Creating a Vision for the Arts and Cultural Sectors in our Capital City

Issue 8, September 2008 | Margaret Seares AO


This address was the delivered at the 2008 Reid Oration on 4 September 2008, a co-sponsored event by The University of Western Australia and the Institute of Public Administration Australia (WA Division) to honour the life and work of Gordon Reid, AC, a distinguished scholar in the areas of Politics, Public Administration and Comparative Government.

During 2007 some members of the arts sector met with the Chief Executive of Lotterywest to discuss the potential to build momentum in the arts in WA. Those discussions were swirling around at the same time as the Committee for Perth had identified the enhancement of Perth’s cultural fabric as a key strategy in the Committee’s role of improving the liveability of Perth. The Committee’s work focuses around a vision for Perth in the future that sees a city that:

  • Values its people and the natural environment
  • Participates on the world stage
  • Is vibrant and innovative, with a sense of place
  • Has an integrated strategic plan that is both challenging and rewarding.

This was a new phenomenon for WA: a group from the business sector advocating for a stronger cultural sector. And they were not a lone voice in this regard, as the Chamber of Commerce & Industry was also putting the strengthening of the arts in WA as one of their top 10 priorities. At a time when it was a priority for the business sector to attract new and talented young employees to Perth – or to keep young West Australians from joining the extensive diaspora – the need for a lively, stimulating cultural life in our capital city was seen as a key issue for the overall economic, social and cultural welfare of the State.

By virtue of the alchemy that often takes over at such points, the Committee for Perth was provided funding from Lotterywest to auspice a project to develop a vision for arts and culture in WA. I was asked to chair the steering committee for that project, and tonight I will be presenting just some of the key themes that emerged, together with my own reflections on those themes. The full report, and the full array of ideas, will be released in the next few weeks.

Arts and Culture – what do we mean?

You will notice that I’ve been using the terms “arts” and “culture” somewhat interchangeably and, equally, I could be using the term “creative industries” to describe the gamut of creative outputs that are under discussion here – although I think the jury is still out in terms of the validity of that term. What I’m not restricting my discussion to is what one might term the ‘traditional’ arts – opera, ballet, classical music, fine arts, although these artforms tend to be front of mind for many people when the term “the arts” is used.

If we were to look at the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ definition of “the arts” it includes, amongst other things, areas such as design, fashion, digital media, software and interactive media, broadcast, commercial music, architecture, film, that are at the forefront of the “creative industries”. All of them depend on the creative impulse for their production, all of them have the potential to generate commercial outcomes, and all of them have the potential to create employment. Indeed, in Australia the output from the creative industries sector as a whole increased from $8billion in 1995 to $18billion in 2002. (These figures do include television and radio, and the publishing media). Likewise employment increased from 1.6m in 1997 to 1.9m in 2006. Sydney and Brisbane are the twin powerhouses of the creative industries in Australia, with Queensland, in particular, introducing policies and programs that owe much to the models introduced by the Blair Government in the UK, which have helped transform not just London, but a range of regional cities as well.

How does Perth stack up now?

Given the implicit aims of the Committee for Perth, we began our project by asking, “How does Perth rate as a world city that will attract people to come here to live and work?”. Barry Strickland undertook a project for us that put a range of the world’s great cultural powerhouses under the microscope. And what is so fascinating is the transformation that investment in culture has had or is having in places as diverse as Valencia in Spain, Toronto in Canada, Shanghai in China, and Liverpool and Glasgow in the UK. Architecture and design loom large in many of these examples. Take, for example, some of the extraordinary architectural masterpieces from the Spanish architect Santiago Calatreva that have driven Valencia to the forefront of global consciousness. Can you imagine this in Perth?

