It is time to look behind-the-scenes to a hero who has quietly championed the WA arts industry for decades.  In October Henry Boston will hand over the reigns as Executive Director of the Chamber of Culture and the Arts. Henry believes artists are the voice of the human condition. But is the arts scene a ghetto? Can it overcome the challenges of a risk-averse government, constantly changing technology and chronically reduced coverage by the mainstream media? Henry shares his parting thoughts with us.

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Henry Boston

What music gets your heart racing?

I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to my music listening.  Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta of Love, Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing Mahler’s 5th, Run-DMC’s It’s Like That’and a piece of cumbia music by Adolfo Echeverria Y Su Orquesta called Amanciendo.

What calms you down?

Fauré’s Requiem, Kiri Te Kanawa singing the Songs of the Auvergne, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Laura Mvula’s Sing to the Moon, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

What do you sing along to?

Believe you me, you don’t want to hear me singing!  Sadly, volume over tune is the usual result.  I’ll sing along to the Pigram Bros, Neil Young, Beach Boys, The Decemberists, Dark Dark Dark and many, many musicals.

You have a soft spot for the arts. How did you first become interested in the arts? Was it as a child or later in life?

My grandmother used to take me as a child to the West End to see the big musicals which encouraged me to act at school and then I studied drama at university. There was always music in our house although when I took up the trumpet my parents contacted the school to see if I could give it up.  Those 6am practice sessions in my bedroom did not go down well! When I started acting professionally I realized that not everyone shared my opinion of my acting ability so I moved backstage and then into producing, programming and finally advocating.

What do you think is the most important role of the arts?

Artists are the voice of the human condition.  They help us understand ourselves and others.  In a world that appears to be increasingly intolerant we need to keep our minds and hearts open.

As Executive Director of the Chamber of Arts and Culture you’ve invested much time over the past five years advocating the government to formulate an arts policy for WA. How does a strong arts strategy make a difference to the creators and enjoyers of the arts?

Having a clear strategic framework is critical if you want everyone to work together.  There have never been sufficient public monies set aside to realise the potential of the arts.  However, it is important that any investment can be seen in the context of a long-term plan and the political will to back such a plan with the necessary resources.

For many years, I’ve heard politicians, both federal and state, say that they value the arts otherwise why would there be a Minister and Department for the Arts.  My response has been that the value that they place in the sector is reflected by the long-term planning and serious investment that they are prepared to make. To date there has been a significant gap between the rhetoric and the delivery!

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You’ve also been involved joining the dots between the business and the arts communities as state manager for the Australian Business Arts Foundation and spent a decade as general manager at the Festival of Perth. Where did you learn the skills to be an arts advocate?

I suppose drama training helps you to sell an argument.  Working around artists and seeing the impact of their work on people has given me the deep belief in the importance of arts and culture. I find it important to be clear who the audience is when it comes to making a persuasive argument.  In this way, I try to tailor the language to make the case more relevant to who is listening. You must be able to tell a story to illustrate your point. Generally, I’ve been fortunate to work with people that have allowed me to get on with the business of advocating. I’ve never been good with interference when it comes from a point of ignorance.

What is your most electric moment in the concert hall/theatre?

The end of an all-night open air performance of Peter Brook’s production of the Mahabharata in the Boya Quarry at Greenmount during the 1988 Festival of Perth.  The sun came up over the rim of the quarry as the mighty tale drew to its conclusion and we were all bathed in the golden light of dawn.

What is the greatest challenge facing the WA arts scene?

I suspect the challenge is faced by many sectors in this State.  The lack of aspiration at a political level and the risk averse approach to any form of ambition.  The constantly changing landscape of technology throws up challenges and opportunities.  Are the arts and culture able to adapt quickly enough to take advantage of the opportunities? At the recent REMIX conference, Marcela Sabino from the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro said, ‘Today is Tomorrow’. We must behave as such.

One of your key roles has been encouraging communication and networking the between artists, businesses, audiences and the government. Is the arts sector a bit of a ghetto? What role can journalism play to enable better communication between all the stakeholders in the arts scene?

The Chamber has tried with its recent publication, Articulate Western Australia, to change the community’s perception that ‘the arts’ is a narrow band of activity enjoyed by a few. This perception is one of the constraints to achieving better communication between all stakeholders.

Is the arts sector a bit of a ghetto? Perhaps it has been forced into one and the word itself has become loaded with an exclusive meaning. I sometime refer to people thinking that arts and culture are the ‘green vegetable’ on the plate, that they are an acquired taste and not something to be easily enjoyed.  Yet everyone engages with art every day in one form or the other, whether it be listening to music, reading a book, watching television or choosing clothes. People don’t readily make the connection.

In recent years, the mainstream media has reduced its coverage of the sector to a risible level. There is no longer any critical writing of any depth around trends in the arts. You are even lucky if you get a short review amongst the advertorials for reality television shows. If journalism is to play a role in communicating the role and activity of the arts sector, then we will have find a way to support a specialist outlet whose purpose is to cover the spectrum of activity with a quality of writing that indicates a knowledge of and a respect for the creative work being undertaken.

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What’s the thing you’ve loved most about working at the Chamber?

The feedback from the members, the incredibly talented Kelly Reid who works with me, the support of our partners, a passionate board, and the exposure to so much of the amazing work created in Western Australia.  I am always humbled that I have the privilege to put the case for the whole sector to receive better and sustained support from government, business and the community. Every day I have an opportunity to talk about my favourite subject – the extraordinary contribution that the arts make to society.

What are the strengths of the WA arts and culture scene?

Our Aboriginal culture, the oldest continuously practised culture in the world, is a jewel in the cultural landscape of this state. Yet it lacks the broader acceptance and support that could elevate it to its rightful level. I don’t believe we will ever reach our true potential in WA until we crack reconciliation. For a state seeking to accept so many cultures, we need to address the fundamentals.

More specifically I admire the intestinal fortitude of artists in the face of indifference and other challenges.  There is a special kind of stamina that drives artists to constantly present ideas and work for people to experience.  Western Australia has been and is the home to so many wonderful artists.  Perhaps our relative isolation has removed the ‘white noise’ experienced by larger, more connected conurbations and given our artists a clarity of vision and expression.

What is your favourite place in Perth?

Matilda Bay in summer, balmy weather with the city skyline in the background, the metallic clacking of the rigging of the moored yachts and the occasional dolphin breaking the surface of the river.  My second favourite place is the Kelp Bar at Kidogo Arthouse on Bathers Beach. I have spent some great nights there at jam sessions for visiting and Perth-based musicians, hosted by the irrepressible Joanna Robertson.

Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the arts?

Family and friends. I’ve been lucky to be supported by family, my partner Áine Whelan, and dear friends throughout my time in the arts. My daughter would probably also class me as slightly sports crazy.

Henry Boston will step down this month from the Chamber of Arts and Culture to pursue freelance creative projects. Incoming executive director Shelagh Magadza commences on 23 October. Thank you Henry for sharing with us as part of the Celebrity Soft Spot series. Find out more about the Chamber of Arts and Culture here and keep up with Henry Boston on Twitter and Facebook.