Margaret Seares interview, 6 November 2014 and 26 November 2014

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Margaret Seares interview, 6 November 2014 and 26 November 2014




Margaret Seares holds a PhD from UWA in Music, her field of specialty being the keyboard music of the 18th century. From 1991-1995 she was Head of the School of Music, and Deputy Chair of the Academic Board at UWA.
In 1995 she accepted a two-year secondment to the position of CEO with the West Australian Department for the Arts (now the Department of Culture and the Arts), and in 1997 she was appointed to a 4-year term as Chair of the Australia Council.
She has been a member of a wide range of Boards and Councils in the government, not-for-profit, and arts sectors and is currently a board member of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, a Councillor with the WA Chamber of Commerce & Industry and with Scotch College WA, a member of the Australian Research Council's advisory council, and a member of the board of the Council for the Humanities Arts & Social Sciences.
In 2003 Professor Seares was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia in recognition of her work for the arts and education.


Seares, Margaret


University of Western Australia Historical Society


Copyright holder University of Western Australia


MP3 files


Oral History

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Julia Wallis


Margaret Seares


Crawley, W.A.


Interview 1: 53 minutes, 55 seconds
Interview 2: 55 minutes, 26 seconds
Total: 1 hour, 49 minutes, 21 seconds

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbs

Time Summary

Interview 1

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 Margaret was born on 2 December 1948 in Surrey, England while her parents were working here after the Second World War. She was educated at St Hilda’s Anglican School in Mosman Park. She got a basic Christian education which helped her when she studied music later on. Music education at St Hilda’s was mediocre and Margaret took piano lessons outside. Nobody in her immediate family had been to university. She got a scholarship to UWA after taking a year’s break to do her piano diploma. In her first year at UWA she studied Music, French, History and Political Science. In second year, she did music and history. She was invited to do Honours in both subjects but decided to opt for music and took musicology. Later she did a Masters and a PhD at UWA.
05:40 The old music department was located at Tuart House in Crawley where the Festival Offices are now located. The rooms were not sound proofed. There was a prefab building where lectures were held. The music library was old but contained good material and listening booths. The School was a tight knit group as they were away from the main campus. Margaret became involved with the student choral society and David Tunley’s a capella choir. The music students stayed on campus most of the day and sometimes stayed back after hours to listen to music. The course was quite intensive. Sir Frank Callaway was head of department and very ‘old school’. David Tunley was inspiring. Sally Trethowan wrote reviews for the West and lectured on Wagner. John Exton was from Cambridge and advocated 20th century serial music but was dismissive of Tchaikovsky. Margaret is very fond of baroque music. All the music taught was strictly classical.
11:43 Many of the students became teachers. Frank Callaway headed up music education. Some students studied performance, others like Jennifer Fowler, studied composition. It was quite acceptable then to study for the joy of study without an end in mind. There was a tradition of youth concerts. During the Festival they had a classical music forum where young composer such as Ross Edwards and Carl Vine (both of whom later became famous) would be tutored by a visiting international name. In addition, visiting lecturers were invited from interstate and abroad to work with the students and do a series of concerts.
16:04 As well as lectures and some practical work, students benefited from a one on one tutorial. The Music School introduced the concept of listening tests. Students would listen to the music in the Music Library. Margaret was the piano accompanist for the undergraduate choral society for many years. This helped to make her a good sight reader. She took cello lessons at this time and in the 1980s, she learnt to play the harpsichord.
20:50 Margaret chose baroque music as her Honours topic (François Couperin), supervised by David Tunley. He also supervised her Masters (French Stage Music) and PhD (German keyboard music). In Margaret’s Honours year in 1970 there were only two students studying musicology; a couple did composition and more did performance. The Music School was small and intimate and students and staff shared a close relationship.
24:14 Outside of music, Margaret played netball. She took friends to the family farm and they camped in the bush. She also sang in a rock band for a while. There were plenty of balls and parties. Balls would be organised by Arts or one of the colleges. Margaret had friends at Currie Hall, St Catherine’s and Kingswood that she met through the choir. A big highlight for her was taking part in inter-varsity choral festivals throughout Australia.
26:25 In 1970, after graduation, Margaret studied for a Masters’ degree. In 1972-3, she travelled to the UK and Europe for a working holiday. Margaret took a break from music but still attended concerts. She saw famous conductors and soloists as well as operas such as Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Australian opera and ballet was still in the early stages of development. Margaret finds that modern opera caters for a more popular audience.
31:08 While Margaret was teaching in Slough, she received a telegram from Frank Callaway asking her to replace David Tunley while he was on study leave. The following year, she filled in for another staff member. It was good experience as she had to teach across all areas. She was invited to be classical music producer at the new radio station set up at UWA in 1977 - Radio 6UVS-FM. She designed the programme and chose the music. When she took time off to have her first child she continued to work part-time for the School of Music and the radio station. The radio station did not record music or concerts themselves.
35:36 The new music school was built on the campus in 1976. The close knit nature of the school continued when they moved onto campus and the facilities were better. Technology changed constantly. Now music students can listen to music on their own i-pods and they can do a lot more study from home. It is challenging to get students to engage with staff on campus. It is hard to make accurate comparisons with today compared with the past as data was not collected so assiduously and no student exit questionnaires were handed out until about 1995.
42:16 When Margaret was Head of School (1991-1995), the type of student had changed. The Bachelor degree in music was now considered prestigious and was more careers driven. There was some competition between the Conservatorium and UWA. Some of the best music students went on to study medicine or commerce. There was greater student engagement. Lectures became more like question and answer sessions. Ethnomusicology or world music encompasses Asian and Aboriginal music. The Music School has always had good collections from all over the world. The School of Music can arrange for students to do exchanges in other universities. Perth is not as isolated as when Margaret was studying. More people reside in Perth from interstate and from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It is quite difficult for students from a non-Christian background to understand the subtleties involved in studying a traditional Western music course.

