Remembering Neville Wran – arts aficionado or Balmain bruiser?

Neville Wran had a reputation as a tough guy – but he was also a strong supporter of the arts. AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

Remembering Neville Wran – arts aficionado or Balmain bruiser?

Neville Wran had a reputation as a tough guy – but he was also a strong supporter of the arts. AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

In 1981, on a short trip back home to Australia from the UK, I saw a job advertised that I thought had been made for me. The Director, Women and Arts, according to the advertisement, was a special role created by the then Premier of New South Wales, Neville Wran, who died earlier this week.

I applied and to my surprise was appointed.

The job description envisaged a festival and research project on the subject of “women and the arts” throughout the State of New South Wales in 1982. While the job sounded impressive, the reality was there was no budget; just a salary to pay me for 18 months.

It was explained that while the role notionally reported to the Premier, in reality this meant that I reported to the heads of the Arts and Cultural office and the Women’s Adviser’s office, both then located within the Premier’s Department. But it seemed the project was perceived as a “political exercise” by the bureaucrats; just window dressing rather than real.

For the project to succeed, though, it had to have a budget.

To achieve this I would have to go above everyone’s head and meet with the “boss”.

Neville Wran with a group of women artists and arts workers at a reception on International Women’s’ Day 1982. Jo Caust

With some difficulty I made an appointment to see the Premier to explain the dilemma and seek his help. I had heard from different sources that Wran was an arts aficionado – but also a “Balmain boy” and rather rough around the edges. I was warned the meeting might be brutal.

Yet Wran must have decided it was fun to have an idealistic and naïve young woman in his office begging for money, so he put on a show for me. We talked about films and he mentioned how he and his wife Jilly liked to watch films on SBS.

He then described a Japanese film they had seen recently in which a character believed he was a train. As I hadn’t seen the film, Wran got up from his chair, became a train and choofed around the office, every so often tooting his whistle.

Following this performance he asked me how much we needed and agreed to give the women’s project a budget, provided the head of the Premier’s Department, the all powerful Gerry Gleeson, agreed. Gerry Gleeson did agree and went further by providing us with a rather expansive suite of offices to be based in.

To get other players on board such as the Sydney Theatre Company and the Art Gallery of New South Wales I played my bluff as the representative of a Premier (to whom they were beholden) who wanted this project to happen.

After initial resistance this strategy worked and very quickly we had a season of Women’s Theatre happening under the banner of the Sydney Theatre, directed by Robyn Nevin, and a substantial exhibition of works by women artists from the permanent collection of the Art Gallery (which until then rarely saw the light of day). Other participants and supporters quickly followed, particularly important women in the media and the arts.

As Premier, Wran was a great advocate of the project.

He talked warmly about it to the media, other parliamentarians, arts people and women’s groups but the opening of the Women and Arts Festival at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in October 1982 was the highlight.

Several hundred people gathered in the gallery foyer, plus performers, visual displays and generous amounts of champagne. There were also two political demonstrations; one was a protest about the ongoing voluntary nature of women’s work (illustrated by artists using irons and ironing boards on the gallery steps) and the other was the Prisoners’ Action Group protesting the fate of prisoners in the NSW correctional service.

I had the honour of showing Wran the exhibition of women artists especially mounted by the gallery. As the two of us entered the exhibition the prisoners’ group followed us, demanding action for their cause from the Premier. Something was said that he found insulting and he raised his fists ready for a fight saying “come on then, come on,” and a spokesperson from their side did the same. There, surrounded by the works of women artists, they squared off for a fist fight.

I had no alternative.

I stood between them and begged for civilised behaviour from them both claiming “this was neither the time nor the place”. Remarkably this worked. The prisoners’ group walked away. Premier Wran, still up for a fight, seemed disappointed but calmed down and agreed to continue his tour.

During the time of the project I had been warned by the bureaucrats to, on no account, embarrass the Premier or the government. What this meant I was never quite sure. Fortunately the Women and Arts Project was deemed a success; not least by Premier Wran who praised it fulsomely in State Parliament in December 1982.

As a postscript the Women and Arts Festival included more than 1,000 events throughout New South Wales during the month of October 1982 and in addition a national research project about women in the arts undertaken at the same time as the Festival, contributed greatly to understanding how to improve the lot of women in the arts.

An annual Women’s Arts Fellowship was then awarded to an outstanding female artist/arts worker by the NSW Government over the next several years – although sadly no longer.