The Arts! Who Gives a Rats?

Address to the Canberra Business Council Dinner

Thursday 8 November 2001

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I would like to thank Mr Dale Budd for the opportunity to address the Business Council.

I speak tonight about the importance of the arts, and of cultural tourism, and the need for a co-ordinated strategy to make Canberra even more attractive to visitors.

I confess to being a blow-in, but one who has lived happily in Canberra for over four years. I love this city and have made great friends. My family have been very happy here too. I speak as a resident, privileged to be one, and honoured to be Director of the National Gallery of Australia. I take a national and an international view, but have loved being a local here in Canberra. This is the context in which I offer a contribution to the needs of local tourism.

In the wonderful Children's Television Workshop program Sesame Street there is a character called Count von Count. He helps children to learn how to use numbers, but he also provides a satirical comment on one of the great propensities of our age - the insatiable desire to count and measure everything. We live in the Great Age of the Beancounter.

In my introduction to the Annual Report of the National Gallery for 1999-2000, I felt compelled to preface what is a report of statistical commentary, prepared for tabling in Parliament, with the following words:

The need to measure and report on performance is a requirement of all Government agencies. The National Gallery of Australia recognises this responsibility, but emphasises also that the effect of our activities is primarily qualitative rather than quantitative. We seek to confer social benefits on the community. We provide opportunities for personal interaction with works of art and prefer to measure our successes in experiential terms, such as how memorable they are, or how intriguing, innovative, thought-provoking, diverse, traditional, curious, inspiring. The National Gallery offers the experience of engagement with objects and activities focussed on them. When reading this Annual Report, it is useful to keep in mind that the performance reporting regime with which we comply as an organisation tells only one part of the story of our activities.

I quote this paragraph to try to lift the tone of my remarks on why we should all care about the arts, before I have inevitably to detail how much they mean in economic return to our community. I recognise, after all, that in business what is not quantifiable most often does not count. Where profit is shareholder value, the returns are mainly related to how much goes into one's bank account.

Putting a price on something can kill a good idea. Cost and value are not measurable in purely financial terms. Why did three people give $500,000 each to help to buy a painting by David Hockney for the National Gallery? Why did four people collectively give $3.5M towards a painting by Lucian Freud? Why did Dr Orde Poynton leave some $13M to the Gallery to buy international prints? The answer is because we asked them and they wanted to do it. Money follows a good idea. You have got to have ideas.

The arts are indeed different, a special kind of business. I am quite prepared to use the language of business if, in exchange, the language of the arts is understood as a different language with its own grammar and intonation.

The arts are but one part of culture. We can describe culture in many ways, but one of the best is that of an economist, Professor David Throsby of Macquarie University, the author of a brilliant new book called Economics and Culture. Culture, he suggests, is as a set of attitudes, beliefs, customs, values and practices common to or shared by any group. More closely expressed, culture describes those activities undertaken by people, and the product of these activities, which have to do with the intellectual, moral and artistic aspects of human life. Hence we speak of the 'cultural sector of the economy', 'cultural goods', 'cultural institutions'.

The arts are not the same as entertainment, though they can be entertaining. Entertainment includes all of what we do in our spare time. The arts are different. When we buy a product in a shop, we know what to expect. With an artistic event, a work of art, an artistic performance, we are paying for an experience, the effect of which is not quantifiable and may vary from person to person. The arts, thus, produce a special kind of product, an experience.

We live in a world of information, of easy, quick-fix, fact-filled, sound-bite moments. It is a world of instant gratification, an experiential world. This should be a world ripe for imagination. For it is our imagination which can be the true place of thought. We must not polarise the world into the image makers and the thinkers. The best thoughts occur in the imagination. They envisage a place in which we can be vividly alive. Our imagination can help us to explore what has hitherto been mystery.

Australia needs more than anything else, an enterprise culture, one that encourages the imaginative, those who try to make things happen. Australia today tends to penalise failure and vilify the unsuccessful, rather than encouraging them to try again. One of my favourite quotes comes from Somerset Maugham who warned: 'Only a mediocre person is always at his best.'

I have been encouraged by the changed attitude in Canberra today compared to August 1997 when I arrived here. The rise of the private sector, much of it through outsourced government, and the progressive attitudes of the Chief Ministers and other local politicians, and of the public servants and enterprising business people, have propelled a shift to a more can-do focus. But there is much that we can do to improve still further.

The arts are most important for the qualitative reasons I have already addressed, but being responsible for a major institution also gives me a perspective on the approach to tourism and, in particular, to cultural tourism in Canberra. In short, in my view, the Canberra community is not yet serious about tourism.

To be serious as a community is to have a common shared purpose. It is to recognise that reward only comes to those who invest. It costs money, time and effort, a celebration of success, a review of failures, and continuous efforts to try, try again.

We all do not talk together enough about our primary industry, the tourism industry. We do not even recognise adequately how important it is to us. We often here talk of Canberra as the Nation's best kept secret. Do we want it to be a secret? Or do we want it to be a magnet for tourism. Canberra is not a hard sell because the repeat visitation rate to the ACT is especially high at 70%. Canberra residents are also good at enticing visitors, because 40% stay with friends or relatives. I certainly feel a bit like the Irish embassy at times but am delighted that people really do want to visit us!

What are we doing, however, to control development? Is it sustainable? Will current developments have adverse cultural impacts? Are we being sensitive to what it is that makes this city special? Are we looking to medium and long-term gains, as well as short term ones?

