Art and Law in the Whirligig of Time


An edited speech by The Hon Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG.

It is convenient to the human mind to divide limitless time into segments. Only that makes time, and its infinite capacity, comprehensible for us. And so we impose upon the whirligig of time, years, decades and other jubilees. We celebrated the foundation of the Arts Law Centre of Australia when it occurred in 1983. We celebrated its growth in 1993. Now, in 2003, we celebrate 20 years of fine achievement.

I start by paying my respects to the people of the arts who join in the celebration. We are truly blessed in Australia to have so many mighty spirits. It is fitting that the law, which also searches for the spirit of justice, should come together with the worlds of art, music, literature and film in this Centre. If we look around and see the creative people in our midst, we must pay them due honour. In a hundred years when the writings and thoughts and efforts of the rest of us are no longer remembered, their creative works will continue to inspire the human family. Truly, the arts provide their exponents with a kind of immortality.

I recall how I became involved as the first President of the Centre. The remarkable Shane Simpson, a lawyer of great talent, came to see me in my offices in the Australian Law Reform Commission. It is true that he came at 5 a.m. But there was a difference. He was coming home from partying, doubtless in the company of artists. I was starting my day's work.

The idea of the Centre was modelled on one that had been established earlier in the United Kingdom. It was founded in the belief that artists were vulnerable in respect of their legal rights. The Australia Council from the beginning gave great support. Shane Simpson brought his prodigious efforts to bear in building the Centre. He made even more speeches than I did. He was dynamic and enterprising. He wrote books. He lobbied for law reform. He reached out to artists in every discipline. He helped set up an Advisory Board. He incorporated the Centre. The Annual Report for 1983 told of the many initiatives established in that first year. Most of the credit for those early achievements, and for the original inspiration for this organisation, belong to Shane Simpson. I pay a fulsome tribute to him.

But tonight we celebrate in unison the achievements of twenty years. Most of those achievements belong to the Directors and staff of the Centre. But they also belong to the pro bono lawyers and to the people of the arts who worked with them. They belong to the sponsors and supporters, especially the Australia Council that has been a faithful supporter throughout. And to the Government of New South Wales that facilitated the splendid new facilities now enjoyed by the Centre in a part of Sydney that is fast becoming dangerously fashionable. To the Australian Film Commission, the Copyright Agency Ltd, Arts South Australia, the State of Western Australia through Arts WA and also Arts Tasmania.

The Arts Law Centre is not a body to rest on its laurels. Under its most recent directors, Delia Browne and Robyn Ayers, it has launched out into new projects of contemporary relevance. The Centre's website which has been established can boast of nearly 800,000 visits a year. This is a mighty service. It provides legal information to artists everywhere in the nation, and indeed across the world. This is something we would not have anticipated twenty years ago. It shows the need for artists and lawyers to go with the flow. Who knows what a world of art lives, in potential, in cyberspace?

The Newsletter now distributed by the Centre is newsworthy and readable. The Centre gives a huge amount of advice to people in the arts. It now looks to a panel of 170 pro bono lawyers. It organises seminars. It has supported the introduction of a university course at the University of Technology, Sydney on law and the arts. It has secured several beneficial partnership arrangements, as with KPMG Legal whereby skilled lawyers work with the Centre for a time in discharge of the principle of pro bono service. It is foremost in lobbying for tax reform and law reform. One of the latest projects concerns the protection of indigenous artists. This is now receiving great emphasis, once again not before time.

The law of Australia concerning the arts is increasingly complex as copyright, business and contractual legislation impinge upon the world of artists. It is an area of high expertise in the law. I congratulate the President, the Executive Directors, the staff, the pro bono lawyers, the sponsors, governmental and corporate and indeed all who have played a part in mobilising all this talent.

To mark the maturity of the Arts Law Centre, a Council of Patrons has been created. The Patrons will be available for advice and encouragement. They will certainly be ready to attend celebrations such as this. On occasion, they may be able to steer the Centre in particular directions and to encourage public and governmental appreciation of the importance of its work.

We therefore rejoice in the twenty years of practical service. I declare now that I will be available for the next celebration of thirty years, and of forty, fifty and possibly more decades. We little knew that the enterprise that Shane Simpson founded in a dingy room in Surry Hills would grow and flourish to a body known through Australia and far beyond. It is a small thing for lawyers to do to support and defend the arts. But it is a practical enterprise. It enriches everyone who is associated with it.

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