It is 50 years ago today that Harold Holt announced his
government’s decision to support Australian cultural activity by establishing a
council for the arts and a national gallery.
In taking those steps, he said he wished to encourage those
who had contributed to advancing Australia’s “distinctive cultural activities”,
enabling them to “rise to new heights”. Time has shown what visionary decisions
It is interesting to reflect on what kind of place Australia
was when this cultural intervention took place. We had a population of 12
million, and a weekly wage of $57. Australia had troops in Vietnam and
indigenous Australians were given the right to be counted for the first time in
the national census after a national referendum. The cultural landscape, still
comparatively sparse, was dotted with events such as the opening of Melbourne’s
La Mama Theatre. Thomas Keneally’s novel Bring Larks and Heroes won the Miles
Franklin Award. Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock was published. And John
(then Johnny) Farnham released Sadie (The Cleaning Lady).
Almost certainly there remained some insecurity around
Australia’s cultural identity. This perhaps makes Holt’s decision all the more
courageous and ground breaking. In this context, it demonstrated recognition of
the value of commonwealth support for the arts, as well as a belief in the
potential for this support to help shape a stronger sense of Australian
Today, the Australia Council for the Arts and the National
Gallery of Australia are the beneficiaries of bipartisan support.
The NGA collection comprises more than 150,000 works of art,
valued at about $6 billion. It is the largest collection held by any art
gallery in Australia. It strives to make art accessible, meaningful and vital
to diverse audiences locally, nationally and internationally.
Commonwealth support for the arts undoubtedly has encouraged
a broad art culture throughout the nation and, at times, has challenged totemic
views of cultural inclusion. Last year, financial support from the Australia
Council led to the creation of more than 6500 new Australian works, reaching
audiences of at least 3.8 million.
Being the peak body for the arts, it is never far from a
debate, and we are all better for it. The more we discuss our ambitions for
arts and culture in this nation, the richer we are as a society. Being
arms-length from government with processes that are contestable, transparent
and peer-reviewed, the Australia Council has always supported excellence,
cultural democracy and audience engagement.
Recent research confirms that the vast majority of
Australians have a strong belief in the value of the arts, even if a little too
often it is our guilty secret. It also highlights our continuing and increasing
appreciation for, and experience of, the arts and culture of Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Despite the fulfilment of much of Holt’s ambition, a broader
expression of belief is required to ensure that Australian artists and creative
endeavours are a source of national pride, a reflection of our diversity and a
measure of our nation’s achievements. The evidence is overwhelming that the
arts contribute substantially to better educational attainment, improved mental
and physical health, social inclusion and happiness.
The arts are not just entertainment and what you might do
after 5pm. They are integral to life. Holt’s legacy ought to be a core belief
in, and broad public demand for, the sustained support of cultural activity
from all three tiers of government, as well as from substantial private
Noel Pearson’s powerful narrative that confidently defines
our unique Australian identity is based on his description of three epic
journeys here: the first out of Africa 70,000 years ago, the second of 1770 and
those of the Enlightenment, and the third being all those journeys escaping
persecution, war zones or seeking economic betterment. The crossover of these
stories creates a potent and continuing source of cultural expression and
There is much work to be done to realise the full potential
of our great good fortune. Holt’s two fine institutions are perfectly placed to
drive, reflect, challenge and excite all of us as our artists intertwine these
strands of memories, tales, experiences and beliefs.
Rupert Myer AO has been chairman of the Australia Council
for the Arts since 2012 and was chairman of the National Gallery of Australia
from 2005 to 2012.
This piece was first published in The Australian on November