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Top playwright rues lack of arts funding
Top playwright rues lack of arts funding

Australia’s top playwright David Williamson has lambasted State and Federal governments over the funding of tertiary arts education, including at the WA Academy of Performing Arts.

Creativity drove our economy and our imaginative lives but was under short-sighted assault by both sides of the political divide, Williamson said in a lecture at the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle on Thursday night.

“What makes people happier and more excited than a new and bigger fridge is the work of creative artists who uplift and inspire, entertain and amuse them,” he said.

“List the high points of your life and they’re sure to include more books, films, musicals, plays, and art exhibitions than new washing machines.”

Williamson, who taught mechanical engineering in Melbourne before turning to the stage, said many of Australia’s creative arts programs were suffering death by a thousand cuts.

In Perth for the opening of his play Managing Carmen, he said the arts were often seen as “messy and subversive” and an impediment on the road to economic growth.

“It looks at what is and says that there could be more,” he said. “It looks at what is deadly and what is dull and says there is more to life than this.”

Delivering the annual National Tertiary Education Union Lecture, Williamson said the arts contributed more than $30 billion a year to GDP, more than agriculture, forestry and fishing combined.

Several State governments were cutting funding for the TAFE system and overall national tertiary education funding had dipped to just 0.7 per cent of GDP compared with the OECD average of one 1 per cent, he said.

A recent external review found that WAAPA, one of the top 25 arts training institutions in the world, needed an overhaul and a boost of at least $3.75 million to remain viable.

Williamson said WAAPA’s so-called “over-teaching” through small, intense classes yielded excellent results and famous graduates but cost more than provided by standard government funding.

Unlike accounting, physics and many other high student-teacher ratio courses, arts training required small class sizes and expensive infrastructure.

“You can’t teach dance in a tutorial room. And you need a sprung floor to make sure your dancers survive into their second year.”

Yet in the sports arena, governments continued to pour money into elite sports training to the tune of $17 million per Olympic gold medal, he said.

Creativity had to be learned in a hothouse atmosphere of constant work and rigorous feedback. People like Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Hugh Jackman, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, Robyn Nevin and Baz Lurhmann all started their careers in a university or specialist institution. But even the majority of graduates who did not make it to the top applied their creative skills in many other professions.

Williamson said he was encouraged by the new emphasis on arts in the national curriculum but this was being hamstrung by the lack of qualified music, drama dance and art teachers.

“Many of the higher education institutions which should be producing these teachers are being specifically targeted for budget cuts. Put simply, we are not going to have the teachers to teach the national arts curriculum. That is plain dumb.”

Governments should at least dedicate a fixed percentage of the higher education budget to creative arts training, he said.