Roger Wilkins, NSW Director-General of Arts

Keith Gallasch

Roger Wilkins, NSW Director-General of Arts

Roger Wilkins, NSW Director-General of Arts

Director-General of the Arts. It’s a grand title. Its possessor, Roger Wilkins, doesn’t, however, sport epaulettes but rather, a bow tie and a quiet, urbane demeanour. He once studied and taught law and philosophy. His burning arts passions are music, mainly classical and jazz. He learned piano and the pipe organ. He has a particular interest in German literature, poetry and plays. He is Cabinet Secretary to the NSW Government and Director-General of Arts, heading the NSW Ministry for the Arts. My primary interest in meeting Wilkins is to gauge his awareness of the health (or not) of the arts in NSW and to see how policy shapes the government’s vision for the arts. It seems I’ve come to the right man.

Policy & action

“My pre-eminent background is in public policy,” says Wilkins. “I’ve been head of the Cabinet office for about 7 years and I’ve worked across a huge range of public policy issues for the last 10-15 years, from policy on greenhouse gases to health and education. In the Cabinet office I have special units on biotechnology, on drugs strategy, salinity and branches involved in social policy, legal policy, justice, competition.” What excites Wilkins about his role is “the capacity to influence major directions in terms of the future of Australia and New South Wales…If I didn’t I would have gone back and practiced private law or something like that.”

Wilkins still reads philosophy: “I’m excited by ideas and my interest in taking over the Ministry for the Arts was precisely that. I approached the Premier and said I wanted to do this job…I think it’s an index of civilization how the arts and culture fare in a society, and governments, particularly in this country, haven’t recognised the centrality of arts and culture. By that I mean not simply some of those arguments about increasing gross domestic product and economic activity, tourism potential, getting more people through the gate and so on. You’ve got to drill a bit deeper to understand…The arts really is the forum in which important values and ideas play themselves out and that’s a bit of an imponderable, difficult to explain to Treasury.”

Mapping the arts

Clearly Wilkins thinks he can do something for the arts: “it’s an issue which over the last 12 months I’ve been talking to a lot of people about, pre-eminently the Premier of course, as he’s Minister for the Arts. The first thing you need to have is some fairly clear sense of direction. That doesn’t mean you sit on your hands for 3 years while you plan, but it does mean that you need to rebuild your boat while you’re floating a little. You need to develop a framework for action. The arts is no different from a lot of areas of policy which I see from where I sit. There’s a degree of the ad hoc, a degree of isolation from other activities in society just because people build boundaries around bureaucratic territories…

“So, it’s important to build better frameworks for policy so that when you intervene…for example, do something about the MCA or Performance Space…it’s not simply because somebody came through the door with a problem. You need to understand how that fits into a much larger picture…what the issue was that they came through the door about. Ostensibly it might be a question of money but that’s the symptom. You need to understand where that’s coming from and how it fits into a total picture. So I think the challenge for arts agencies is to get that picture. What I’ve been doing for the last 12 months is trying to understand the topography of these issues a little better.”

Whole of government

Perhaps then, thinking of maps, Wilkins’ role as Cabinet Secretary gives the arts a better route than it’s had before between ministry and minister? “I don’t think that’s the point of it. Evan Williams [the former Arts Secretary] and the Premier were always closely co-operating. The value I think I can probably add as a Cabinet Secretary is the ‘whole of government’ approach, which means that for whatever reason I probably have better entree to other CEOs and I can readily talk to and get co-operation from people like State Development, Education, Planning and even the Justice Department. You can begin to examine areas of common interest and mutual benefit. You can begin to build joint programs and to think, for example, are we really making the best use of the money that we’re spending in the arts from an educational point of view and vice versa.”

Wilkins sees his position as presenting opportunities to explain that the arts is not simply for an elite and is not marginal to government policy. He points to the Premier’s crime prevention initiatives emerging from analysis of specific problems in different communities: “a lot of the solutions don’t just come from more police and better law enforcement, they come from a variety of programs designed to address a whole bunch of social issues…part of which is getting people more involved in cultural and artistic activities and using that as a lever of policy. Not that I’m advocating a purely utilitarian approach to the arts but there are areas where you can get a win win.”

