The Roberts Report

Story by Lachlan Taylor

Art History, 2017

A Renaissance Man

Read anything about John Roberts and you will come up against a consistent cliché. Roberts is constantly described as a ‘Renaissance man’, someone whose talents and knowledge span a wide range of areas, much like Leonardo or Michelangelo.

In a small book of essays on John Roberts, compiled by Dame Margaret Clark in 1997, the term appears no less than seven times by five separate authors.

Its presence speaks to the impact of Roberts on the creative legacy of Victoria, not only as an individual but as an example of the interdisciplinary creativity that is fostered by the University.

John Roberts’ career can be divided into two phases. The first was his time as an academic at Victoria, teaching as Professor of Public Administration in the Political Science department. The second was during his monthly radio show, the Roberts Report, broadcast on Concert FM from 1990 to 1995.

In the former, his insights into public policy and the workings of the civil service influenced a generation of Victoria graduates who entered central and local government. But it was in his second role, that of the public broadcaster, that he made his greatest cultural mark.

Public Broadcaster, Cultural Champion

Inspired by the style and tone of British journalist Alistair Cooke, the Roberts Report presented its listeners with monthly insights into a truly eclectic array of topics. These included everything from retrospective appraisals of the Muldoon and Lange governments, to an impassioned plea for the continued appreciation of Mozart.

In these programmes, Roberts revealed his love and appreciation for the visual arts and their role in a modern society. He argued that "diverse, intense creation and contemplation of art is a reasonable indication of a civilised society in action" (Roberts 1991).

Animated by the example of the Uffizi Gallery, Roberts dedicated an episode to suggesting that the cities of New Zealand could foster the kind of artistic relationships with Australian centres as Florence had with the Netherlands during the Renaissance.

He suggested that this kind of cultural cross-pollination would lead in turn to greater economic and political ties.

A Victoria Man

Roberts’ ideas came from a place outside the scope of his professional expertise, but well within his wider interests.

His varied passions played off each other and influenced the ways in which he saw the world. Many of Roberts’ ideas and passions can be attributed to his relationship with his wife, Kay.

As director of The Brooker Gallery in Kelburn, Kay Roberts was an important figure in Wellington’s cultural community. Her artistic knowledge and connections were integral to her husband’s continuing education in, and love for, the arts, without which, he would not have been able to be the ‘Renaissance man’ that he is remembered for.

John Roberts, with his well-rounded interests and capacity to understand the value of art, represents the kind of mind Victoria seeks to cultivate.

When people enquire into why the University has an expansive art collection or an established gallery despite having no Fine Arts department, the answer is people like John Roberts. His work, especially his musings on and aspirations for New Zealand demonstrated these values.

Through the Roberts Report, he showed the kind of open-mindedness, empathy, knowledge, and ability to take a wider view of the world that comes with an appreciation of the visual arts as a pillar of any education.

Victoria University of Wellington

Kelburn, Wellington 6012, New Zealand