Four Memos to Myself: Things I’ve known, wish I’d known, have learned, unlearned or forgotten

By Rupert Myer AO

1. On cultural power

Get this bit right. Cultural power is most certainly not new to our continent. Culture through its expression and practice has not just been central to all facets of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life; it sits, as it should for all of us, at the threshold to belief and knowledge, even existence itself. Culture animates the past, every present day and the future. Our understanding of this is central to how we must think about what Australia is now. Study carefully and know that the true essence of our heritage including what makes us uniquely Australian is already present. Disciplined leaders and thinkers debated, cultivated, chartered and implemented these sophisticated notions and systems enacting them through a holistic ceremonial process over millennia.

Culture is not what you do after 5pm; it is at the heart of our every day. There is nothing soft about soft power: it is cultural power.

Use the role of a national cultural agency Chair to speak of this and facilitate voice and recognition for others to express this truth. Assert as often as you can that, at the heart of our cultural expression and inspiration, is the entwinement of the multiple journeys that the families of each of us have taken from 70,000 years ago, until the present day. Individually, any one journey can be extraordinary enough. However, the woven narrative of each of them creates and expresses both a cultural confidence and a cultural power unique to our nation. Fusion is creation.

Culture evolves over time and is fragile, especially as dominant cultures can overwhelm smaller communities and their cultures. Ours is not a derivative culture of another place: ours is a cultural democracy in which the ideas of many are simultaneously combined. These ideas give us a shared cultural memory, a pride in what has gone before, an anticipation of what might lie ahead and a community of common destiny. The ideas of many illuminate cultural heritage and inspire us to action. They nudge us towards co-existence, integration and cultural transmission. They shift our boundaries, grow our relationships and give multiple meanings to our personal and community identities. They exert an influence over us all and cajole us and charm us into thinking deeply about these matters. That is their power. They contribute mightily to explain us to us and us to others. 

Encourage that power to speak. We are drowning in the evidence that proves the centrality of this cultural power in our lives. There is barely a metric measuring human accomplishment that isn’t turbo-charged by deep cultural engagement: health and well-being, educational attainment, social cohesion, job satisfaction, human flourishing. Find a way of turning this evidence into a broadly held belief, particularly amongst our policymakers, thought leaders and broad populace. Culture is not what you do after 5pm; it is at the heart of our every day. There is nothing soft about soft power: it is cultural power. Speak of it with awe and encourage its wise use.

 

2. On strategy

The focus of a national cultural body is to encourage and give visibility to our shared cultural and artistic ambitions and achievements and to recognise, enable and promote great art, great artists and great arts organisations. The national focus is the clue. In Australia’s version of a commonwealth, the bodies should work closely with states and territories and, where possible, with local government, capital and regional city governments and the private sector to back organisations and artists’ projects of national significance. By making multi-year commitments beyond a single parliamentary term, the greater certainty of recurrent funding ensures longer planning cycles and raises confidence. The longer the better: four years is good; six years would be better. 

Artists’ projects cannot be assessed as though items for purchase at a supermarket where the most popular line gets restocked: the process requires expert knowledge, access to networks, anticipation of future developments, application of imagination and maverick ideas, recognition of emerging talent, future benefit, evolving taste and audience response.

For arts grant-making, an arm’s length from government, transparent, competitive, peer-assessed process may be imperfect but it is by far the best method that exists. It leads to good decisions that are accountable, considered and informed. The process places those people who know and care deeply about the arts at the centre of the determinations. Expect a lot of the peers; choose them carefully and feed them well. It is an immensely demanding role. Defend this approach. Artists’ projects cannot be assessed as though items for purchase at a supermarket where the most popular line gets restocked: the process requires expert knowledge, access to networks, anticipation of future developments, application of imagination and maverick ideas, recognition of emerging talent, future benefit, evolving taste and audience response. Consideration must be given to impact in the medium to long term. 

No single project or organisation can be expected to do it all. However, the sum of all the funding can be expected to shape and influence our cultural lives. Not all of what is funded can be bold, long term, risky and unexpected. But a good deal of it should be. Be aware of the existing funding frameworks, their strengths and weaknesses, their opponents and proponents, their histories and present day inadequacies. Promote reform, refinement and reinvention preserving what is good and what should not be lost. Anticipate the fierce debates and participate rigorously. Don’t be surprised if others cling onto views unchanged for decades. 

Have your 30-second lift pitch ready, always. Stalk airport lounges, boardrooms and barbeques with it but not so people try to avoid you. Subsidising market failure can’t be the abiding consideration: having public funding stimulate and provide a catalyst for future successful productions and exhibitions provides leverage and reach. However, the monetised value of impact cannot be the sole measure of social and cultural value. Just because the economic value can be measured more easily does not make it a more valuable measure. It may not even be a very important one. Act in a way that might imbue others with the joy and excitement of our shared cultural inheritance, a love for the arts and culture, and a deep appreciation for their importance in our lives. 

