Why the arts - and the opera - are important to business.

Opera Australia Corporate Lunch, 18 September 2001

There are three main reasons why I am delighted to have been invited to join your lunch today.

  1. Opera holds a very special place in my limited cultural repertoire; the very first vinyl disk I bought was of Joan Sutherland - I think it was Norma. Fast forward to my first modest involvement in corporate sponsorship - I will never forget the night I spent backstage at the Opera - especially the moment I lurked behind a huge pink elephant in Lakme- a spectator on the audience. It was an unforgettable and thrilling experience.
  2. Opera needs help from all of us. Opera is the most expensive and challenging of all art forms. But imagine how culturally poorer we would be without a national opera company.
  3. It provides me, in my new role with the Australia Council, with an occasion and opportunity to salute Adrian and his whole ensemble team at Opera Australia for their commitment to the pursuit of excellence. The arts, like sport, are all about the pursuit of excellence. It is those moments of sheer creative genius that inspire us, that we remember all our lives, that send that shiver down our spine. These moments are very precious, because they enrich our lives, and our communities, and our workplaces.

For my theme today I have chosen the topic of why the arts - and the opera - are important to business, and especially to those of you here today representing Australia's leading companies.

Since taking up my new position with the Australia Council I have been putting a lot of emphasis on the crucial importance of the creative arts to industry and community innovation, and to our country competitiveness in a 21st century - our country competitiveness in an era in which cultural richness becomes a key economic metric, and a major factor in locational choices by skilled people within a knowledge economy.

These are important arguments in re-positioning the arts within political and community agendas. For a couple of years now people have been talking about social capital - as complementary to financial capital and human capital. It is time we made this a quadrella, and added the terms "creative equity" or "cultural capital" to our political and industry lexicon.

The creative industries - these content and copyright industries from film and television, to books, to opera - are significant in economic terms. A recent study by the Allen Consulting Group has shown that, in 1999/2000, creative industries contributed $19.2 billion in industry gross product, or 3.3% of gross national product, increasing at an average annual growth rate of 5.7%. 3.8% of the workforce are directly employed in the creative copyright industries. Unfortunately we continue to be a net importer of content and copyright. The creative industries are becoming an increasingly controversial issue in world trade negotiations.

But these crude economic metrics do not inform us about the true economic importance of creative industries.

To grasp why the arts and the creative industries are important to business, to all of us here, we need to look a little deeper.

First, the arts and creativity play, and can play a greater role, in industry innovation. For the past few years the Australia Council has been investing in some demonstration arts:science and arts:technology collaborations which have provided compelling evidence about the potential contribution of the arts to industry innovation. My favourite current case study is our placement of a new media sound artist with Lake Technologies, and this creative collaboration has resulted in six new patents. It is worthwhile for all of us to pause and to tease out just what familiar cliches like a "creative corporate culture" might actually mean or imply.

Secondly, the arts in working life have been shown to increase workplace productivity and to promote a healthy workplace culture. Michael Chaney of Westfarmers is an outstanding advocate of the value of the arts in the workplace, as he has himself seen the impacts in practice in Western Australia. There have been studies demonstrating the value of the arts in schools, hospitals and prisons. I would like to see more attention to, and study of, the importance and value of the arts in workplace culture, and in the making of creative enterprises.

Thirdly, we should not underestimate the importance of the arts as "total immersion therapy" for overworked executives. Personally, I often end up on a Friday thinking I am just too tired to attend yet another arts performance, only to come out totally re-energised and refreshed. For me the only comparable experience is skydiving, which I briefly took up in the 1980s as a way of clearing the head, but let me assure you that a night at the opera has the same effect, and is somewhat safer.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should never forget the importance of the arts in that fragile and precious heritage we call civilisation. This issue now has a special meaning for us today, as we reflect on the horrors of last week which can leave none of us unaffected.

Civilisation is fragile; the cultural heritage of our common humanity is very, very precious; our creative journey of self discovery and mutual understanding has never seemed more important. In our chaotic world, in a world of economic anxiety, and now the growing anxiety of random terrorism, where is the centre of our community? We need artists, we need the creative arts, more than ever before. We need their creative making of meaning to help the rest of us find new meanings in this increasingly complex world. We need artists to inspire us, and to give us fresh visions of possibility. We need continually to reflect on our humanity and how we can enrich our lives and our communities in an era where poverty and meanness of spirit has never seemed so threatening.

The events of S11, from the WTO protests in Seattle to the World Trade Centre in New York, remind us that economic development and prosperous enterprise cannot survive major challenges to civil society and democratic stability. The arts are important glue in holding together the community fabric of civilisation and trust on which all our industry and trade relies. We need a new appreciation of the global importance of the arts and cultural ecosytems in maintaining sustainable economies and healthy societies, just as we have learned over the past two decades to appreciate the economic importance of the environment.

The arts are a classic case of a public good. We traditionally define public goods as activities where there is a demonstrable public benefit that cannot be wholly appropriated by private interests. The impact of the arts, particularly painting, on the self-esteem and viability of indigenous communities is a great case study. Or how can we measure the impact of the Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony on our sense of community self-worth and national identity?

Government funding of the arts as a public good is both necessary and desirable - whether primarily through direct on-budget grants as in Australia, or indirectly through special corporate tax breaks as in the United States and with industry Research and Development in Australia.

Maintaining direct government support for the arts is crucial. But as I have I outlined earlier, the arts are of direct importance to industry and business. Corporate support for the arts is increasingly important; we need to create a healthy "mixed economy" in the arts.

Corporate support for the arts is not a substitute for Government funding, but complements Government support. And it is necessary, as well as being, I hope I have convinced you, in your own corporate self-interest.

And today I feel a sense of urgency in arguing for renewed corporate support for the arts. Over recent months we have seen the collapse of an important theatre company in Sydney whose principal sponsor was HIH. Companies highly reliant on sponsorships from One Tel or Ansett are reeling. And the reason they are reeling is that every performing arts company in Australia, despite considerable support from Government, struggles just to keep going. And I worry that the emerging economic downturn is going to going to hit our struggling arts sector hard.

Corporate support for the arts is important to tipping the balance from survival to the achievement of excellence. We need the same partnership between State and corporate support that has produced such outstanding results in the arena of sports, that other area of great performing art. (It is no coincidence that Dianna Jones and I both share a common passion for the Richmond Football Club and the opera).

We who work on behalf of the arts need to work even harder to convince you that support for the arts is not only worthy, but worthwhile.

In closing, I want to say a few words about the varieties of corporate philanthropy.

I think we can distinguish a least three distinct varieties of corporate support for the arts:

We need corporate supporters of all varieties - sponsor, supporter, and investor - but wouldn't it be great if we had many more passionate investors.

Let me conclude with a reminder about why the opera, this unique art form, merits your particular attention as a passionate corporate supporter of the arts.

Opera is unquestionably the richest, most complex, and the most expensive of the performing arts. It is the ultimate form of multimedia - combining theatre, dance, music, and design. But there is nothing worse than bad opera. The difference between bad opera and great opera is simply funding and artistic merit. Opera Australia has the artistic excellence - all it needs now from all of us in corporate Australia is the funding support.