How many of us believe and continously say that Canberra will be the great cultural tourism draw of Australia in fifty years time? If you do not believe it, it will not happen. Mass tourism has huge cultural impacts because low-cost, high volume tourism is less concerned about heritage preservation and natural beauty. We must debate this issue more as a community. Do we prefer cultural tourism focussed on the visitor to cultural festivals, cultural sites? Monet & Japan cost $5M, lasted 90 days and brought $28.6M into the local economy, according to the University of Canberra researchers. Let's repeat that - $28.6M. This is serious business.

I suggest we are in the try it and see tourist policy phase. We are trying out big events to see if they can work, whether they can energise the city and respond to the diversity in our community. Let's see what happens to the Car Race over its five years contract. Let's try to make it work. But let's also review what Canberra is doing. It will be surprising if big events are as good value in sustainable tourism terms as all-year round attractions.

We recognised our need at the National Gallery to shift focus when in 1998 we reorganised our approach to big exhibitions. We had traditionally held one or two per year, and they often brought large numbers of visitors to Canberra. By moving to exhibitions for each of the four seasons, we have held many more shows. After a transition year in 1998/99 which saw low visitation, we have had in the last two years the highest ever numbers of visitors to temporary exhibitions in the Gallery's history. We had 329,000 paying visitors to exhibitions last year, up 3% on the previous year. Three quarters of these people were visitors to Canberra. Many stayed overnight, went to restaurants, hired cars, took taxis, bought petrol, went on tours etc. This is also true of thousands of visitors to the other major visitor attractions and to the many smaller ones in Canberra.

Monet & Japan brought two thirds of the Gallery's exhibition visitors to Canberra last year. But the exhibition happened in a degree of isolation from the Canberra business community. People said lovely things about it but I personally did not receive one letter of thanks from local business organisations inviting me to pass on congratulations to our staff for their contribution to the community.

Let's be straight. Wine tourism is a great idea because it is sympathetic to cultural tourism, inviting longer stays by leisurely visitors. Canberra is certainly not boring with its good food, wine, landscape, attractions and people. But it is different, and we should celebrate, even accentuate its difference. If this sounds high-brow, so be it, for face it folks, Canberra is high brow. Most cities are organic in development. This one is so controlled. It must be because we want it to be controlled, to be different, to be special.

Are we serious, however, about helping tourists to negotiate Canberra's road plan? I am notorious for getting lost, and I've lived here for over four years! Is it good enough to say to the visitor who is here for a few days, 'don't worry about the roads, sure it's taken me years to work it out and I still get lost'. I've heard this excuse so many times.

There is a lot that is so positive. For example, the development of the ACT Tourism Masterplan for 2001-2005, the activities of the Centre for Tourism Research at the University of Canberra, the renewed vigour of the Tourism Industry Council, the growth of Canberra airport, the huge capital investment in federally funded cultural institutions in recent years, talk of a Fast Train, talk of a Federation Tram.

I was pleased recently by discussions about the next Focus on Business in Canberra conference. The Arts will be seen as a major focus of cultural tourism and of Canberra business in the next conference. Last time, the arts as business was neglected. Arts institutions like the National Gallery are not just nice places to have a drinks reception. They are major drivers, even power houses, of Canberra's economy.

The National Gallery is one of the top ten material assets of the Commonwealth by insurance value (some $1.5 billion). The Australian War Memorial has just been named the Best Tourist Attraction in the National Tourism Awards for the second year in a row. We should be offering a civic reception to its staff. If our sports team wins, we do it, but not for a heritage institution? The National Museum of Australia was successfully launched and has had a great first year. Has the Government invited the Museum's Board and its Director and staff representatives to lunch to congratulate them? The Canberra Airport development should see Terry Snow celebrated for his imagination and energy, for trying so hard. People are critiqued enough when an effort runs into difficulty. They should also be praised. The National Aquarium, a private family venture, is a great place to visit here in Canberra. Do we adequately promote the presence of these types of tourism businesses in our community?

I am prompted in these thoughts by a solicitation I and the directors of many of the major cultural institutions in Canberra received a while ago from the Premier of Tasmania. He invited all of us to dinner here in Canberra and made no secret that he wanted to know what we could do for Tasmania. Now how about the ACT Government trying the same treat?

Statistics can lie but it would appear from official figures that Tasmania with a population not that far from the size of the ACT spends on destination marketing $24.56 per capita. The ACT spends $6.25 per capita. $24 compared to $6. By any reckoning, the ACT spends too little on attracting tourists.

I consulted the tourism policies of both the ACT Labor and Liberal parties on their websites. I welcome very much the importance being given to tourism initiatives in those policies. There is much of note in the record of recent years in Canberra: Bruce Stadium, the Airport, the increased funding for tourism promotion, the Focus on Business conference, the AFL Games, the Rally of Canberra, the Masters Games, the June weekend of the V8 Supercars race, the Centenary of Federation events, the new Visitor Centre at Tidbinbilla, and on it goes. But what is sorely missing is any real sense of co-ordinated activity within the community.

So can I end by praising the ACT Tourism Masterplan. Can I encourage a whole of government agency network approach to tourism. Can we create a mechanism within local government to unite the tourism industry? Can we create a forum where all key organisations, institutions and councils, including local government, can speak about, listen to and take action on tourism issues?

Can we have the major cultural institutions represented on the Business Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the Tourism Industry Council, or whatever groups on which they can usefully contribute and be informed?

A co-ordinated tourism strategy, with significantly better funding than currently provided, is essential. I hope the new government of the ACT will adopt such a strategy? I hope the business community will support such a strategy? Will you yourself, each one here, invest in it? Will you get serious about it? I leave it with you.

Dr Brian Kennedy
National Gallery of Australia
8 November 2001