National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
20 January 2016
E & OE
Subjects: Opening address to the National Visual Art Education Conference
Well thanks very much Gerard and at the outset can I thank Paul for just the most wonderful welcome to us today. And what a magnificent visual presentation that accompanied Paul’s welcome. So thank you very much indeed Paul. Gerard, the Director of the Gallery, thank you and your team for hosting this conference and for auspicing it, and for the great leadership that you provide to Australia’s artistic community. And it’s a real honour and a real thrill for me to be here at the third conference, so thank you indeed for the invitation.
As I look around the room and I’m not making any judgement here but I’m making an assumption that there are a good number of people here that are about my age, who like me have thought, what a shocking week, David Bowie, Alan Rickman and last night Glenn Frey from The Eagles. We’re here for the visual arts but just what a tragic week in terms of the broader artistic community for those of us who grew up with those names and the work that they’ve undertaken.
I am only 4 months old as Arts Minister, so it’s fair to say that in this incarnation as an Arts Minister I’m very much in my infancy. And the approach that I take to the portfolio is recognizing that on the one hand in a sense I’m a steward of the arts as Minister, but I’m also a student of the arts. And I look to many people to help me in that capacity to help educate me as Arts Minister. And I think ones effectiveness as a Minister is to a large extent determined by their openness and their willingness to learn. So in a room full of arts educators I really couldn’t be in a better place in that regard.
Can I start today with a thank you. A thank you to the arts educators who are here. Primary, secondary, tertiary. What you do is incredibly important. The arts is not some luxury. It’s not an add on. It’s not something that’s extra-curricular in an educational sense. The arts is something that should be core to primary and secondary school education. You, through what you do help equip people in so many ways to interpret the world around them. So can I say thank you for the work that you do.
Obviously there is inherent value in art. There is inherent value in the creative process. But the arts does provide students with the capacity and the tools and the mechanisms to understand the world around them. To interpret the world around them. And to express what it is that they feel and what they see. And these are skills for life. They’re skills for living. And that’s why when I came into the Parliament about 12 years ago, although it relates to a different medium, there was something that really shocked and surprised me, and that was in relation to music. That only about 1 in 4 primary school kids receive any music education. That surprised me because when I was at school, the arts were everywhere. I went to 5 schools in 3 different states. The arts in visual form and music were throughout my education. So it stunned me that only 1 in 4 kids in primary school had any music education and that relates to and underpins issues such as literacy and numeracy. We know that the arts does help with literacy and numeracy and with behaviour as well. And that led me to become an ambassador for a not-for-profit school music education organisation called The Song Room that set about helping schools to have music education programmes within their own budgets. As I look around the room, clearly it must be the case that the visual arts is in better shape than music in schools, primary and secondary. But we don’t want allow a situation where the arts in schools gets neglected so this is a very important conference.
You will have heard us as a Government talk a lot about innovation and agility. We had the national innovation statement released in December. Which includes a national approach to what we know as STEM education, Science, Technology, Education and Maths. But if we want to have a real culture of innovation then we need to have creativity at the heart of that agenda and what we need to do is to put an A into STEM. We need to start talking about STEAM. Science, Technology, Education, the Arts and Mathematics. Because if we want to have a culture of innovation, a culture of creativity feeds directly into that. And it’s good that as part of the national curriculum we have arts featured with 5 subjects. With a focus on dance, drama, media, arts, music and the visual arts. The intention is that there will be a broad exposure to those areas in primary school and then the opportunity for students to then specialise in secondary school. But it’s important that we make sure the arts continues to be seen as a core part of education and the national curriculum is an opportunity for us collectively to make sure that’s the case.
One of the things that has struck me as I look at the education sector is how we often, in some jurisdictions, have centres of excellence. You might have James Ruse Agricultural High school, Newtown High for Performing Arts, or Cherrybrook Technology High. These are schools that specialise in particular disciplines which is a good thing. But I’m not aware of a secondary school, but I stand to be corrected, that specialises in the visual arts, that has as one of the stated key focuses as a centre of excellence with visual arts in the title of the school. Maybe there should be. It’s something that I’ll put on the table for discussion. But I think we need to have both broad education in schools, but also not a bad thing to have centres of excellence in particular disciplines. So something for discussion.
Gerard mentioned that the National Gallery does a lot for students. It’s important to acknowledge the leadership that the National Gallery provides. 70 or 80,000 students and staff each year come to the National Gallery. Tremendous resources that the National Gallery provides. There’s the digitisation of the collection which makes it more accessible. There are resources provided to schools. And its exhibitions such as the Tom Roberts, which is currently here, have components which are designed for kids.
So this is a truly great national institution and a truly great national resource for students and for educators. It’s a great programme that you have before you. When I was looking through covering some pretty confronting subjects such as why boys don’t embrace the visual arts is readily as girls do. How young children make meaning. And this one, where there may be a bit of debate, truth, beauty and goodness reframed. So we’ll see if that leads to some spirited debate. And also a session on gearing kids up for the creative economy, where many of the jobs of the future will be.
This is an important conference. For the networking opportunity. I was chatting to some primary school teachers before who said that the last national conference, through talking amongst themselves, they realised that there was no professional development association for primary teachers in visual arts. So as a result of that we have The Early Childhood and Primary Visual Arts Network. Make sure that you get your brochure downstairs if you’re in a primary school. Best wishes for the days ahead. It’s a tremendous programme and I know that you will draw energy, you will draw inspiration and you will be refreshed and ready to tackle the year ahead. Thanks very much.
Justine Sywak | 0448 448 487 | firstname.lastname@example.org