Conversation: Barry Conyngham AM, Dean, Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, The University of Melbourne

Australia has a vibrant and internationally recognised arts culture and The University of Melbourne, incorporating the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, is a key participant. The new arts precinct at Southbank is a world class environment for students, staff, artists and the public.

Professor Barry Conyngham AM leads fine arts and music education at The University of Melbourne. An accomplished Australian composer, we spent time with Barry exploring the state of arts education in Australia and internationally.


You have had a lengthy career at the peak of arts and music education in Australia. What are the biggest changes you have seen over the past few decades?

I think the first and most significant is the much more ‘business-like’ approach to the management of arts education – and I don’t see that as a negative thing. There is now a recognition that people need experience and training in leading and managing and as a result we have seen much better run faculties and schools.

The sadder story however, is the funding of the sector. I would use the word ‘catastrophe’ to describe the impact of the Dawkins reforms on creative arts. Putting many of the creative schools within universities, without properly funding them, has resulted in enormous challenges and indeed significant backward steps.

Creative arts is a craft based activity, it requires low staff-student ratios and in many institutions this has not been possible. The solution has been cross subsidies within universities and this has naturally led to tensions.


What are some of the exciting opportunities and developments here and overseas?

The level of internationalisation, partly as a result of things like cheap travel means that the whole creative arts sector is, and is becoming even more, international in terms of its participants and influencers.

The fluidity of academics has always been strong but the cross section of people that we have influencing arts in Australia is now so broad and this is having a positive impact. Students are also looking for an international experience as part of their programs and this is driving more internationalisation. Despite what is happening in the world I don’t see this changing.


The faculty has recently opened its new conservatorium of music building, The Ian Potter Southbank Centre. How does this world leading facility impact on teaching and learning?

We have made a significant investment on the physical side and we are hopeful that this will assist us in attracting students. This is not only in the case of the new Conservatorium but in the other $100m that was invested in the refurbishment and redevelopments of other areas – such as the old Police Stables.

We have made an enormous leap from having pretty substandard facilities, to now having not just appropriate facilities, but internationally recognised state of the art facilities.

The creative arts is a ‘space based’ education discipline, so appropriate facilities are not only nice but they are critical to good pedagogy.  For instance, with the Stables building every student has a unique space for the entire duration of their degree, and that space is such that artists can see and interact with each other.

People are starting to compare us to places like the Julliard and this is great and I believe, well deserved. Our position is really being elevated in the world of arts and music and this is helped by having top facilities right in the middle of the City’s arts precinct.


What skills and attributes do you believe make a good arts leader or administrator? What attributes have bought you success over a long period?

Yes – good question because I don’t think the skills are necessarily very common. I personally think that it is essential that a leader be a successful artist in their own right. This enables you to empathise with those that you lead. But this is just the beginning. Then I think you must have a calm disposition. The arts world is full of tension, anxiety and emotion! In my experience those leaders who are the most successful are those who can bring some real calm and objectivity to the situation.

You need to be a person who is energised by being around young people; guiding, motivating and sharing in their achievements. And finally you need to be able to take a step back from the day-to-day ‘firefighting’ and spend sufficient time ‘dreaming’.


You are an active composer. How do you manage this in the context of your other day to day management responsibilities and from where do you get your inspiration?

One of the things I think I am quite good at is switching between tasks and then concentrating completely. So if I have an hour to focus on a composition I can immerse myself in it pretty quickly. Also composing is a great escape so it is very easy.

For me music is emotional – I compose things that reflect emotional experiences. Lots of my work is about landscapes but I put people in them. I would best describe my music as people’s reaction to things. I suppose this comes from my old-fashioned view that music is something that triggers memories.


You have been in music your entire life. But if your life had taken a different path what might you be doing now?

That is a hard question as music has been my whole life. I originally studied Law which was really the way my father wanted me to head. I think it would have been fun to be a barrister – perhaps that is the performer in me coming out. Politics is something that I also thought might appeal, although now I consider myself lucky that I didn’t go in that direction! But now reflecting on my career, I don’t think I would have had a fulfilling life in the absence of music.


About Barry Conyngham

Professor Barry Conyngham AM is Dean of the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. He is Emeritus Professor from both the University of Wollongong and Southern Cross University and was President of the latter 1994-2000. 

He was the first musician to hold the Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University, has been a Churchill, Harkness and Fulbright Fellowship holder and became a Member of the Order of Australia in 1997. He has over eighty published works and more than thirty recordings including those by the London, New Zealand, Sydney and Melbourne symphony orchestras. 



Rohan A. Carr
October 2019

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