Rupert Myer – Art teacher as hero

Arts patron, philanthropist and Chairman of the National Gallery of Australia, Rupert Myer recently opened an exhibition at Melbourne Grammar. Nine Melbourne commercial galleries had agreed to exhibit artists for the benefit of the students, art department, school community and the wider community, and Rupert shares his sentiments from the occasion with Arts Hub readers.
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Arts patron, philanthropist and Chairman of the National Gallery of Australia, Rupert Myer recently opened an exhibition at Melbourne Grammar. Nine Melbourne commercial galleries had agreed to exhibit artists for the benefit of the students, art department, school community and the wider community, and Rupert kindly shares his sentiments from the occasion with Arts Hub readers.

This is a really outstanding initiative in a myriad of ways. With this gallery venue, the exhibition makes use of a valuable school facility for a wider community purpose. It encourages the school to be outward looking and this is consistent with many of the school’s present priorities.

With this exhibition, there is an immediate engagement between a group of professional contemporary artists, the galleries that represent them, teachers and students of art in this school and collectors of art as well. For anyone who is interested or curious, this is an ideal environment in which to nurture that interest and curiosity. You can ask anything, say anything, feel anything here. If one role for a gallery is to be a safe place for unsafe ideas, then a school place like this is even safer for ideas that may be even less safe. Don’t go home tonight without really interrogating one of these art works.

Let the experience of being here at this survey exhibition inform you about the work of a group of professional artists. Why has a gallery chosen to be represented by this artist, and why by this particular piece of work? What concerns and interests are being reflected in the work?

Why is Lisa Roet so interested in the hands of apes? Look at your own hands if you want somec lues! Why does Darren Sylvester freeze the ball in the air, and why does the main figure in the image have his back to us? What is David Bromley telling us about blowing bubbles? Why has David Larwell spread his characters all over the canvas? How does Clinton Nain leave us feeling about his experiences of learning? Which of these works leaves you smiling and which ones leave you feeling anxious? Why did Kate Daw choose those particular words and phrases to create her images? How is James Smeaton extending our imagination? Why will Mark Schaller’s work mean that we will never see Mt Buller’s Summit in the same way again? Ask the questions, figure the answers.

This exhibition brings into the education space objects that have sprung from learning, interpretation, inspiration, hard work, and the application of creative thinking. Exposure to contemporary art complements and supports the education process and its values, and underscores the importance of creativity.

For the students attending this venue, this exhibition may be the start or a continuation of
a journey to understand the connection between contemporary ideas and artistic skill. It matters little that the journey might lead to the further development of their own artistic talents or that the journey might increase their understanding and enjoyment of the work of others. Enduring discernment can develop in a place like this. Be critical and questioning of what you see, and be smart about the way that you express your observations.

Of course, most children are exposed to art in some form as part of their school education, especially in primary years. This might be in visual arts and music, and other art forms such as dance. A number will then continue to have an interest through their secondary years. An even smaller number will then go on to pursue the arts at tertiary level. A fraction of them will have the arts as a life long career.

What concerns me is that when children drift away from the arts as they progress though school, they are missing the opportunity to further develop the creative and critical thinking that can be so important in whatever profession or occupation they ultimately pursue. Most of us here intuitively know that the early years of school are filled with wonder and creativity, only to be progressively narrowed, and learning becomes the accumulation of knowledge to pass exams. We also learn to fear making mistakes and this becomes an impediment to trying new things and gaining new perceptions.1

We are very conscious now of the value of developing a creative economy, and its importance for Australia’s economic future cannot be overstated.

Some may have seen reported the recent speech by Saul Eslake, Chief Economist at the ANZ on the subject Economists and the Arts.

Not only did Saul make some telling points about the over-investment in sport compared with the arts, but he succinctly summarised the ways in which the arts embody and require skills and attitudes that he believes are increasingly called for in business contexts:

  • Critical thinking
  • The ability to challenge conventional wisdom
  • The capacity to look at familiar objects from new perspectives
  • The ability to innovate using new technology and media, and
  • The ability to adapt from things that work in other settings.

    There is a vast literature on the development of the creative mind and whilst this is an exhibition opening, not a lecture, it is worth pondering with this exhibition the pathways that lead to creativity.

    It is now believed that creativity uses the same mental building blocks we use to solve everyday problems, and is not a different mental process. The “aha!” moment we experience in the shower or in bed comes when we take time off from working on a problem, when we change what we’re doing and the context, and that can activate different areas of the brain. In the new context, we may hear or see something that relates distantly to the problem we had temporarily put aside. Creativity happens not with one brilliant flash but in a chain reaction of many tiny sparks while executing an idea. Insight and execution are inextricably woven together.

    A leading expert gives the advice that would stand any student or any of us in good stead: take risks, expect to make lots of mistakes, work hard, take breaks but stay with it over time, do what you love because it’s going to take time to have a creative breakthrough; and develop networks for freewheeling discussion.

    Forget all the nonsense about being artsy and gifted and waiting for the moment of inspiration: while we are waiting, we may never start working on what we will someday create. Good advice, I think.

    To return to an earlier point, it seems a great pity that we can lose our connection with the arts so early in our school years. Creativity should be nourished and encouraged all the way through. And the value of living creatively should be communicated.

    Many parents now take the view that the role of a school is to help a family raise a child. This places the school in a partnership role with the parents rather than as the place to which the entire responsibility gets out-sourced. One of the areas where that partnership needs to operate in complete harmony is in the area of what the Americans call ‘Cultural Transmission’. This is defined as the process of passing on culturally relevant knowledge, skills, attitudes and values from person to person and culture to culture. Such an infusion of cultural values whether it be a life long love of music, or of literature, or of architecture or of the visual arts generally begins with a conversation about an experience jointly shared.

    With this exhibition, parents and teachers and students are sharing a conversation with artists and gallery professionals in a nurturing environment. Culture is getting transmitted here and we should all be hopeful that this transmission will make a contribution to that life long journey for all participants.

    1. Bohm, David On creativity Routledge Classics, Oxford 2004 pp 4-5

  • Rupert Myer
    About the Author
    Rupert Myer is Chairman of the Australia Council for the Arts.