Sam Walsh and his love affair with the arts

Could the appointment of Sam Walsh as Chief Executive of Rio Tinto lead to more financial support for the arts in Australia? Certainly Mr Walsh is a great fan of the arts and wields considerable influence through chairmanships of Western Australia's Chamber of Arts and Culture, The Black Swan State Theatre Company and the WA arm of the Australian Business Arts Foundation.

It's not yet known whether he'll be able to continue wearing all of these hats while also being Chief Executive of Rio Tinto.

Yet if he had to give any of them up, it wouldn't be by choice.

It was in his capacity as Chairman of the Chamber of Arts and Culture that Sam Walsh sat with me for an interview, a week before the shock resignation of Tom Albanese.

He called for more philanthropy to support the arts, saying that wealthy Australians were reluctant to donate because they didn't like to be seen as 'too rich', and artists and producers seemed to be too shy to ask for money for their projects.

Mr Walsh asserted that the mining boom has boosted the arts in Perth, helping defeat the perception that the city is 'boring'.

And it was important to present works reflecting on Australian experiences and content.

A vibrant city Sam Walsh has asserted that the vibrancy of Perth is important, especially in attracting and keeping young people to work in the sectors that are driving the national economy.

He says the oft-raised claim that Perth is boring is nonsense.

"I think that is a fallacy," he said.

"We're very fortunate to be the engine room of the national economy, reflected in the sort of people we are attracting to the west and I think the city is starting to reflect that.

"We've seen it in sports for quite a while, we're now seeing it in restaurants and bars as the city is coming alive." Theatre seat numbers have increased by 50 per cent over 12 months and Opera In The Park has attracted 10,000 people.

Yet some big touring international acts still refuse to come to Perth.

Last year Prince, Radiohead, Coldplay and Beck were among those who gave the west a miss, and in 2013, Bruce Springsteen has so far failed to include Perth in his schedule.

Sam Walsh said he expects the days of 'eastern states tours' of Australia are numbered.

"Bruce didn't come to Perth, Elton did-- for every example, there are examples of people who are coming into Perth.

"Part of it is celebrating success, people recognizing that Perth is morphing into a cultural centre, it's the only place in the world where oil and gas and mining come together," he said.

"What we need to to do is ensure that everything else is developing at an equal rate, not just the arts, not just restaurants and so on, infrastructure, everything to do with it that facilitates people physically coming to events like that.

"I think the new Perth Arena is a stunning achievement and that provides a much bigger venue that will make it more attractive for these overseas acts to come.

"Previously we didn't have a centre like that, world class, first class in terms of its catering to patrons but also providing a good venue." Mr Walsh said he wanted to see more blockbuster exhibitions like the successful Picasso to Warhol show in Perth.

He'd also like to see the landmark Fred Williams collection come west, another 'tour' on which WA missed out.

Sam Walsh lamented the fact that government funding for the arts appeared to have dropped in real terms, particularly in Western Australia.

He's rejected the concept that budget pressures should mean there's less money for the arts.

"Importantly, if you look at royalties flowing through from mining companies, those have directly increased the state coffers so it's a matter of how governments break up the expenditure," he said.

"In relation to Federal Government funding, the issue there relates to Western Australia getting its fair share.

"WA represents roughly 10 per cent of Australia's population, we're getting about five per cent of the arts grants through the Australia Council.

"That's a significant issue." But the private sector is helping to plug the gaps.

"Mining companies and oil and gas, are providing significant funding to the arts," Mr Walsh said.

Mr Walsh said he wanted more companies to be involved in the Australian Business Arts Foundation, which he chairs in Western Australia.

Sam Walsh reflected on a trip to New York last year.

"We were looking at philanthropy and we compared notes about how funding is supplied," he said.

"I was quite surprised to see that if you compare Western Australian arts organisations with those on the east coast, there is in fact a substantial difference between the funding.

"Companies in in WA are making major contributions, and that is very different to what you're seeing elsewhere in the Australian economy." A question of funding The chairman of The Black Swan State Theatre company said about half of its funding came from people paying for tickets, with about 25 per cent from donations by individuals and companies.

The other 25 per cent is from federal and state government contributions.

"This is important because we are working very hard to be a reflection of the Australian culture, the Australian society, not just picking up shows that are running on Broadway or running in the West End in London," he said.

"And if you want to develop this content, performances and shows based around Australian content, then we need to realistically look at how the costs are derived for that.

"But it's very important, whether it's the ballet, the theatre, the orchestra, the opera, the museum, the art gallery that it's actually representing Australia rather than just a reproduction of a small part of what you might see in Europe or you might see in The United States.

"Our own culture is very, very important to be developed." Philanthropy as a basis for contributions to the arts has been a long-standing practise in The United States, unmatched in Australia.

"I think in Australia we have a large number of philanthropists and they're making a substantial contribution," Mr Walsh said.

"We need to broaden the base.

"In New York, when I was there, there was an organisation that had 20,000 donors and only 30 of them were anonymous.

"I think in Australia it would be the opposite situation, you'd have 20,000 anonymous and only 30 that'd want to put their names.

"We need role models, we need people to understand this is part of being successful, giving back.

"I was interested to see that whilst there's strong personal philanthropy in New York, companies are taking a lower profile.

Sam Walsh said someone on the New York trip made a comment that's stayed with him, 'It's not that there's a problem with philanthropy in Australia, it's a problem that we just don't know how to ask'.

"We get all shy when it comes to asking somebody to dip into their pocket, whereas in the United States, it's part of the culture, and when somebody is going to see somebody about supporting something, the message is, 'tell 'em I'm coming and I'm asking for money!'," he said.

"It's part of our culture, people do not want to be seen as overly rich, they don't want to be seen as throwing money around, in some cases, they don't want to become public because they don't want a long queue outside their door.

"But all of this is manageable and all of this gets back to contributing to life."

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