Standing up for Canberra

Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Bill 2012

I rise to speak in support of the Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Bill 2012, which is a very important piece of legislation designed to provide protection for cultural objects on loan from overseas. The objective of the bill is to ensure overseas lenders of artworks continue to make available their collections so we can display them at public exhibitions. This bill has the full backing of the state and national collecting institutions, and state and territory arts agencies. Tourism bodies are equally supportive of this legislation and this is especially so here in the ACT. Before I talk about the other specific objectives contained in this legislation, I want to highlight the importance to Australia of bringing in from overseas great cultural works for public display.

Our ability to import and protect cultural artworks is critical to the ongoing viability and popularity of our museums and galleries. I am very fortunate that the National Gallery of Australia is located in my electorate of Canberra. The NGA is one of Australia's most significant and popular tourist attractions and cultural institutions. It attracts visitors from all over the country and all over the world. For example, its major summer display, the Renaissance exhibition of the 15th and 16th century Italian paintings, attracted over 200,000 visitors. Ron Radford, the current director of the NGA, noted in the latest annual report that the gallery has had over nine million visitors to its touring exhibition program, which the NGA began over 20 years ago.

The touring program is designed so that Australians in regional areas can see the world's great art and cultural works; over the past two decades the NGA has toured 119 exhibitions to 734 venues with exhibitions held in every state and territory around Australia. During the past financial year over 900,000 people visited the NGA in Canberra and its touring exhibitions. Almost 700,000 of these were visitors to Canberra, which makes a very significant contribution to the economy of my electorate and, indeed, the entire ACT region. It is important too, as the NGA highlights, that over four million people saw 1,675 National Gallery works on loan to exhibitions around Australia and the world. The ability to both lend and have on loan cultural works is vital to the ongoing success and viability of our cultural institutions.

The popularity of the National Gallery is due in part to its amazing Indigenous and Australian art collections and, of course, its international exhibitions. Currently the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition is on display at the NGA —and if they haven't seen it yet I urge all members to visit the gallery before 2 April, when it concludes. This is the first time the Australian public have had the opportunity to see a major retrospective exhibition devoted to the art of French 19th century artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

After Toulouse-Lautrec, the National Gallery is hosting a Turner from the Tate exhibition. From June to early September this year Australians and tourists to Canberra will be able to see one of Britain's greatest artists—an artist who has been described as a major figure of the Romantic generation. According to the National Gallery of Australia:

Turner from the Tate includes many of the artist's most famous paintings. It provides a comprehensive overview of Turner's monumental landscapes and atmospheric, light-filled seascapes, while offering extraordinary insights into his working life and practices.

And many of you will have seen the hugely popular Impressionist exhibition which literally packed the gallery out day and night. The beauty of that exhibition was that it did not just draw people to the gallery and that wonderful exhibition; it drew people to Canberra and they stayed in Canberra for a number of days during which they toured the wineries in the region, they visited our restaurants, they shopped in our shops. It was a significant boon for Canberra and it had a huge knock-on effect for the economy. We were very happy with the outcomes not just in terms of the soul food that people got from the exhibition but also in terms of the economic impact that that wonderful exhibition had on Canberra and also the region.

I speak with some experience of the importance of looking after objects and artistic works that are lent to us here in Australia from overseas, because in the mid-1990s I was posted to India as the cultural attache with the Australian High Commission. One year we had what we called a huge intercountry promotion whereby we promoted Australia as a manufacturing nation, as a sophisticated technologically advanced nation, as a nation with a great depth of culture and artistic achievement. We had a range of performing artists coming over to India. We had a kind of 'chefs on show' program whereby we had Christine Manfield as well as Tony Bilson and Thai food chef David Thompson coming to India to showcase our culinary delights achievements. We had a range of exhibitions travelling right throughout the country. One of the most significant of them was an Indigenous art exhibition. It was the first time a body of work of this nature had ever been lent overseas.

In India there were many challenges and, unfortunately, the Indigenous art exhibition did not tour because it was too much of a challenge in terms of moving objects and artistic works around. It was held in Delhi in a very prestigious institution. Being involved in processing those works of art—those incredibly valuable works of art —was an extraordinary job, a challenging job for me as the cultural attache—and this goes for all the behindthe-scenes work that public servants do that is not really appreciated particularly by those opposite here in this chamber. When the works arrived, I had to arrange for them to settle in a hangar at the airport in the middle of an Indian summer when it was about 45 degrees. Trying to get the space organised in the hangar at the airport was a real challenge with the Indian authorities.

I spent much time going out to the airport, having meetings with officials out there, trying to get approval for the artistic works to be settled in the hangar so that they could get used to the environment and then they could be moved into this beautiful, prestigious gallery in Delhi. It probably took me about four months of going out to the airport nearly every second day and speaking to those officials to finally get that approval, but it was vitally important that these works were handled and managed carefully when they were moved and when they landed in Delhi in order to ensure that they would be preserved and well looked after for future generations to enjoy.

The purpose of this bill is particularly important in ensuring that we look after those objects that we borrow from overseas. As I just said, in my own experience we also value those who look after our objects when we loan them overseas, and this was particularly the case with this beautiful Indigenous exhibition that was very popular and very well received in Delhi when I was there for the intercountry promotion. That story underscores the need for us to be able to protect cultural objects so that lenders continue to have faith in our institutions. The provisions of this bill aim to limit the circumstances in which lenders, exhibiting institutions, exhibition facilitators and people working for them can lose ownership, physical possession, custody or control of the objects because of any legal proceedings in Australian or foreign courts.

The bill has four parts but, in essence, it protects cultural objects imported into Australia and details the considerations and arrangements for approval of an institution by the minister. The outcome of this bill is that it enhances the ability of our major cultural institutions to involve all Australians by providing temporary public exhibitions that include objects on loan from overseas.

It has been pointed out that our major cultural institutions often create activities specifically for children, and this enhances the experience of families and schools when they attend exhibitions. I know that when the beautiful Chihuly glass exhibition came to the NGA they had a fabulous program for kids. It did not involve glassblowing, because that would have been way too hazardous for the kids, but there was a whole range of activities that the kids were involved in, such as designing little glass artworks. I know that quite often they had a chance to do this with Chihuly as well, and it was incredibly well received. The NGA, as do all of our cultural institutions here in Canberra, do fantastic work in terms of kids' programs. There is always a touring program, there are always visiting speakers and there is always a kids' room and a range of kids' activities involved in these exhibitions. I think it is a wonderful way to introduce children to culture and art, to visual art particularly.

Australia has a very successful record of presenting national and international artworks and cultural objects, and this legislation builds in further protections that will allow for the continued security and protection of cultural objects. It is important that all Australians continue to have the opportunity to see the great artworks of the world.

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