ones, and hard bake this knowledge into everything that’s done in leadership. Some version of self-deprecation and even self-doubt are charming and have their place in our national story. Humility and modesty also belong to our national psyche but so too does confidence and self-belief. Cultural policy is a fundamental responsibility for the whole of government, for each level of government. There’s nothing elitist about it. Learn this from the Indigenous inhabitants of this continent, for whom culture is simultaneously at the apex of and central to the whole of life and community.
Lean into this truth, participate openly, enthusiastically and knowledgeably in the cultural life of the country, particularly for our nation’s leaders, like Presidents of the United States, visibly host some of the nation’s most important cultural events not just in name but in person. Of course it’s about the money – artists want livelihoods too. But it’s also about the symbolism of demonstrating that culture really matters to the nation’s leadership. Show interest, curiosity and imagination. We have serious work to do on our watch. The title of this National Museum of Australia series is Australia Speaks. Well, Australia has spoken – credibly. Arts and culture are what makes us human. It’s time for our leaders in our nation to listen and act. Thank you. [applause]
ALEX SLOAN: Thanks so much, Rupert. So many things to think about – a stranger, a house, a museum, a nation. I loved it that your house once had a family of nine. You gave it a good crack, Annabel and Rupert, with six and now grandchildren. Just beautiful. But I love your call for a national cultural plan. It’s something that will shed light not heat. It requires us to hunt quietly, to think deeply, to listen carefully, and to learn from the Indigenous heart of our nation. To respond to Rupert’s speech, Alison Page, Indigenous reference group member at the National Museum of Australia. Please welcome her. [applause]
ALISON PAGE: Thank you Alex and thank you. Your Excellencies, the Governor-General and Mrs Hurley, are the distinguished guests and all attendees, I’m so delighted to be here amongst real life human beings. I too would like to start by acknowledging that amazing Welcome from Paul House and acknowledge that we’re meeting on the land of the Ngunnawal peoples and I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. I’d also like to thank and acknowledge the National Museum of Australia, in particular, the Director, Dr Mat Trinca, and the new Chair, the Honourable Warwick Smith AO. Thank you Rupert Myer for your thought-provoking and very, very impassioned words.
One phrase in particular that I’d like to respond to first, was unpacking Noel Pearson’s narrative about the formation of the Australian identity being defined by three journeys – First Australians, colonists and new Australians – and that it’s through these stories that we all belong to Australia, that we all contribute to these shared stories and this shared cultural inheritance. But can I start my response by saying that while this is technically true, I think the reason why Australian identity is so difficult to define, it’s because these three narratives lack visibility – even to those who are part of each story. We know this because of the confusion and the conflation around Australia’s true history. How Cook’s voyage in 1770 is often rolled into the arrival of the First Fleet 18 years later, and Cook is implicated in the colonisation of Australia, when these were two very different voyages.
And while there’s a growing hunger for Aboriginal history of Australia, there’s still so much more to understand. And I can only imagine how difficult it is, and this history is, for new Australians to navigate when they arrive here. And it’s primarily because of the lack of visibility of our origin stories. This reminds me of the words of my mentor, Gumbaynggirr woman and Senior Indigenous Curator here at the Museum, Margo Ngawa Neale, ‘Until you know the stories of this continent, you will never truly belong’. This statement is so loaded because it’s through storytelling that we all connect. We connect place to our histories, to each other, to the identity of ourselves, our community and the identity of the nation.
One of the problems with Australia is that we don’t understand our culture. As Rupert pointed out, ‘How do we define ourselves culturally?’ What I see is that we are a collection of stories that have sort of been thrown together without authorship, without indeed co-authorship, without a strong narrative thread that clearly defines our collective story, and we know that other nations do this so well and the benefits that derive from that. So that as more people arrive, more stories are added to our collective identity with clarity and purpose so people understand their place in this place.
In that statement Margo made, she’s inviting all Australians to build their identity on our human occupancy of this continent which has its origins 60,000 years ago. This is our cultural inheritance. As she says, ‘The stories Aboriginal people tell of the creation of this continent are your stories too. So if you don’t know your story beyond the last 250 years, then you are only ever going to be a transplant, you will never take root.’ We don’t know the stories of this continent yet because they haven’t all been written. They exist written in the land but only some can read them. And in generations of oral storytelling of First Australians, some are still written in history books and in the diaries of refugees.
