The National Arts Summit

By January 19, 2013Education, Music, Other, Society

Because 2013 is the Centenary year of the national capital, about which I have written before, Canberra is hosting a number of national meetings this year, and one of them is the National Arts Summit. It will take place at the ANU School of Music on Tuesday February 12th, and what occurs there will have some effect on the emerging National Cultural Policy. I have a minor role in it, delivering a paper by Hugh Mackay, who can’t be there, so I declare that I have an interest.

Ordinarily, I would have to say, I steer clear of ‘summits’ and ‘national policies’. I agree that they are necessary, at least for governments, but our past experience with them is not an altogether happy one. This one will have plenty of the good and great there, like poet Les Murray, Robyn Archer, a national arts policy in herself, conductor Richard Gill, economist David Throsby, who has looked hard, and sympathetically, at the economics of the arts, and presenter Christopher Lawrence, of ABC Classic FM.

As you would expect about anything to do with the arts, this gathering is not well supported financially and is being put on by making a very small amount of money go a very long way. I have a decade and more of experience of that process in the Canberra International Music Festival, whose 19th offering is coming in May this year. Everyone talks about how important the arts is, but when there’s a suggestion that we should put real money into it, we get told of ‘competing priorities’ and ‘jobs’. Enough of that.

What attracts me most to the possibilities of the summit is something to do with one of my chief interests — the creative development of young people. Those attending will be able to take part in a mentorship scheme: mentorship slips — both offering and seeking artistic mentorship — will be distributed and then collected during the day. The slips will be then forwarded to the ACT colleges to match the young, emerging artists with their mentors. This proposal is a little different to existing schemes where schools and colleges have a visitng artist, and could be adopted in other States and the Northern Territory.

Why would older artists bother? My sense of it is that artists enjoy the opportunity to discover young aspirants in their own field, who remind the older ones of what it was like when they themselves were young — and to some degree all artistic life, if it is full-blown, is rather solitary and lonely. To encounter young ones is to be refreshed. The young need to know that sustaining an artistic career is a most unrelenting endeavour, and that you need supportive networks — and that they exist. They also need to know that you can do it, and that there is a successful role model attached in some way to your school whose experience and wisdom you might be able to tap.

If that idea succeeds the National Arts Summit will have been a great success, whatever contribution it otherwise makes to the emerging National Cultural Policy (which was actually expected last year). What would I want from such a policy? Since I have been through too many ‘education revolutions’ and ‘arts reviews’ my expectations are not high. I would shrug a bit at any suggestion that we need a dozen or so ‘fellowships’ to support emerging geniuses in one field or another. There’s a case for one or two. Finland supported Sibelius from 1897, when he was really emerging — he had still to write his first symphony and the violin concerto. And my understanding is that the infant NHMRC, before the Second World War, decided that it didn’t have enough money to do anything of consequence, so it funded two young chaps to go off to the UK to learn more. They were Macfarlane Burnet and John Eccles, and both went on to win Nobel Prizes for medicine.

No, what we need in contemporary Australia is infrastructure: money to build orchestras, theatres, concert halls, training schools, and to support good teachers at every level. The state should not see itself as a patron so much as a facilitator. What happens in the arts, all of them, should come from the bottom up, not from the top down. Yes, I do know about the Medici. Australia is not Florence in the 15th century. It is a country of 23 million people whose population, compared with Florence at that time, is highly educated, affluent and creative. We need to enable creativity to flourish, not decide who is creative and who is not. Later generations will tell us that.

To return to the Arts Summit: if that little idea of mentorship gets attention, and is enabled across the country, we could see, in time, a real enabling of creativity. And that will be good for us all.

Yes: you can still seek to attend. Go to

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