A tip for the arts sector: don’t adopt the position of an entitled client or beneficiary of a government agency. Act as a contributing owner sharing the custodial nature of the nation’s cultural stewardship and transfer. You are being funded by public money. Be original, imaginative, grounded, authentic and rigorous. Chronology and sequencing are important. Excellence requires your eternal vigilance. Be aware of your responsibility. Tell the nation’s and the world’s untold stories and narratives and retell the ones worth retelling. In national service, support the dreams that you are carrying.

 

3. On cultural leadership.

Prepare for a journey in leadership: expect exhilaration and inspiration, anticipate disappointment, despair - even heartbreak. You will see the very best of people and the very worst of people. Don’t be judgemental. Recall the history of the past, both good and bad, and seek a common aspiration that will inspire a deep commitment of those whose job it is to make those plans happen. Recognise that there are intractable problems to solve in supporting the development of culture and know that sometimes it’s not possible to find the answer for each when you seek it: leave space for the answer to find you.

Anticipate and embrace evolving community expectations and changing governance rules and requirements; confront and challenge any amplification of prevailing orthodoxies and the exercising of entitlement. Just because views are long held doesn’t make them right.

Manage expectations. You will have no shortage of advice. Contribute actively to thought leadership. Build the diverse expertise that exists in everyone, a strong evidence base and a democracy of ideas. Ensure that there are people close to you who do not think like you, act like you or come from where you do. Bring love, care, trust and imperfection and encourage courage, being true and full accountability. Be unafraid of complexity, adversity and occasional chaos. Clarity over simplicity, silence over charisma, humility over self-aggrandisement, practices and behaviours over theories. You can be dissatisfied and critical but do not create a culture of complaint. Instead, embrace truthful positivity and an environment that is ethical and without torment, fully embracing of ideas and creativity and the best each person has to offer. 

Recognise the privilege of the position: it is a role and an office. Be prepared for the moments when it is necessary for overt, out in front, follow me leadership but understand that its legitimacy is derived from collective understanding and broad participation. Speak to as many people in the organisation as possible. Your role is to motivate management to draw the gifts, abilities and skills of those in the organisation in accordance with its agreed strategy and objectives. Anticipate and embrace evolving community expectations and changing governance rules and requirements; confront and challenge any amplification of prevailing orthodoxies and the exercising of entitlement. Just because views are long held doesn’t make them right. 

Lead lightly from the heart and the head. Stop. Be still. Listen. You have one mouth and two ears. Take the hint. Recognise those moments when you and your colleagues are being presented with well-formed views borne of deep experience and insight. You know the ones.  Be transformative. Observe, process, distil, consider, act – and enable.

4. On Chairing.

Just because it happens to you, it is not about you. You are the custodian for a time of a role at a public institution, a statutory authority, which has been established by Australia’s federal parliament for expressed purposes. Know that there are many who wish that it were something that it is not or wish that it weren’t what it is. The role is defined and, although not specifically prescribed, it is as well that you listen to all voices. Do that as closely and equally to your colleagues and friends as you would to those who are not now and never might be your colleagues and your friends. Don’t waste a crisis. Do something unexpected. 

It will not be possible to remember everyone’s names but try hard to remember something about them, their stories. Take the dog for a walk. Be prepared to learn something new everyday and be ready to speak about a recent performance, an exhibition or a cultural experience you have attended. Stay current. Advocacy is at the heart of the role but it cannot be performed as a name and shame blood sport despite that being expected by some.  Your own insistence, persistence and reason and the well-informed enthusiastic exhortations of others are required simultaneously. 

Be swift to eliminate misinformation. Public policy can be fickle and changeable, often unexpected, unanticipated. Be as close to the centre of policymaking as you can be. You are a non-executive: you don’t run the place. Keep your own council, maintain confidences and learn to bite your tongue: it hurts but heals quickly. Be prepared to defend the organisation so that the management can manage. If you feel disinclined to do that, do something about the management. If you don’t want to do that, it’s really simple: defend them to the hilt. Get to a beach, a river, the high country or a garden. Involve your family and those who are closest to you with what you are doing. Mistakes will be made. Be quick to recognise them. Make every attempt to fix them but it’s not always possible. 

These are complex, richly rewarding roles. They require simultaneously chairing the board and the organisation, being accountable to the arts sector and to the government, ensuring that it is the responsibility of the Director or CEO and their chosen managements to manage within the constraints of board accountability. Government is not a donor. The placing of the symbols of the kangaroo and the emu on a project or an organisation is our government's recognition that what is funded is deemed to matter to the nation. That is no small thing. All parties are responsible. 

Load the dishwasher when you get home.


Rupert Myer AO served as Chair of the National Gallery of Australia from 2006 until 2012 and then as Chair of the Australia Council for the Arts until mid-2018. Previously, he served as a Trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria and as a board member of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Along with non-executive directorships in listed and unlisted companies, he presently serves on the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership, the Felton Bequests’ Committee, Jawun and The Yulgilbar Foundation.