Graduation address given by Professor Colin Rhodes

Professor Colin Rhodes gave the occasional address at the Sydney College of the Arts graduation ceremony held at 9.30am on 13 April 2007.

Professor Rhodes is Dean and Director of Sydney College of the Arts.

Graduation address

Chancellor, honoured guests, colleagues and graduates, it is with great pleasure that I am able to say a few words in celebration of this historic occasion, which not only sees the formal rite of passage of Sydney College of the Arts newest graduating cohort, but also the honouring, not before time, of some of its key foundational figures.

This year Sydney College of the Arts celebrates the 30th anniversary of the inauguration of its Visual Arts Program. In the year that punk rock launched itself on an unsuspecting establishment, the fledgling Sydney College of the Arts began in earnest its less raucous, but equally far-reaching project to change forever the visual arts landscape in this city. There, at the very start, as a member of the academic team under the stewardship of the first Principal, John Baily, was Guy Warren. And he was joined very soon after by Jim Allen and Helge Larsen. Darani Lewers, at the time Chair of the Crafts Board of the Australia Council, was also a founding presence in her role as a member of the Planning Committee, chaired by the then Under-Secretary and Permanent Head of the NSW Premier’s Department, Gerry Gleeson, whose 1970 report had recommended the establishment of ‘a corporate college of advanced education for the purpose of providing tertiary education for persons preparing for professional careers in art and design.’ The initial plan for an institution embracing the breadth of creative and performing arts was destined not to materialise - although it’s worth noting that coincidentally most of the ingredients exist today, scattered across four Faculties in the University of Sydney.

Early annual reports chart both the successes and dashed hopes of a new institution struggling to mature in ‘temporary’ accommodation in Balmain that it would occupy for nearly two decades before finding a fine home in the old Rozelle Hospital, and the ever-present problem of insufficient budgets. But what comes through most strongly are the two things that still, to this very day, distinguish the SCA experience: namely, the quality and motivation of its students and the commitment of a staff body who are exceptional artists and theorists in their own right. This is born out by comments made by graduates in last year’s undergraduate Course Evaluation Questionnaire when asked what the best aspects of their course had been. I hope you’ll indulge me in quoting a few of these:

  • [I valued] ‘Being around other aspiring artists and feeding off each other’s energy, stimulating new creative ideas’
  • ‘The course encourages students to develop a body of work of their own. It helped me gain in confidence in solving unfamiliar problems.’
  • ‘I’ve moved a long way since the beginning and I didn’t notice it happening.’

Others noted the

  • ‘Freedom to pursue one’s interests in studies’
  • [the] ‘Excellent standard of staff’
  • ‘Collaborative learning and sharing knowledge with peers and teachers.’

All of this transcends physical surroundings. Creativity, engaged in at the highest levels, is the key. SCA is a living, vibrant idea.

The effects of the SCA idea in action have, from the very start, been far-reaching, as evidenced through the activities on the national and international stage of its alumni, staff and even current students. Very many of today’s graduates already have enviable exhibition CVs, and a glimpse through the latest edition of McCulloch's Encyclopedia of Australian Art reveals the insistent presence of Sydney College of the Arts – past and present. As it happens, I was in New York a month ago, where I discovered that no less than three SCA alumni had major shows in important Manhattan galleries, including one at the blue-chip Gagosian.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Sydney College of the Arts should top the table for overall satisfaction of its courses in a comparison of Art & Design provision at Australia’s top universities. Or that SCA has the top Teaching Performance Indicator of all Faculties in the University of Sydney. Or that SCA shares with Humanities and Education a ranking of ‘excellent’ and a place in the top band of the externally assessed Teaching Performance Fund for 2007. Or that SCA has the best completion rates for Research Higher Degrees in the University.

Now, like most people, I usually say I’m sceptical of league tables - but sometimes I just have to believe them. The most recent ones compiled by the UK Times Higher Education Supplement are a case in point. In its rankings Sydney College of the Arts shares with the Conservatorium and a large part of the Faculty of Arts the accolade of being judged the 5th best provider in its area of specialism in the world, and the best outright nationally and in the region.

We do our best to put in place the conditions that can enable such achievement. But it is only through the presence and participation of wonderful students like you, and the support systems of family and friends that keep you going even in times of self doubt, that any of this is possible. You are the future. And, in the presence of Jim Allen, Guy Warren, Helge Larsen and Darani Lewers today, I think I can safely say that you are standing on the shoulders of giants.