Architecture’s more interior partner, design, is also a key driver in the creative transformation of cities. You may have seen an article in last weekend’s Financial Review that quoted the Director of the London Design Festival, Ben Evans, as saying:

When we started [in 2003] you could count [design festivals] on one hand. Now there’s at least 30 and there will be 50 before we know it.... It suggests design is growing in importance and becoming a positive way to present your city as a creative hub and a creative centre, and I think many governments are very keen to do that because you want that talent that those kind of events bring in.”[1]

A novel approach to the notion of cultural transformation of cities was found by Barry Strickland in comments from Christopher Hume, a columnist with The Toronto Star, who states:

In the landscape of the 21st century, nothing looms larger than culture. It is the new infrastructure, the civic bedrock on which the most successful modern metropolises are built. Culture is to the contemporary city what roads, sewers and bridges were in the 19th and 20th centuries” [2]

I think it would be reasonable to say that, at this point, Perth is not quite up there with Valencia or Toronto as a creative capital. But how exactly are we doing?

As part of his survey, Barry examined a range of international ranking schemes for cities.

The first was The Economist’s Intelligence Unit city rankings for 2007[3]. These rankings take over 40 factors into consideration, weighted across five different categories: stability; healthcare; culture & environment; education; infrastructure (% range from 0% = exceptional to 100% = intolerable). Perth ranked #4 - not a bad outcome. New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo all miss out on the top 10 – and it would seem that size and the greater edginess of these cities may have mitigated against their inclusion.

The second survey was the Worldwide Quality of Living Survey[4] conducted by Mercer Human Resource Consulting. This survey was about ‘quality of life’ and here we ranked #21. Not bad, and we certainly beat New York, Paris, Tokyo and London yet again.

But when it comes to the ‘brand’ of a city, the story is rather different. We now look at the Anholt Brands Survey[5]. This survey looks at a complex mixture of global perceptions of a city’s people, policies, products, culture, business climate and tourist attractions. Unfortunately, Perth didn’t rank at all in the 2006 survey, which is a bit depressing when we look at who did, albeit towards the bottom of the scale.

So how can the arts/culture make a difference in Perth, perhaps helping to improve our ‘brand’ internationally, and how can Perth make a difference for arts and culture?

As part of our project we held an on-line survey, a day’s workshop which some 200 people attended, and some follow-up focus groups. None of these activities was restricted to people from the arts and cultural sectors but included people from business, government, local government, and the broader community as well. From this consultation a series of key themes have emerged, some of which I shall discuss now and others which I will leave for you to read in the full report.

Key themes from the project

Leadership came up as a major issue going forward. There was a strong view, and one expressed by many participants, that there needs to be a champion for arts and cultural practice in Western Australia who would have a role not unlike that of the Chief Scientist: advising on policy and strategy, advocating for the sector, bringing disparate groups and organisations together around common themes, and bringing to the general community an awareness and appreciation for the strength that our community can derive from the arts and culture sectors.

If we can have a Chief Scientist and a State Architect, it would seem perfectly reasonable to have a Commissioner for the Arts or similar – a title common amongst American states. Ideally this person would work out of the Premier’s office but have the degree of political independence that, say, the State Architect of Victoria has.

Why should the arts have such a figure, one might ask? Why not also a Chief Sportsperson, for example? The answer, I believe, is to do with the different positioning of the arts in the public eye in Australia, not least in Western Australia. Do we really need an advocate for sport? It is something with which key parts of the community identify extremely strongly, and I’m thinking here of politicians [viz the corporate boxes at the footy], businessmen and some women, the media, and the general community led by, but not exclusively dominated by, men. Whole events, including the timing of elections, are positioned around horse races or football finals. Cannons can be fired through streets without hitting anybody during the Olympic swimming. Cricketers fill the commercials on television. Sport is understood, connected with, and has, thousands if not millions of very public advocates.

Perversely, it is the arts that traditionally received the patronage and support of communities and their leaders, beyond and above many other activities, and in many countries they still do. The arts, for example, were the focus of state support well before the notion of state support for health or education came about – which brings about a special irony when people nowadays say that governments should not be spending money on the arts when there are hospitals to fix and schools to improve.