But it’s when they’re expressed through the arts – through dance, painting, music – then we can see ourselves, much like the stranger that Rupert spoke about how the Fred Williams paintings made her feel Australian. And that’s how it operates in Aboriginal culture. Art isn’t decoration, it’s not wallpaper, it’s not entertainment or a privileged pastime for the wealthy people. It is a functional and vital part of life. It’s our primary mode of communication, the transmission of our cultural values. So in every mark made, in every movement and in every musical sound, it holds our knowledge systems, the secrets of our ecological success. It’s all written in the songlines. Vast amounts of cultural and ecological data that’s uploaded and downloaded as we walk through Country, in mind or body.
And just like the stranger, it holds our identity so we’re energised and reinforced through the immersion in storytelling and art. For us, it happens as we walk around Country and we see that mountain or that constellation of stars or we sing that song in language. And just like the story of us is written in the land, these stories are also embedded in the bricks and mortar of the houses we live in, like Rupert’s house. These houses and these objects within them, they hold stories and the memories of people that have occupied them before. To Aboriginal people, the built environment is an extension of Country, so it is a vital part of the invisible web of knowledge that’s written in it.
Imagine if we set a challenge for all Australian architects that when they contribute to the built environment, an essential part of the brief must be to demonstrate how they are enhancing, amplifying and protecting the songlines – this network of knowledge that we all inherit. These songlines we have inherited, we must protect so that every day when we walk to work, when we walk to the office, when we’re on our morning exercise, perhaps an essential thread of knowledge could be embedded into our brains through beautiful visual cues a wonderful sculpture, a piece of art, a soundscape or the architectural expression of a building. Could this be a new motivation for what Robin Boyd calls the ‘universal visual art’ – the art of shaping the human environment. I mean he was so annoyed at the fact that we were taking architectural styles from other places and being second-hand England or second-hand America.
Architecture – and all art – can be an expression of who we are and how we belong. Is our cultural inheritance to view contemporary Australian architectural practice as a continuum that began 60,000 years ago when traditional gunyahs were constructed with sustainable materials by a society that was in tune with the environment? Well, this concept can extend also to the museum. But it begs the question, ‘What is a cultural institution in the context of a cultural landscape when the landscape is the library?’ To me, it’s the role of the cultural institution to find the silences in our history and fill those voids with artistic interventions that express who we are. Like when I was commissioned by the National Museum of Australia to tell the story of Cook’s voyage from the Aboriginal perspective. To tell the story from the shore in the film, The Message. No pressure. Just tell that story for the first time. I had so many discussions with Mat Trinca at that time but Mat, the one thing that you said that really stands out in my mind, was the hope that this was just one – and perhaps the first – but one of many artistic interventions that would uncover this story and fill the void of our history.
So to me, cultural institutions, they’re not only buildings with showcases and objects, they’re people who can create opportunities for artistic interventions to fill the void, to fill these silences. And for our nation, this is becoming more and more critical. I’m a councillor with the National Australia Day Council and there is a worrying trend of youth disengagement on the day. Yes, this is partly to do with them being totally woke and having empathy for our First Australians and the need for truth-telling. But the more worrying trend is the malaise that they experience with the day not knowing what to do, how to spend it. It’s a growing awareness, I think, of what Rupert says is our cultural inheritance, which holds incredible gifts but also damaging legacies.
Artists and their interventions will give us courage and the strength to reconcile this past and design new futures. Last year on Mother’s Day, Indigenous elders invited any mother to bring their baby down to Barangaroo to be welcomed to Country. It was a re-visioning of a traditional ceremony that’s been performed in Aboriginal communities for thousands of years where babies are given the responsibility to care for their homelands that will in turn care for them. And this gift through this new cultural ceremony was offered to all mothers and all babies, to accept a sense of belonging to Sydney as their homelands. And to accept responsibility to take Country into their hearts and care for it like they would a family member for the rest of their lives.