Initiatives & policy

I ask Wilkins where arts initiatives emanate from and how they relate to policy. Western Sydney received $23.6 million earlier this year for the arts, primarily in capital development—refurbished theatres, arts centres and galleries, new multi-arts spaces—building on earlier funding and paid for this time from a stamp duty surplus.

For Wilkins, policy development has many sources. “Initiatives about arts and culture almost inevitably do come through the Ministry but that doesn’t mean that the Ministry necessarily thinks them all up. You might be responding to some problem, the Premier and the Premier’s office ring down and say that they want something to happen. They may come out of Cabinet. They may come out of the Parliamentary system and the Ministry system, from the private sector…or the arts and culture sector.”

Wilkins sees the Ministry as providing a framework in which these initiatives can operate, where the ideas behind them can make sense. The Western Sydney initiative he sees as “a nice mix…it’s policy opportunism in a way but it’s informed by the fact that you had done your homework and you did understand what infrastructure was required out there. And people in the Ministry had done that [work] over a period of time. Policy development—and I’ve seen a lot of it—is having a good appreciation of the topography, having a framework of policy within which you want to act, but then spotting windows of opportunity and when you see them, you go through. That’s very important. There’s a degree of entrepreneurship and opportunism in policy.”

In Sydney’s west it must also involve new levels of involvement of local councils in the arts, especially once the new facilities are up and running and require content. Wilkins sees the initiatives as providing leverage to encourage local government not only to make sure the venues are used, but to be involved in cultural planning more generally: “So it gives you entree into a whole extra level of policy development.”

At this point in the conversation I’m sensing an apparent gap between, on the one hand, the broad principle that the arts is good for a society and, on the other, the pragmatic responsiveness of arts initiatives. There are countries that have arts, even artform policies (as Denmark has for music), realised as acts of Parliament. Wilkins is disapproving: “there is a danger in hankering after what’s called ‘the arts policy’ as if it’s some tablet handed down from Mt Sinai. That’s not the way good policy develops. [I’ll give you] a couple of good examples from outside of the arts area, both with this current government. One is natural resources policy. The Premier has actually pushed a lot of initiatives on things like salinity, native vegetation clearing, water reform…In a sense, they start off as separate instances of initiatives that people want to embark on. You begin to see that they come together. There’s something that all these things have in common. There’s a story you can tell about how they coalesce into a coherent policy which then drives further work. So there’s a type of iterative process between doing sensible things in particular areas, then drawing them together and saying, hey there’s an overall direction we want to move in. This has been successful. We want to push it further. Very rarely do you see it…

“With the drug strategy, it was ready to happen, if you like. It was ready when people and politicians started talking about the demand side rather than the supply side of the drug problem, which is what the Drug Summit was all about. That’s how policy gets made. It’s sort of like a big jigsaw puzzle where you begin to discern what the puzzle is about and then you begin to discern what the gaps are about. The major difference from a jigsaw puzzle is that it’s not static, it’s dynamic. It keeps moving about.”

Giving direction

“Having said that, I think there is a need to give leadership and to articulate policy directions…It would be to say, for example, that we think we really want to spend the next 5 years concentrating on all aspects of the performing arts. We want to actually get that jigsaw of problems and issues and opportunities sorted. If you give that sort of signal, a lot of people will start coming out of the woodwork, talking to you about it. Opportunities will begin to make themselves. Particularly if someone like the Premier gets behind it. I just use that as a hypothetical example. So it’s a question of giving policy direction more than anything else. And you do it by example. You don’t just say things, you do things.”

A Ministry for the job?

