Arts not an add-on says ‘student of the arts’ Mitch Fifield

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“I AM only four months as Arts Minister, very much in my infancy,” Senator Mitch Fifield, Federal Minister for Communications and the Arts Conference told an appreciative crowd at the National Gallery of Australia yesterday as he delivered the welcome address for the National Visual Art Education Conference: “New directions: practice + innovation + learning.”

Delegates gather, Dr Vaughan third from left
Delegates gather, Dr Vaughan third from left

Describing himself ministerially as “a steward of the arts but also student of the arts, he assured the assembled arts teachers who had packed into the James O Fairfax Theatre that he was open and willing to learn, and not one who “think they know it all.”

In thanking the teachers for their work in arts education, Senator Fifield said the arts was neither a luxury nor an add-on, but should rather be “core to primary and secondary education.”

The minister said he understood the value of art studies in the creative process, but also as a mechanism to understand the world, an “expressive tool for living.” He declared himself shocked and surprised to find that only one in four children in Australia now have any music education, in contrast with his own upbringing when, he said, “the arts were everywhere.”

“Clearly, visual arts, must be much better,” he said, gesturing to the large crowd of eager art teachers, assuring them, “if we want to have a real culture of innovation we need to have creativity at the centre.”

Minister Fifield
Minister Fifield

Senator Fifield also praised centres of excellence such as James Ruse Agricultural High School, Newtown High School of the Performing Arts and Cherrybrook Technology High School but said that, to his knowledge there was no school as yet with ‘visual arts’ in its title.

The minister, whose words drew murmurs of approval from the many teachers  from around the country, was preceded at the podium by a most unusual Welcome to Country from Ngambri representative Paul House, whose words were accompanied by a slide show depicting his country and his ancestors, who were in turn described by NGA director Gerard Vaughan as “part of the NGA family.”

In his own welcome, Dr Vaughan told those present of the power of arts in learning about culture and the power of the visual image over time and place. He said that in his first year at the NGA he had come to understand the depth and breed and richness of the national art collection. He explained the re-hang of the galleries, and said he and his staff were renewing and reinterpreting the collection, bringing works out of store that had not been displayed for a long time.

Retail outlet in Gandel Hall
Stall  in Gandel Hall

While 80,000 students came through the NGA each year, far more were reached through the digitalisation of the collection and other measures. As well, exhibitions, not least “Tom Roberts,” featured special children’s areas.

This was, Dr Vaughan said, the third time that the NGA had hosted this national conference, which provided dedicated teachers had given up their holidays to be in Canberra three days to talk with colleagues and even to get their hands dirty in practical exercises. He invited them to enjoy the networking and some of the important discussions, such as why boys don’t embrace the visual arts.

The conference continues at the gallery until Friday and includes keynote lectures by experts, including Australian multidisciplinary artist Dr Christian Thompson, Professor Howard Gardner from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (via video link), Rika Burnham, Head of Education at The Frick Collection, New York and Professor Ellen Winner, Professor and Chair of Psychology at Boston College.

National Visual Art Education Conference, “New directions: practice + innovation + learning,” at the NGA until Friday, January 22.


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Helen Musa
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