And on Australia Day and every other day we may experience new ceremonies, new songs, new film, new dance that will grow our cultural inheritance. And that’s what you really take on when you take on an inheritance. You accept the responsibility to care for it, to grow it, not to squander it or waste it. As the beneficiary of these stories you are also keepers of the traditional knowledge and of truth-telling, as well as all the other stories that will make up our collective identity. As Margo adds, ‘With belonging comes responsibility’.
Those three journeys that Noel speaks of, they’re like three separate strands of rope that we have to weave together. Because it’s where these threads intersect – that’s where our Australian identity lies. And it’s artists and cultural institutions that are the weavers. And it’s times like these, where there is social unrest, that the bond of our social contract becomes most valuable. Our strong identity and national pride becomes a must-have. I think it’s fair to say as a society, art is becoming vital to our security. So let’s unlock some of that Defence spending and give it to artists. [applause] As has Rupert so beautifully said, ‘It’s culture that animates the past, the present day and our future, so we must act now. Let’s support a national cultural plan so that we can grow our cultural inheritance and take a clear Australian identity forward with confidence and pride. [applause]
ALEX SLOAN: Thank you so much, Alison Page. And we’re going to sit down now just for a quick chat. Let’s hope we’re all miked up still. And it’s really lovely to be in conversation with you both and with your unified call for artistic interventions to fill the void in our understanding of our history, our country, who we are. Rupert, you and I have known each other since we were 17. Just you know–
ALISON PAGE: Where’s this going?
ALEX SLOAN: Yeah you may well ask. We actually also share a sad but thankful time. We’ve both lost and farewelled a beloved parent who lived to grand ages. So we’re very grateful for that and thank you for sharing just how important art and culture was to your father. And beautifully, the arts too were vital to my mother, who was a volunteer guide at the National Gallery for 14 years. And my daughter wrote a poem for her funeral, which talked about her granny dying at home in her own bed, surrounded by the books she loved, her beautiful needlework, her artwork – some by her grandchildren – Margo Neale’s exhibition catalogues right next to her bed. She adored Margo. And it’s these artistic and cultural objects that we keep close to make sense of the world. Isn’t it? It’s exactly what we have by us–
RUPERT MYER: It’s really interesting that you should comment on that. The contemplation of an object, that singular contemplation, which I sort of described as one of the one of the elements of inheritance, I mean our cultural institutions are replete with wonderful objects and it’s actually okay just to come in and look at one object. It’s really important. And the idea of the meaning that’s contained within that object to the individual viewer is really significant. I think the point is, cultural inheritance is not a complicated thing. It’s really straightforward. It’s even quite basic. But you do have to know what you’ve got and think about it and treat it with respect and have a view about how you want to take it to the next level on your watch, which was, you know, the expression that Dad used to use.
ALEX SLOAN: And that incredible story, Alison, you told about the mothers asking on Mother’s Day to bring down their children for that kind of legacy to be handed on, I think that’s one of the most incredible things, isn’t it? It’s a beautiful act of generosity and passing on of knowledge.
ALISON PAGE: I think it’s just about, you know, thinking about objects as Aboriginal people’s Country, land, sea, sky. We see it as a family member. It’s a member of our family. And in fact, we aren’t believed that objects were also family members. And that’s because we embedded narrative into them, embedded story and into them. And we know anyone who has had a family heirloom passed on to them knows that that contains this energy. It’s the energy of the person who had it before. That’s basically more or less the same idea. That that can happen to the environments that you walk around and the chairs that you sit in. They can have this incredible meaning because that’s the power of humans and their need to create narratives. And I think that’s really what we’re talking about here. It’s a fundamental human condition and it’s something that isn’t over there for entertainment or wallpaper or decoration or things like that. It’s a very vital part of who we are.
ALEX SLOAN: Yet it’s so often categorised and Rupert, you’ve talked about this of being fortunate enough to be able to engage in it early and be encouraged. But it’s categorised many times by the media as, you know, something for the rich and for the elite.
