Why should governments fund writers’ centres?

IMG_3898A recent article by Victoria Laurie in The Australian reported what some of us already knew: that government funding for literary activities in Western Australia has been slashed for 2016.

As the report notes, several cutbacks during the last year have substantially reduced financial support for authors, publishers, and associated organisations in this state. These include turning the WA Premier’s Book Awards from an annual into a biennial event – which, as WritingWA CEO Sharon Flindell remarks, ‘has essentially halved opportunities for authors and publishers to promote their work.’ Also stripped away has been some of the Australia Council funding for literature in Western Australia.

And now the unkindest cut of all has discontinued the grants previously provided by the state’s Department of Culture and the Arts for a number of vital operations, such as the magazine Westerly, the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA), and – most astoundingly – the peak coordinating body WritingWA, which represents every link in the book industry supply chain through 80 member organisations.

Laurie’s article quotes statements of distress by a number of writers and others involved in the production and promotion of books. Although they all have reasonable things to say, I suspect that a casual observer would probably dismiss those concerns with a shrug, thinking it’s just a case of cottage-industry practitioners expecting the taxpayer to subsidise their individual pursuits indefinitely and having a whinge about the prospect of reduced privileges such as trips to literary festivals etc.

What doesn’t come through in Victoria Laurie’s article is the strong business case for supporting such activities because their demonstrable public impact is achieved so thriftily. Take WritingWA as the prime example: it has delivered an exceptionally good return on investment, stretching the value of every funding dollar by forming several very productive partnerships regionally and nationally. Its work has been almost as miraculous as the fabled feeding of the 5000 with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.

I’ve written elsewhere about the enterprising ways in which WritingWA manages to maximise the range of practical benefits it confers not only on individual writers but on communities across the state. I’ve also spoken about this in recent radio interviews, locally and nationally. Examples are worth repeating here. WritingWA maintains strong working relationships with the following:

  • Westlink TV, resulting in an outstanding publicity vehicle for writers – Meri Fatin’s monthly “Cover to Cover” program, showcasing WA writers and reaching out through community centres to many regional locations.
  • Literary festivals. I’ve seen at first hand (e.g. in Geraldton, Kununurra and the Avon Valley as well as in Perth) how valuable this kind of liaison can be, not only for writers but also for diverse communities.
  • The Literature Board of the Australia Council, e.g. in a jointly organised workshop on Market Development Skills for writers – again, developing good business practice.
  • The West Australian newspaper, for which WritingWA works with its literary editor Will Yeoman to ensure prominent coverage of books produced in this state.
  • Public libraries, e.g. assisting with payment for writers who give library talks and readings.

It’s unfortunate that this point about leveraged business efficiency and the $$ multiplier effect, extending community access to cultural resources, wasn’t made forcefully in the newspaper report. Anyone outside literary circles who glances at it will probably not have taken away a clear message about the admirably resourceful way in which WritingWA has extracted extra value for the community from every invested dollar.

8 thoughts on “Why should governments fund writers’ centres?

  1. Yes indeed, you hit the nail on the head. So much is done by small organisations and by volunteers that feeds into the literary economy, and now, it seems, government and the community in general want that done for even less than a pittance. It could be that we ourselves have not made the case well enough, but it does seem harsh that not only do we have to do the work (willingly, it’s true) for nothing but we ALSO have to make the case for the work being done and being valuable.

  2. This kind of government scorn for the arts is reminiscent of Campbell Newman’s destruction of the Qld Premier’s Literary Awards. It may appeal to rednecks and yobboes, and it may be dismissed as unimportant by the WA man in the street, but the damage to WA’s cultural capital isn’t just local. We notice from over here in the eastern states, and while Melbourne as a City of Literature will always welcome writers who find it all too hard in WA, what we as Australians really want is to hear your stories from a WA perspective and it’s incumbent on your government to provide support so that those stories are heard.

  3. That’s an eloquent defence, Lisa, especially as it comes from an eastern states perspective. Expressions of support such as yours (and Rosemary’s – above – from Bendigo) are encouraging to those of us who are trying to stir consciences here in WA. Expect to be quoted! Thank you.

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