The question then arises, is the Ministry for the Arts sufficiently well equipped for Wilkins’ vision of responsiveness and policy-making? He thinks so: “It’s an impressive organisation that I inherited. What I’ll say about it is not a criticism. It’s actually just saying where I think we could crank things up a notch. First of all, I think it should be basically about policy, and good public policy. It probably is a bit short of staff. It has been preoccupied with processing grants at the expense of people having time to spend on policy. I think it needs to be a little more active in terms of making an agenda…at a national level…and within State government, across portfolios.” Wilkins would like the Ministry “to get interested in curriculum and syllabus and what the education department is doing. I think we need to do a lot more work with local government in terms of looking at the opportunities there to broker regional cooperation. I think we need to talk to institutions and give them more strategic leadership in terms of the government saying what they expect…” He is concerned that without precise time frames and numbers “you end up with memoranda of understanding which are sort of motherhood things.” He would also like relationships between the Ministry and clients to be on a firmer footing: “I don’t see in a lot of cases why we don’t have longer term funding arrangements with people. Once again, that’s another example of where things are a bit ad hoc. People come in year after year and get a little bit of funding and they don’t know even one month before the end of the year whether they’re going to make it. That strikes me as an odd financial arrangement if nothing else.”

Artform survival

While federal and state government initiatives in areas of youth, touring and regional and suburban development have been significant, there has been no increase in funding for basic artform activity for many years. In effect there are insufficient funds for survival let alone growth, with greater and greater gaps between projects for many artists and infrastructure organisations becoming less and less capable of offering support. It’s something that the late Richard Wherrett, who sat on the Ministry’s Advisory Committee, felt very strongly about; that basic artform funding had come to a standstill for a decade. Although sympathetic to the various initiatives (and some participating in them), many artists feel that support for research and development, the work in the laboratory, is an area governments are not interested in; it’s simply not politically opportune. Is this true?

Wilkins is sympathetic. “In essence, I agree with you…On any analysis of the way in which artforms prosper and develop you have to say that if the R and D end of the spectrum, the laboratory, if you like, is having problems, then the artform has a problem. So I think when you ask does government understand that, I certainly understand that and I think the Premier appreciates that. We understand where the R and D end of the spectrum fits into the overall health of the artform and how it can contribute to a pluralism of ideas and of activity.

“What you do about the current problems is fairly clear cut. And in another sense, that would just feed into a conventional government funding program. What you need to do, for example with the performing arts, is to look at infrastructure—but it’s an expansive concept. It means basically making sure that everything from the space in which to perform to organisations to help produce, organisations to help create marketing opportunities and audience development, that all of that is in place for people to take advantage of.”

A case in point: Performance Space

“And you know we’ve been talking to [Artistic Director] Fiona Winning and Performance Space [about the future home of the organisation]. It’s about finding some key organisations of that sort [to work together] which you then say, well, we are comfortable that you know what you’re doing and we’re going to back you on this. And I think that that is really one thing that government should be doing, and one thing that we are trying to do.

“We’d like to do something about Eveleigh [the former railway Carriage Works in Redfern including Technology Park and an undeveloped site formerly managed by Company B Belvoir and now temporarily housing some small performance companies]. I think the boss will be keen to do something on that. It’s a question of money, of budget priorities. I can’t forecast…But we’re certainly keen to do something about it if possible.”

Recently, Rupert Myer, who is chairing the Visual Arts Inquiry, announced that there would be “no pot of gold” at the end of the inquiry. Similar noises have been coming from the Small to Medium companies and organisations inquiry. There have been more than hints that the solutions to arts problems will be found in improved networking, improvements to infrastructure (did any mergers come out of Nugent?) and tax deals for artists. While these could be valuable, I insist to Wilkins that they simply don’t address basic artform funding levels. While it might be good to have a new building for Performance Space and other organisations dealing with the contemporary arts (Wilkins interrupts: “Not only a building, Keith. I would like to see them playing a much more active role in the development of that sector”) the issue currently is what work can Performance Space program when so many projects go unfunded?