RUPERT MYER: It’s a really unhelpful presentation of it and it often occurs to me that the people writing it don’t actually believe it themselves because they’ve benefited from so much that’s happened in the cultural life of the countries. I mean, to be a journalist actually implies that you’ve studied journalism. I mean, what could be closer to the culture of a country than developing an expertise around, you know, presenting stories and ideas and sharing them with a wider group? It’s right at the heart of a cultural inheritance. So presenting it in a way that somehow it’s elitist or not for everyone, it’s a complete and utter furphy. And it’s a dangerous furphy.
ALEX SLOAN: Alison, what do you think?
ALISON PAGE: I think it’s been convenient. Just because I think those journalists need to understand the difference in genre between fiction and, you know, autobiographies or biographies. But I think that’s why I’m interested in these new types of ceremonies because I think they show that creativity is much broader than just going to the ballet, going to the opera, that we’re engaging in cultural and creative acts – all day every day.
ALEX SLOAN: You beautifully quoted Senior Indigenous Curator and Advisor to the Director, Margo Neale, and that fantastic quote, ‘Until you know the stories of this continent, you will never truly belong’. And this goes to the heart of how we define ourselves culturally, questions of identity, to really take stock of our cultural inheritance. Do we need to start understanding songlines, which I think Margo says are ‘the foundational truths of this country’. I just want to make—the Royal Commission into bushfires included a requirement to apply Indigenous burning knowledge to our fire management techniques. Should any policy now to do with arts and culture require a reference to songlines, these foundational knowledges?
ALISON PAGE: Yes, I mean, I think it’s crazy not to look at a society that survived major changes in climate – you know the Ice Age for 65,000, years, extremely successful. And the reason why is because there was a coherence with nature, a closeness with nature and from that developed this vast amount of traditional knowledge, ecological knowledge. I mean we’d be crazy not to see that as a gift and to be looking at that type of science too, because it’s built more around adaptation and I think that in coherence with nature, I think the types of questions that Aboriginal science asks is very different to the types of questions that western science asks.
So, you know, when we talk about these voyages coming to Australia as the, you know, voyages of Enlightenment well that’s really interesting. Because, I think to be honest, I think Cook would have loved to engage in, you know – and Banks actually – would have loved if they could have seen these practices of trial and error, experimentation, observation. If they could see that and see it going on, I’m sure if we could stand on the beach with Cook now and have that dialogue they would love it.
ALEX SLOAN: Yes. Because Lynne Kelly, I think, in Margo’s book talks about the fact that, you know, singing is a part of neuroscience and that perhaps these knowledges are way, way ahead of their time. Rupert, I don’t know if you’ve got to read this book yet, it’s one of a marvellous series.
RUPERT MYER: Yes. I think in the sense of where we are right now, I mean what's comforting about this recent inquiry is a sense of bipartisanship.
ALEX SLOAN: Yes.
RUPERT MYER: An agreement around a couple of quite fundamental tenets and whether that belongs deeply in the past or to something more recent. There does seem to be a strong bipartisanship that points towards codifying and bringing this all together in one place, where we can truly understand this inheritance that we have and building it into a plan, taking all of the knowledge from the past and the present and building it together. And I think that’s the challenge. It’s also encouraging to have that bipartisanship.
ALEX SLOAN: So what does that look like? Alison made the reference to Defence funding and maybe diverting some of that. Does it look like dollars? I mean is that because we’ve seen a very big struggle for the arts community for the past two years? They really suffered in Covid.
RUPERT MYER: A lot of it is dollars and I made that comment. But a lot of it too is about attitude to arts and culture and recognising just how significant it is to everyday Australians going about their everyday lives. I mean, this is not something that’s exalted. It’s not something that’s elitist. It’s very real, very present in everyone’s lives. And that’s, you know, when you’re starting out from a policy perspective, start with those parameters, not thinking that this is the add-on or what you do after five o’clock.