The absence of strong civic patronage of the arts and cultural sectors has been a feature of the Anglo-Saxon countries longer than for most others, possibly an outcome of the impact of earlier and more puritanical forms of Protestantism. (NB: Richard Hofstadter’sAnti-Intellectualism in American Life [6]). It’s perhaps no accident that in music, for example, the public concert and the independent theatre impresario became phenomena in Protestant England well before they took hold on the Continent where patronage by the courts or by the rich and powerful remained intact for much longer. The legacy of the cultural inhibition which still prevails in England and Australia may be seen when compared with many other societies. Men in the Middle East, for example, kick a (round!) football, but also dance amongst themselves at weddings and celebrations. In Indonesia, there is no distinct word for ‘music’ as music is a part of general community expression. And those of you who have visited China will be aware of the legions of people, early in the morning, dancing in the parks or doing tai chi, or martial arts, or flying kites. Just how much more engaged with cultural expression the Chinese are came home to me when I visited a high school in Beijing last year whose students had recently returned from an exchange of several weeks in Perth. When I asked them their impressions of Australian life they were very positive but then added “But the problem is that you Australians don’t sing!”

It is my view that overcoming these and other deep-seated societal values is one of the reasons for the push for a strong advocate of arts and cultural practice who would be a champion to government, business and the community.

Of course, had Australia’s European settlers chosen to model their cultural practice upon that of the original inhabitants of this land, the story might have been very different.

Indigenous arts and culture also loomed large in discussions during our project, with a huge respect for the way in which traditional Indigenous cultures embody the complete integration of cultural expression into the consciousness and behaviours of their communities. The second group of themes and proposals to emerge, therefore, centred around Indigenous cultures. A range of proposals have been put forward under this heading, recognising that the vastness of our State, and the enormous range and diversity of cultural practice amongst different Indigenous nations and communities, makes Western Australia probably the richest of all the states in this regard. It is very obvious, on looking around that we haven’t done enough in Western Australia to recognise the sites and spaces of importance to our Indigenous people and, in the case of Perth, the Noongar people, and there is huge opportunity to address this through plaques and buildings that tell the stories of the Noongar people, together with signage in public places and in parks and gardens.

There are also moves afoot, arising from a parallel project auspiced by the Committee for Perth, to establish a Noongar cultural centre that could ultimately become the hub of a hub-and-spokes model connecting Indigenous cultural centres throughout the state. These connections could be both real and virtual, and it’s a great and exciting challenge to all – including us here at UWA with our Berndt Museum of Anthropology – to ensure that collections are digitised and interpreted, and that adequate online connections exist so that Aboriginal people in Warburton, for example, or Roeburne, can access the collections in Perth, and that people in Perth can access their collections and keep abreast of developments there. Such a West Australian Centre for Aboriginal Arts and Culture could then become the nucleus for a World Centre for Indigenous Culture, which would be a significant and unique international development.

Focusing on international excellence and international exchange led to the next major theme, which is called WA the Creative Edge, with the sub-title being “Perth the Incubator for the Creative Industries”. This theme is about turning something often seen as a deficit – the tendency of talented young West Australian artists to go interstate or overseas to achieve fame and fortune – into an asset. WA has developed some really fine young artists, across all art forms. Just think of Frances O’Connor or Heath Ledger from stage or screen; Caitlin Hulcup or Sara Macliver from the opera or concert stage; D’Arcy Bussell, one of the great dancers of her generation; Ruth Tarvydas,  fashion designer, and the like. We could build on this track record by developing and marketing our abilities as an incubator for arts, culture and creativity by establishing programs to bring visiting master artists to work with young West Australians – these could be musicians, writers, dancers, theatre directors, actors, designers, architects. We could provide support for accommodation and studio space for young artists to develop their craft, post tertiary training, and we could invest in commercial collectives. We could also establish exchange studios for artists from all over the world which would not only bring a steady supply of new artists and new ideas to WA, but also help young West Australians gain exposure internationally while keeping the doors wide open for them to return. Many, many ideas came up in this context, and there is so much potential here.

The other side of this coin is to ensure that the cultural environment is such that eminent artists will come to Perth for periods of time in directorial roles in our performing arts companies, and then move on and out when the time is right. In my view, the past the art form has suffered sometimes in the past through directors staying too long. Directors have got stale, and so have their productions, and their potential to move to another position lessens as time goes on. Making such positions highly sought after, and ensuring that all directors have a finite contractual date should change this scenario for the better.

