Academy of the Humanities and the Academy of Social Sciences Summit

Canberra, 26 July 2001

Dinner Address: Dr Terry Cutler

This is a refreshing and friendly setting to be in as one of my early outings as the new Chairman of the Australia Council. My appointment to the Council was reported with headlines like "technologist to be arts czar". So it is ironical, and very appropriate here, to point out that my educational background was in the humanities - in the History School at the University of Melbourne; and that my entry into the technology sector was entirely accidental. During one of my first of many life crises - this one was over whether to be or not be an academic - I opted to try the other world and while I sorted myself out I signed up for a temporary job with a very 1970s multidisciplinary think tank in what was then Telecom Australia. At the time I was told that, as a non-engineer, I had no career prospects. So perhaps it was a portent that even then I felt impelled to prove and promote the value of the arts!

The first two chairs of the Australia Council, Nugget Coombs and Professor Peter Karmel, would also feel thoroughly at home at your summit today. Many of the challenges they articulated in the early years of the Council are still the pressing issues of today. Arguably even more so.

Why are humanities and arts important in Australia in a digital era, a 21st century society?

The humanities and arts are important as part of the overall, crucial importance of education, and the quality of that education.

Last week I took part in the inaugural meeting of South Australia's International Advisory Panel established to advice the State on responses to the emerging global information economy. One Panel member, Dame Bridget Olgivie, until recently head of the Wellcome Trust in the UK, told a wonderful story about her background. She grew up in Northern NSW, on the land. Her father was regarded as eccentric by his neighbours for three reasons: he had a degree from Oxford, he drank claret with meals, and he believed in educating his daughter. Dame Bridget recounted how once her father's bank manager told him he would be wiser to spend his money on fertiliser than on Bidget's education, and he replied: "Education is the best fertiliser".

But tonight we need to ask what sort of education provides the best fertiliser. I argue that the arts are the important fertilisers of creativity and imagination. Peter Sellars, another member of that International Panel in Adelaide, summed it up for me when he said: the arts give us "images of realities under construction". I can think of no better definition of the process of innovation.

One of our chronic problems is the 20th century disease of binary functions: the silos and tyranny of categories (and faculties): science versus the liberal arts; research versus teaching. This reductionist worldview is very much a product of the landscape of the industrial era.

The industrial revolution was very much about this specialisation of function. The information revolution is very much about the function of special people, knowledge workers - or Robert Reich's richer term: symbolic analysts.

As Richard Rosecrance argues, if services and intellectual property are the focus of future economies (rather than manufacturing and land values), then creativity and innovation are core assets, and education is the essential founding investment in that future.

We now know --research in the US, UK and here all show -- that the arts are vital to the economic health of cities and communities and that they improve academic achievement in children. It also seems true that the greater the economic disadvantage of the child, the greater the improvement in achievement.

The humanities and arts are also important on the basis of pure economics. Creative and copyright industries are the United States' biggest exports. By contrast, Australia's trade deficit in the creative industries and intellectual property is growing.

We also now know that, in the global competition between economic regions for investment and people attraction (and retention), a key discriminator is the relative attractiveness of locations in terms of amenities, lifestyle and cultural richness. Just this morning I happened to be talking to a bright, wealthy expatriate who has been living in the US. Contemplating a return to Australia he volunteered "cultural richness" as the key criterion in his choice of city location. Pushed further about the cultural parameters in the trade off between US and Australian cities he mentioned, in order, the cultural richness represented by the ABC, SBS, and state funded performing arts companies.

Why we shouldn't be satisfied with where we are at the moment.

If the arts are of importance to the economy and our social health, then we have no cause to be complacent when we look at our present situation. One of my main takeaways from the International Panel in Adelaide was the unanimous view of the members that the steady decline in the quality of university teaching was a major cause of concern in the UK and Australia.

There has also been a steady de-funding of the humanities and liberal arts (across teaching, practitioner training, and research) just at a time when the arts are becoming increasingly important within the knowledged-based economy.