ALISON PAGE: Yes exactly. But it is, yes, it is but, you know, in creating vibrant cities and creating vibrant regional towns, you know, the arts and culture has an incredibly important role to play, but also really safe and good neighbourhoods. You can’t expect people even in an apartment block to get together if there’s no reason to get together. You’ve got to have a street party. You’ve got to have music, you’ve got to have dance, you’ve got to have a reason for everyone to break bread and share something. And I think we all know that, right? But it’s how the—so for us, you know, I know with the ANA, it’s about rhetoric it’s about how—where is the dialogue positioned. Because it’s just not good enough anymore for it to be, you know, this nice to have that can drop off as soon as we need health and we need defence. Because we’re saying that, if we had have invested in soft diplomacy within Australia and externally, that would help us at the moment with our security issues.
ALEX SLOAN: And they’re not small dollars when the arts and entertainment sector contributes nearly $15 billion a year to the Australian economy—
ALISON PAGE: Right.
ALEX SLOAN: —nearly 200,000 jobs, which is more than the finance industry and I think four times more than the coal industry.
ALISON PAGE: More than sport. Just saying.
ALEX SLOAN: It’s not a small sector but when it comes to policy makers and politicians this is not the story that we get. Rupert, what do we do?
RUPERT MYER: Look, I think a national cultural plan is a good idea.
ALISON PAGE: I don’t know if I’ve said it yet.
[Laughter and applause]
RUPERT MYER: In most other endeavours in life, whether it’s—I mean sport has a plan – 2030 – Agriculture has plans, Defence has plans, you know, we’re quite good at plans. It’s something Australians do well. And to have a national cultural plan seems very timely and appropriate, particularly with three tiers of government working in this space, it’s a very logical next step.
ALEX SLOAN: So what are you both hoping to hear from the major parties when it comes to going to the election and their arts and culture policies? Give me a dream result.
RUPERT MYER: I think the bipartisan nature of arts and culture, it really should be paramount, you know. This should not be a contested political space. It should be well understood given that within an Australian context this is what we do, and that we think very clearly and carefully and deeply about the culture of the nation, so to have messaging around that and the significance of arts and culture would be a really great outcome to observe.
ALEX SLOAN: Alison?
ALISON PAGE: I would love for ‘I’m sorry, we got it wrong. We’ve got it wrong for this long. We should have been listening to Aboriginal people all along.’ That arts and culture and storytelling is a vital part of who we are, and that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we can build on what 60,000 years of a very successful society – the oldest living culture on earth – so we can stop being second-hand America, second-hand Europe and actually, you know, take our place as the older brother and sister in amongst all the other countries, you know, instead of kind of acting like that earnest younger brother and sister that’s just copying them. So for me, I would like to hear from them that, I’d like for them to acknowledge that amongst the people, the people appreciate arts and culture, as Rupert said. So, I’d like them to listen to their people.
ALEX SLOAN: And A New Approach did extensive research on this, in terms of middle Australia, regional Australia. It’s not just the people in the urban elites in the cities, it’s right across this country. Country town choirs, theatre groups.
RUPERT MYER: The research has been completely unambiguous on this, that middle Australia has a very strong connection with arts and culture. They value it very highly in their everyday lives, it’s a very significant part of what they do. It comes back time and time again and, you know, to recognise confidently and assert that regularly and feed that into a public policy process is actually what a plan would do.
ALEX SLOAN: And ANA has found that there’s been a seven per cent decrease in cultural funding on a per capita basis over the last 12 years. We want to see that reversed in this upcoming—Look, I think ‘on our watch’, Rupert, you take that very seriously tonight and that’s your message.
RUPERT MYER: It is. It’s our watch, our watch. We all have that responsibility.
ALEX SLOAN: And Alison Page?
ALISON PAGE: And the watch goes back 65,000 years.
RUPERT MYER: Correct.
ALEX SLOAN: Thank you so much to Rupert Myer and Alison Page for I think a pretty vital discussion about this public good arts and culture. It’s not decoration, it’s what makes us human. And I’d like to thank you all for coming – great crowd. It’s lovely. Isn’t it lovely to be in a gathering like this in a celebration of arts and culture? And thank you too, all on the live stream. Again, a big attendance. Thanks to the National Museum of Australia for this Australia Speaks series. I think it’s just a vital part of the national conversation, so thank you so much. Please do keep speaking and enjoy some refreshments. Thank you and good night.
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Date published: 27 July 2022