Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2014. 322pp
Reviewed by David Mayocchi, May 1st, 2015
For decades, Kim Williams has held significant management roles in the arts and media sector in Australian. His memoir, Rules of Engagement, provides us with a beautifully written insider account of the personal, policy and corporate struggles that occurred behind the scenes of some of our largest and most important institutions.
Rules of Engagement is not a chronological story, but rather a series of occasionally overlapping thematic essays. You can start in any chapter and will find yourself drawn into Williams’ views on that topic. Chapters explore music, film, leadership, TV, media, books, politics, sport, wine, education and his relationship with his mother.
While his personal life is not strongly revealed, what is apparent is that Williams’ career moved in a series of unexpected directions, with each stage leading somehow towards the next.
Williams’ first musical instrument was the banjo though a particularly sadistic teacher turned him off the instrument. His passion for music was ignited again at school where his music teacher, Richard Gill (yes, Richard Gill) led him to the clarinet. After finishing school, Williams studied music at the University of Sydney learning in his own way with those lecturers that inspired him and avoiding those that didn’t.
While at university, Williams became a concert organiser and through a process of trial and error, began to understand the importance of budgets, programming, publicity and marketing. He left university hoping to become a composer, though found employment in arts administration. In 1973, at the age of 20 he found himself in the role of General Manager of Music Rostrum Australia (working with artistic director with Roger Woodward) and appointed to the inaugural Music Board of the Australia Council.
Williams met Italian composer Luciano Berio and mezzo soprano Cathy Berberian in 1975 on their Australian tour and was invited to join them in Italy. He did, working as their assistant, taking occasional compositional lessons with Berio and falling in love with Berberian. The relationship with Berberian ended badly and a fragile Williams returned to Sydney in 1977 to recover.
Williams found work with Musica Viva and quickly rose to the position of General Manager. He moved to the Australian Film Commission in 1984 as their Chief Executive Officer and later to Southern Star, the ABC (a mistake he says), FOX Studios, FOXTEL and finally 20 months as CEO of NewsCorp Australia. He does not dwell on his abrupt departure from NewsCorp mid 2013. That story is for another time he says.
Despite a busy and successful corporate career, Williams made time to read very widely, watch a lot of film and continue to listen deeply to music. He identifies his diverse influences in each of these fields in detail and says those who understand the history of their culture are better able to shape its future.
Music remains a passion he values music as a universal human experience. He says those that study music learn discipline and develop excellent listening skills, critical success factors in life.
Williams also reveals some of the limitations of politics in Australia, suggesting that our “contemporary descent into the triumph of process over outcomes” means bold initiatives like Utzon’s iconic design for the Sydney Opera House are less likely to be chosen today. He also offers some frank insights into policy making and policy failure at the national level.
Rules of Engagement is a tremendously interesting book that offers a journey into the life and thoughts of one of our most powerful corporate leaders. It provides a personal insight into much that is valuable in our culture by someone who is a passionate about the success of business and the arts in Australia..