There is currently considerable confusion and misinformation about the real skills we need this century. Over the last year or so there have been a great deal of publicity about skill shortages in the information and communications sector, in which I work. What we found when we went and talked to actual firms in the sector, and to people using ICT, was that the necessary skills are not just computer science and electrical engineering and other technical skills. What is needed, and what is lacking, is the rich mix of skills across technical areas and such areas as digital design skills, social psychology and anthropology, and business management. In addition, skills need to be matched to aptitude, imagination and passion. The challenge in the knowledge economy is to build creative teams.

We need a new breed of person. I find it instructive to note that most creative insights, for me, come from people who would not have fitted into our traditional disciplinary schema, or "output budgets", or DETYA funding categories: Leonardo da Vinci, Amartya Sen, Ronald Coase, or Adam Smith the moral philosopher. Each of these found their inspiration from outside the fields that subsequently established their reputations.

I also think we need to remove our technocratic "black eye patch" view of history, our short-sightedness. The humanities are the key to our collective memory, our sense of a journey and of discovery. Our indigenous people have a lot to teach us about how to preserve inter-generational wisdom. How do we ensure civilisation in this 21st century: a century that has begun with race riots, economic riots, digital divides and ghetto communities. The artist is a special custodian of values and beliefs. Arts are a bridge between the past and the future.

But we also need to rediscover the artist as change agent, and as community conscience, through their work of story telling, narrative, soundscapes and voices, envisioning, and performance. Change agents, and prophets are all crucial to the innovation process. Creativity and imagination is all about risk and risk taking; about personal risk and collective courage. About the freedoms to be creative, to adapt Amartya Sen's wonderful line.

All this leads to chronic tensions in institutions like universities or the Australia Council: tensions between addressing the imperatives for organisational platform stability versus the need for individual risktaking and experimentation. This is, of course, part of a more general tension across the arts and the community. A graphic illustration is being played out at present with the Adelaide Festival. The danger is that we will forget it is the creative outputs that justify the institutional structures, not vice versa.

Some of my priorities in approaching my new role at the Australia Council

So, in closing, let me suggest some of the areas where I would like to see the Australia Council be more energetic, and some of my emerging personal priorities as Chairman of the Council.

I would like to see the Council taking a more active role in promoting intellectual discourse about the value of arts in innovation and in community and economic development in a 21st century Information Society. (We need to build on the recent Deakin Lectures in Melbourne, the Festival of Ideas in Adelaide, and the forthcoming Ideas Bazaar at the Powerhouse in Brisbane).

The Australia Council needs to maintain a consistent spotlight on the pursuit of excellence, mindful that this is not a matter for half-hearted or lukewarm rhetoric. Excellence is about "the possession of good qualities in an eminent or unusual degree, surpassing merit, skill, virtue and worth". Excellence is not for the faint hearted, or lazy.

I would like to see the Council actively pursue institutional collaborations and promote individual cooperations and interdisciplinary ventures, including the exploration of new models for interdisciplinary collaborations. We have made a good start in our interaction with the ARC and in arts/science collaborations, but there is much more that we can pursue.

I would like to see us putting a spotlight on innovation, risk-taking and experimentation - creating "the freedoms to be creative".

I think the Council has to have a good look at the state of our creative infrastructure, including arts training, education and research, facilities and venues. Our successful swimmers in Tokyo would not have got far without the infrastructure of the Australian Institute of Sport, swimming pools around the country, and coaches.

Finally, I believe the Council needs to maintain its focus on how we break down barriers to access and participation, promoting a creative society.

Today we need to remind everyone that the arts are vital to the health of our society. It should be as much a part of our civic agendas as clean water or safe food. Education is the best fertiliser for building our national resources of human capital; the arts are the booster shot that adds creativity and innovation to that human capital stock. The arts create those "windows into realities under construction".

My argument tonight has been that we need to flip from the specialisation of functions to the functions of special people, especially the function of creative people. Artists are very special people.