The Creative Arts

A common perception is that the Australian of the Year awards focus too strongly on sport at the expense of the creative endeavours. This bias is not entirely evident in the full list of past winners (particularly in the early years), but it is illustrative of a more general concern about the recognition given to creative artists and writers in Australian culture. Former NADC Chairman Phillip Adams recalls his first encounter with Barry Jones, the quiz show champion and Labor Party politician: Jones remarked that ‘you are ten times more likely to get a gong in Australia if you are a jockey, than a writer.’75 Certainly, Jones’ observation is evident when the list of Australians of the Year is consulted. Academic writers such as Manning Clark and Tim Flannery have been honoured, but the only fiction writer to win the award was Patrick White in 1973, after he won the Nobel Prize for literature. White admitted he was not a patriotic person – ‘I’m not for nationalism at all – not for flag waving and drum thumping’ – but he was taken by surprise at the positive reaction to his Nobel Prize:

I am amazed at the way Australians have reacted, in a way they usually behave only for swimmers and athletes. I am very touched, and have been feeling guilty for some of the things I have said in the past.76

The positive reaction culminated in his selection as Australian of the Year, but the reclusive White was reluctant to front the media and discuss his latest achievement. He did attend the Australia Day Luncheon in Melbourne, when he nominated three alternative Australians of the Year, including historian Manning Clark, comedian Barry Humphries and Sydney union leader Jack Mundey, all of whom he described as ‘mavericks who gave hope for the future of Australia.’

Although writers have arguably been underrepresented, the awards program more generally has not ignored the creative endeavours. There have been eleven winners whose achievements were in creative fields, with a particularly strong showing from Australian musicians, including Joan Sutherland, the Seekers, Sir Bernard Heinze, John Farnham, Mandawuy Yunupingu and Lee Kernaghan. A striking thing about this list is the range of musical tastes that it represents. Apart from the musicians, the Australian of the Year awards have honoured one dancer (Sir Robert Helpmann) one painter (Arthur Boyd) and two television personalities (Harry Butler and Paul Hogan). Phillip Adams recalls he was glad to chair the council that selected Boyd in 1995, as he believed that ‘national fervour had come from the artists more than any other sector.’78 Adams credits artists like Boyd, Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker as nation builders; he also believes the Australian film industry played a similar role following its renaissance in the 1970s. Despite this, those working in the film industry have not attracted the attention of the Australian of the Year awards selection committee. Sir Norman Martin likened the Australian of the Year awards to the Oscars when he introduced them in 1960, but none of Australia’s many Oscar winning actors and actresses has taken out the award. Comedian Paul Hogan was named Australian of the Year in 1985 and subsequently enjoyed a successful acting career, but his award primarily recognised his highly successful tourism advertisements in the United States, which lifted Australia from 49th to first in the list of most desired holiday destinations.79 Hogan was unable to accept his Australian of the Year award in person as he was in Canada filming the most commercially successful Australian film ever produced, Crocodile Dundee.

The lack of winners from the artistic realm is more evident in the thirty years the award has been run by the National Australia Day Council. During Phillip Adams’ period at the helm, the NADC honoured two artists in four years (Yunupingu and Boyd), but since then country music star Lee Kernaghan (2008) is the only artist to be named Australian of the Year. Some have suggested this is due to the strong influence of sporting figures on the council. Professor Fiona Stanley suggests that ‘sports people have dominated the board in recent years, and it shows.’80 Stanley won her award for achievements as a medical scientist, but has nominated several creative Australians for the award including dancer Stephen Page, composer Peter Sculthorpe, and violin player Richard Tognetti.

Many in the arts community perceive a need for better recognition of outstanding achievement of artists in Australia. Melbourne-based artist Kristin McFarlane, who designed and manufactures the Australian of the Year trophies, says she would like to see artists featuring more often as Australian of the Year nominees: ‘I’d like to see a bit more emphasis on the arts, but that is not just for the awards, but for Australia in general.’81 Delegates at the Australia 2020 Summit held in April 2008 shared McFarlane’s view, identifying a need to ‘enhance community perceptions of artists.’ A key recommendation of the ‘Towards a Creative Australia’ stream was to ‘establish a Prime Minister’s Prize for the Creative Australian of the Year, as well as other awards for excellence.’82 The delegates clearly recognised the need for positive and visible role models in the creative arts community.