One recommendation in relation to the notion of Perth as an incubator related to ensuring that art in schools is taught by artists. Indeed, a lot was said about the importance of arts in education. This, I have to say, is an area where I have some concerns. In 2005 I chaired a National Review of Music Education. The number of submissions to our review – around 5,000 – exceeded all other national reviews, including that into the tax system! We pulled together an extraordinary range of research that demonstrated, not only the intrinsic benefits to a young person through an engagement with music, but also the extrinsic benefits – the impact on their academic work, particularly in the areas of mathematics, communication skills, and the like. Now, I’m sure you all remember when researchers demonstrated the beneficial links between physical exercise and the intrinsic benefits of better health, and the extrinsic benefits of better concentration and attention at school for young people. Almost immediately governments and schools moved to mandate physical exercise. So, what have governments done about the music findings? Sadly, very little other than tinkering around the edges. None of the arts is scheduled for consideration as part of the national curriculum, despite strong advocacy for this position at the 2020 summit. And my experience working with the federal bureaucracy makes me quite pessimistic that there is a real appetite for change there. This is not for lack of interest from any of the Ministers – Nelson, Bishop, or Gillard – involved. As a minister once said to me, their department appeared to be treading water hoping that the minister would change, so they could do as little as possible to rock the boat. Sadly, that’s my perception of where things are at with the Federal bureaucracy dealing with arts education at the moment, and I think this relates directly back to my earlier comments about the lack of embedding of the arts into the front of mind of sections of the Australian community.

This relates to our next theme which is around adopting a bold approach – doing things we haven’t previously thought of doing or, to look at the other side of the coin, breaking out of conventional mindsets. This might be through artists working in partnership with practitioners from other sectors, or using new forms, ideas and media, particularly involving young people, or the use of apprenticeships, mentorships and exchanges and, most of all, encouraging experimental and edgy work.

This issue of encouraging risky and experimental work is crucial if we are to have a truly dynamic and inspirational creative sector. But I think it requires funding bodies, particularly governments, to re-evaluate their approach to funding of the arts. I vividly recall a comment by Senator Richard Alston, loathed by many for his attitude towards the ABC but, arguably, one of the best Federal arts ministers we have in the last decade or more. He said that the role of government was to support work that would never make it in a commercial sense – in other words, work that would inevitably incur market failure. He was well enough educated in the arts to know that many of the great works of the past have been market failures, and he understood that government should be not only supporting, but encouraging that.

However, the power of central agencies - Treasury and Finance - is strong and, indeed, much stronger now than when I worked in the Federal sphere. Market failure doesn’t seem to come into their lexicon. And in the State sphere, I still remember in my time as CEO of the then Department for the Arts, getting rapped over the knuckles by Treasury for maintaining the funding for a good WA arts company that had lost significant money in bringing a seminal new work to the stage in the previous year. Such mindsets work against taking risk and being bold, and we need to hope for arts ministers at both levels of government who get this.

Our next theme is around Clustering and linking for vibrancy and has obvious links to boldness and vision, because it relates in part to urban planning issues. There is great potential in Perth for clustering the creative industries in specific areas, each of which would have its own identity. Clusters would provide small venues, together with studio accommodation and affordable living and, dare I say it, small bars and cafes that would actually be open other than between 9 and 5! And clusters could enliven parts of the Perth urban sprawl, and link them one to the other in some way, so that all the action doesn’t just happen in Fremantle, Leederville, Mount Lawley and Northbridge.

And this is the obvious area for concern. There are so many by-laws, some dating back to the Health Act of 1911, that inhibit an outcome of this type. And there is an enormous tendency to stifle initiative at large in our community. Just two examples of the many that could be drawn on: some of you may live in the Claremont area and know of the Mt Claremont Community Markets – a great initiative that has become extraordinarily popular. The Claremont Council has, in its wisdom, slapped a surcharge or levy onto the markets, which are run by volunteers and which benefit the local school. Talk about stifling initiative!