Falling between governments

For Wilkins this raises a key issue, the relationship between the Australia Council and the state arts ministries. Once upon a time the former looked after the product and the other the infrastructure, but those lines have long blurred as the states have taken on more and more arts responsibility. The pressure is on for the states to make up for what the limited budget of the Australia Council can’t do and there’s widespread feeling, especially in NSW, that Council and the states are quite out of sync. Wilkins thinks that “there needs to be an accommodation, an agreement at federal level. The Nugent Report was an example of the first time anyone’s thought, in a sense, about the roles and responsibilities of different levels of government in relation to arts practice. So it’s a move in the right direction. You need to get some sort of arrangement or agreement like that in relation to the small to medium companies and in terms of the visual arts as well…At the moment, you have inefficiency between different levels of government. And I’ve done a lot of work on federalism in a lot of policy areas and I’ve got to say that at its best it’s a whole bunch of people sitting around and saying they should cooperate more. At its worst, it’s a whole bunch of people sitting around saying they’re not going to cooperate…If [the states are to provide] infrastructure, there’s got to be some arrangement about the production and the projects that are going to be given life through that infrastructure.”

Although he won’t be drawn on what plan of action he’ll recommend if the various inquiries come to nought, Wilkins thinks “it’s probably true that the answer lies in doing things more efficiently between levels of government and some injection of extra funding…At a state level we’re looking at getting more money into the grants system. That’s going to be an issue worked out through the budget process. So I don’t know if there will be extra money, but really the critical thing I come back to is public policy, good frameworks and an understanding of what you want to do.”

On the plight of small to medium dance projects and companies in NSW (a distinctly sensitive pressure point in the federal-state relationship), Wilkins pinpoints the issues of sufficient studio space and “the capacity to allow the development of choreography in this country. So probably we need another 1 or 2 small dance companies where people can get more opportunities…That probably won’t break the bank…A propos of that, what you find in arts and cultural policy is how much you can actually achieve with a very small amount of money compared with a lot of the other policy areas I work in.”

Off the map

A little buoyed by some of the possibilities that Wilkins has hinted at I say, “So we can look forward to art that nourishes and challenges and is not only sustainable but grows?” Wilkins reply is interesting, if unexpected, taking us back into unmapped terrain—what can be done for the arts outside of direct funding. In his experience in other areas of public policy “the point of funding people is normally not so they just stay on the government teat. What you normally would try and do would be to find some way of setting them free. I would have thought especially in the arts more than anywhere else that people would be suspicious of government funding, given the track record of some regimes. So it’s a question, Keith, and I’m not talking about withdrawal of funds or making the pie smaller, of how should we interact in terms of grant funding? I’ve said to my people we’re sort of picking winners…One of the things I’d like to investigate without threatening anybody is to look at what other models there might be. I don’t feel comfortable choosing what people put on.”

This takes us back to the arts map and how to read it in order to make the most of it. It’s something that Terry Cutler, the Australia Council Chair, raised in our RealTime interview with him [RT45 page 6]. Cutler’s involved in the federal government cluster study of new media infrastructure and networking in Australia. Wilkins says that, “One of the people who’s impressed me in the last few months is Simon Roodhouse [Research Professor, Faculty of Arts Science & Education, Bolton Institute] from the UK. He came out here and talked about what seemed interesting to me at the time…Looking at the [arts] topography, audits of artistic or cultural activity…you begin to find that there’s a great deal more activity than you actually understood was going on. Then you can begin to see ways in which people can cooperate to their own mutual benefit. And we don’t do enough of that here. We don’t do enough lateral thinking.”

The good news

A few weeks after I’d interviewed Roger Wilkins, it was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald (Bryce Hallett, “Railyard becomes arts central as theatre companies roll in”, March 21) that, “The Eveleigh Carriage Works in Redfern is to become a new inner city performing arts hub with the State Government’s announcement that it would buy the site from State Rail for $15m. The Carriage Works and blacksmith’s shop will become a permanent home for companies such as Legs on the Wall, Theatre Kantanka and Stalker Theatre…In addition to offices and rehearsal studios, a contemporary performance space is also planned for the site.” This is exciting news for the performance community, now eagerly waiting to hear what kind of role Performance Space might play in this significant development.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 9-1

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2002