Inheritance and Inhibition: Do Perth’s heritage buildings contribute to its culture?

Words By: Mandy Moe Pwint Tu

Image Credit: Experience Perth

There are those who would say that Perth as a city is bland and cultureless. (Pause for effect while the editors at Rotunda sharpen their knives.) The people who usually tend to say this are those who have never been to Perth. Strangely enough, it is perhaps also easy for the local Perthian to say the same thing—I, for one, in my first year here, thought the same. I could not have been more wrong.

Perth’s cultural scene is vibrant and growing, and if you only care to look, you’ll be overwhelmed by the number of events going on: the live shows, the poetry sessions, the arts exhibitions. But as I said, you need to look beyond the surface, beyond what you see, delve a little deeper to find this cultural scene that’s bubbling right beneath Perth’s worn out facade of mining and agricultural guises.

Even so, the culture of Perth has always been shown, or rather, been hinted at, in the number of old heritage buildings that the city is home to. These buildings today serve primarily as landmarks and tourist attractions; His Majesty’s Theatre on Hay Street, believed to be the only working Edwardian theatre in Australia, being one of them, and the Barracks Arch on St Georges Terrace being another. These buildings have been and are looking to always be a part of Perth, functioning as more than a nod to the past, but also as an innate part of the city and its atmosphere.

A bit of history for you here: While Western Australia’s settlements struggled in the 1800s due to lack of resources, labour and investment, the influx of foreign and interstate interest due to the gold rushes of the 1890s meant more manpower and better development due to the newfound wealth. Most of the ornate buildings were constructed in the urban area from the 1890s to the early 1900s. Places like the Palace Hotel, Perth and the Old Perth Technical School rose out of this early architectural era.

 The National Trust Australia was founded in the late 1950s by a group of individuals who felt the need to ‘preserve our heritage’. Its purpose is “to raise knowledge, awareness, understanding and commitment to Western Australia’s natural, Aboriginal and historic heritage.” At this time there was no legislation to either preserve or promote the significance of Western Australia’s heritage places, including natural landscapes and buildings, and the National Trust was able to bring attention to this issue and still maintains its values and work today. The mining boom of 1960s-70s resulted in the destruction of many of the city’s early 1900s buildings, in a time of an upsurge of intensive development. At this time there were campaigns to preserve the Pensioner Barracks, the Palace Hotel and the Swan Brewery. However, it was not until the Heritage Act of WA 1990 was adopted that post-colonial heritage places were recognised and given statutory protection under the State Register of Heritage Places.

Understandably, preserving heritage buildings is important if Perth wants to maintain its vague cultural aesthetic. I’ll be honest: they make the city considerably lovelier and their absence would certainly be felt profoundly by many a Perthian.

Lotterywest offers year round grants  for the conservation of natural heritage as well as for community histories. In 2014, a total of 36 Lotterywest Conservation of Cultural Heritage Grants worth more than $1.6 million were provided to local government and community organizations. The funding, Heritage Minister Albert Jacob stated, would go towards conserving places and objects with significant heritage value for future generations. In 2013-2014, these grants came up to $3 million altogether.

Somewhere in the distance, if you listen closely, you can hear the wailing cries of Perth’s struggling artists, poets and musicians, all endeavouring to make a living out of their passions with little enough support from the WA government. The 2015-2016 Western Australian state budget features a record $1.3 billion deficit, and confirms ongoing investments in WA’s regional arts, as well as funding for the new WA museum, due to be completed in 2020.

Chamber Chairman Warwick Hemsley has stated: “The investments in the regions and the new Museum are the only bright spots in this arts budget. For the rest of the sector the money available for arts organisations, projects, programs, and the collecting institutions has flat-lined.”

 The Budget announcement took $104.8 million over four years out of the Australia Council’s budget and handed it over to the new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts. This has, understandably, caused considerable angst in the arts community, with fears that art organizations will almost definitely suffer.

So while funding towards preserving and renovating heritage buildings is more or less consistent, funding towards the organizations and individuals who are properly and wholeheartedly contributing to the Perth cultural scene is not—in fact, it is understated, underrated and limited.

Hemsely continues: “This week’s federal budget has done the Western Australian small to medium organisations no favours as the pot of money used by the Australia Council to support the work of these companies and artists has been significantly reduced by Minister Brandis for his National Programme for Excellence in the Arts. The Chamber hopes we are not seeing the start of a perfect storm that will irretrievably damage part of the engine room for arts and culture in this state.”