And think back to Charles Landry’s visit to Perth where he made the observation that

Perth has a rules and regulation clutter and a maze of laws and by-laws at every level…. The endemic Australian over-governing problem appears worse here.[7]

Landry also spoke of the “tick box mentality” rather than an approach relying on judgement and communication when interpreting rules and regulations. He spoke, in his final report, about the “sign world” of Perth that treats citizens “as if you are an infant or child, bossing you about as if you were unable to take responsibility. No access, no entry, no parking, no turning, no standing, no crossing …” etc. His final report is, indeed, cringe-making as it outlines dozens of examples on inhibiting signage and inhibiting messages around our city.

On a stretch of road in Baldivis that I use quite a bit, there are numerous warning signs – either to slow down, or to alert to a detour that has been there for over a year. To me, it’s an illustration of what Landry is saying, and of what we have to get beyond in Perth if we are to stop inhibiting initiative and self-responsibility. How, otherwise, will young people grow up to be prepared to take risks, sometimes coming unstuck, but continuing to seize initiative and thereby continue to stretch boundaries? If we don’t let them make mistakes, fall out of trees, learn to size up personal risk, we’re going to end up with a compliant but conservative community. And from that, creativity will not flow.

Hence our report will join with others like FORM and the Chamber of Commerce & Industry in urging State and local governments to re-evaluate the legislation and by-laws that hold back the development of small businesses such as bars, music venues, and cafes, where ideas are exchanged, new musics tested out, and new partnerships forged. It will encourage bold architecture and public art, something we’ve not been very good at up to now because local governments have rarely been able to get beyond individuals in them imposing their own personal tastes. Edgy, experimental art is bound to challenge. It will not draw unanimous approval and will provoke endless debate and controversy. And that is part of the intellectual enlivening of the community that we shouldn’t shy away from. Can you imagine the Beijing Bird’s Nest getting approval in Perth at the moment? Probably not. But can you imagine the incredible raising of aesthetic awareness, not to mention creative temperatures, if we were to have that debate? And maybe next time around we’d be more comfortable with that debate and more prepared to contemplate the inconceivable. That’s where we would like to move to.

I have only touched on a few of the themes and initiatives that will be found in our final report which is being pulled together by Anne Dunn on behalf of our committee. The report will include many other proposals, including reflecting the diversity of our community through the telling of stories and showcasing of work from the ‘invisible’ artists in our midst, particularly those who are new migrants, and those who are marginalised youth. There is a lot that happens under the radar in our city, with graffiti artists, street poets, back-yard bands, and the like, that the mainstream never get to see, and yet which work across traditional barriers and push new limits of creative expression. And there are new ethnic communities in Perth, particularly from north and east Africa, whose cultures can enrich the Indian Ocean rim area, of which we are a key centre.

There is so much potential here in Western Australia and, right now, the stars seem to be aligned such that there is a real desire to harness the creative energy that exists in this State. To do this we need new partnerships, new frameworks, new policies and, in some instances, changes in attitude. But none of the themes and strategies that our report will articulate are beyond us. Some of them require small steps but bold vision. Some of them require biggish steps and some changes in funding frameworks. Others, again, need the galvanising of the community to make them happen. But the key partners – the arts and cultural sectors, and the business sector, led by the Committee for Perth – are up for it, and we hope and anticipate that the Government will be up for it too! And that leaves you, the community - the key to making this happen. Please come on board and help us make Perth the city that we all know it can be, and in so doing position the arts and cultural enterprise of our State at the forefront of creative development in Australia.

Margaret Seares AO holds the position of Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Western Australia. In 2003, Professor Seares was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in recognition of her contribution to the arts and education in Australia.

  1. Tattersall, Hannah. All's fair in an interconnected creative world” The Australian Financial Review, 29 August 2008.
  2. Hume, Christopher, “In a whole new light”, Toronto Star, June 2, 2007.
  3. “Liveability ranking”,, Aug 22nd 2007
  4. 2007 World-wide quality of living survey, London, 2 April 2007
  7. Hofstadter, Richard, 1966, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Vintage.
  8. Landry, Charles, “Why the city that says No needs to learn to say Yes” The West Australian, 13th March 2007.