Interview 2

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 Margaret took over as head of school from David Tunley with the approval of the staff. Head of School is responsible for the welfare of the school and the students, the budgets and general administration assisted by the secretary and an administrative assistant. Margaret still taught but found she had less time to do research. Elected as a staff representative onto the Senate. Elected as Deputy Chair of the Academic Board. Externally, she was on the Board of the WA Symphony Orchestra. The incoming Arts Minister, Peter Foss, asked Margaret to Chair his Arts Advisory Committee.
06:20 In early 1995, Margaret was asked to apply for the job of Director of Arts WA. She was very uncertain as to whether she wanted to do this job because she was very comfortable at UWA. When she was offered the job, she negotiated with the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Alan Robson, to do a 2 year secondment from UWA in case things didn’t work out. Working for the government was very different to academia. It was a steep learning curve. At the end of the two years, Federal Minister, Senator Richard Alston asked her to be Chair of the Australia Council – the first person from WA in this role. The Council was considered to be too Sydney-centric.
13:50 The Chair’s job is a different role. She worked very closely with Government and the arts sector. Margaret worked in this job for 4 years. She suggested that some meetings be held in the other capital cities outside of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. The job involved a lot of travelling. At one time she was the Executive Chair as well which meant she was both CEO and Chair. Margaret met some interesting and significant people. During this time, there was a Performing Arts Enquiry. Pauline Hanson and One Nation came to prominence. Arts funding received $43 million. Other Councillors included Ron Radford, Director of the National Gallery and Helen Nugent, who is currently conducting an enquiry into the future of the opera companies in Australia.
17:48 At the end of the 4 years, Margaret decided to step away from being a public servant as she felt that she was becoming too bureaucratic. She returned to UWA. She had been working part time at the university setting up the external community relations portfolio. She returned to work as Pro Vice-Chancellor, Community Relations. The Office of Development was set up to fund-raise, liaise with media, market UWA and encourage community outreach. Outreach programmes include the Perth Festival, the galleries, University Press and Extension. Western Australia does not receive as big a slice of Federal arts funding. Most of the money is spent on the national opera and ballet companies and the symphony orchestras. More WA representation is needed on boards and panels.
23:26 The days of strong university funding was over and it was important to set up an office of development to look at ways to attract funding from the alumni and philanthropists. The Rindos case in the early 1990s had caused very negative media for UWA. At this stage, Colin Campbell-Fraser was hired to manage UWA’s relationship with the press and public affairs. It was felt that UWA had become remote from the community. University extension was strong before the era of online courses. The Festival was the most prominent part of the outreach. David Blenkinsop was Director for 20 years. Now, directors change every four years. The Festival must attract people from all over Perth. Lotterywest provide long term funding. During Sean Doran’s time it was attempted to run a Festival in Albany, Broome, Geraldton, Mandurah and Kalgoorlie concurrently with Perth. Albany was the only centre that got a large audience take up.
30:46 Margaret was Pro Vice-Chancellor from 2001 to 2003. In 2004, Alan Robson was appointed Vice Chancellor when Deryck Schreuder left at the end of 2003. Robson appointed Margaret as Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor (2004-2008). All the Deans reported to her. She was also responsible for staffing policies and kept an overview on community relations and external relations. She was also on a range of external committees such as the Australian Research Council. In 2008, she turned 60 and decided not to renew her contact. She retired in order to do more research as well as travel and brush up on language skills.
36:46 Her old PhD has been published as a book. She has published articles. She has visited Europe and practised her French, Italian and German. She agreed to go on too many boards and committees as she was worried she would be bored but this hasn’t been the case. Being a board member of the National Portrait Gallery; the WA Symphony Orchestra and Telethon were very enjoyable. She is still on the Board of the Perth Festival. It is not the role of the Board to interfere in the running of the organisation but to give advice. In the case of the ABC, perhaps the Board has been too hands-off. Today, there is a lot more Board assessment – internal and/or external.
42:53 Margaret was invited onto the Festival Board in 2009 and elected as Chair in 2012. When her current term finishes she will not be renewing. She believes that there needs to be younger Board members on the Festival to keep it relevant and encourage a younger audience. The Fringe Festival is different to the Perth Festival and isn’t seen as a competitor. Fringe has contributed to the vibrancy of the city. Margaret was on the Perth Revitalizing Committee from 2009-2013. It was recommended that the arts would be integrated into the vision. Local Government has not been amalgamated into the scheme as yet. However, the Chamber of Arts & Culture came out of one of the committee’s recommendations.
47:03 Senate appoints the Chair of the Festival Board. Margaret is working on the recent donation by Andrew and Nicola Forrest. She has liaised between her contacts and UWA to assist with fund raising. She occasionally supervises PhDs in her role as Senior Honorary Research Fellow. The School of Music is tracking well. The new course structure has attracted students other than specialist music students. The School has a good relationship with the WA Symphony Orchestra. Generally arts and music schools in universities around Australia are struggling.
49:09 Margaret has had great pleasure from her long involvement with UWA. The challenge for UWA is to survive in the current economic climate. Having worked on both sides of the fence in universities she believes that internal communication is crucial to success.



Seares, Margaret, “Margaret Seares interview, 6 November 2014 and 26 November 2014,” UWA Historical Society: UWA Histories, accessed July 13, 2024,