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Is it right here, right now, that we will reinvent the ACT’s culture of arts review and criticism?

26 Oct

Viennese art critic Dr. Gertrude Langer inspecting a local art show, Brisbane, 1940 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Viennese art critic Dr. Gertrude Langer inspecting a local art show, Brisbane, 1940 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

If you write a book, or choreograph a dance, or compose a song, or produce a play or film, and no one reviews it, could it be that you never created it in the first place?

In a way that’s what was discussed at this year’s Childers Group forum.  Focussing on the Role of the Arts critic, on 18 October 2013 at the Gorman House Arts Centre in Canberra we gathered together a wide range of reviewers, critics, and arts leaders/thinkers as well as a lively and engaged audience to spark a conversation.  Who is an arts critic?  What exactly is it that they do?  How important is their work – does it matter at all?  What makes a good review?  Does a reviewer have responsibilities?  Are there more or less reviews going on these days?  And what of the online environment: does this open up opportunities for more review, but, if so, what sort of quality can we expect (or demand)?  What’s the nature of the ACT’s culture of review?  And, perhaps most importantly, where do we go from here?  What are the challenges ahead?  If you weren’t able to squeeze yourself inside the Bogong Theatre on the 18th, then you’ve now got a bit of a sense about what was discussed.

Going back to that opening sentence: if there’s one thing that artists struggle with, truly struggle with, it’s the silence, the silence that can meet a piece of work.  For months and years, sometimes even decades, an artist slowly but surely brings a work to the world.  Most likely there’ll be some kind of celebration – an opening night, a launch, perhaps even just a party on the deck at home.  There’ll be champagne and cheese; there’ll be slaps on the shoulder and the odd kiss on the cheek.  But the next morning?  Well, there’ll be that silence.  Sure, over time, people – good people, kind people – will offer up some kind of response.  ‘Congrats, it looks wonderful.’  ‘I loved it – you’re amazing.’  ‘Not sure.  I kinda wasn’t terribly moved.’  (This last one from the brave but honest and much-needed friend!)  Except this isn’t review or criticism; it is response.  Artists want response, but they also want more, the greedy devils.

A good piece of creation operates on many levels: there’s the conceptual, the meaningful, the emotionally engaging, and then there’s the sheer entertainment side of things.  A good piece of creation sends ripples out into the world.  A good piece of creation – sometimes, rarely – changes things.  A good piece of creation matters; it can matter more than we can ever possible know.  It’s this that a reviewer might explore: they might (should?) situate an artist’s work in a broader context, investigate what the artist (and also theatre, publisher, gallery etc) was trying to achieve, and why this might have any broader resonance, and then come to some kind of conclusion.

Whilst it might help a consumer make a decision, say in the way a restaurant review could, but it is much more.  It is not more opinion.  It is not simply a recommendation.

As it was said at the forum, a good review ‘illuminates’.

What else was said at the forum?  Towards the bottom of this post is the raw data, which is code for ‘the notes we scratched out on a napkin while standing at the back of the crowd’.  If you attended, and see weaknesses in these notes, send us an email and we’ll correct/expand them.  Also, please have a read of two thoughtful responses from two bloggers who were there: Whispering Gums and Only the Sangfroid (‘If art criticism is going to have a place in the world of tomorrow, it’s going to have to re-imagine itself’); there’s also this piece by Kim Anderson that we published on this site, courtesy of Art Monthly.

But there were two key issues/opportunities raised during the discussion on the 18th, and there’s the challenge – for the community could take them up.

The Childers Group's 'Role of the Arts Critic' forum, 18 October 2013, Gorman House Arts Centre

The Childers Group’s ‘Role of the Arts Critic’ forum, 18 October 2013, Gorman House Arts Centre

The first is that while the ACT does indeed have a fairly robust culture of criticism, through the traditional print media, other press outlets, and the blogosphere, there is an opportunity for an arts organisation to deliver – perhaps on an annual basis – a master-class in writing arts review and criticism.  As was raised at the forum, Realtime, which bills itself as ‘Australia’s critical guide to international contemporary arts’, would be more than happy to come to the ACT to deliver these workshops.  All it would take is someone to make a phone-call.  Not only would this initiative build skills in reviewing, but would also increase the number of reviewers, and this would be an excellent outcome indeed – for all.

The second issue/opportunity: doesn’t the ACT region, the core of which, Canberra, has been celebrating its centenary, deserve a high-quality ‘journal’ dedicated to review?  Wouldn’t that be a brilliant legacy of 2013?  Might that be the way that we as a cultural community continue to grow and expand and deepen?  Could that be that’s how we become even better artists?  Could that be how we become an even better region?  The technology is at our finger tips and much of it costs nothing; it is also obvious that we have a community that comprises good critical and creative thinkers, so we’ve got the writers.

We can make this happen.  And maybe, just maybe, it would help inform our audiences, help connect with our community, and also – now this would be the greatest outcome of all – help keep that silence at bay.

Here’s that ‘raw data’.

The nature of criticism:

  • criticism is a serious and public function
  • a critic must have a critical view point, an in-depth contention
  • a review should illuminate
  • a review should also understand a works creative, cultural, social and political context
  • a critic should be disinterested, as in ‘stepped back’ back a little from the work
  • the review should be as artful as the work reviewed
  • the reviewer should know their audience – is it an arts audience or the general populace
  • the criticism is valuable if it’s informed
  • it all comes down to the expertise of the reviewer
  • a reviewer needs ‘street cred’
  • but whose street cred?
  • criticism should engage
  • criticism should be about knowledge
  • criticism is about starting a public discussion
  • a review should further dialogue
  • a review is about advancing the art form
  • sometimes critics have to go straight to the jugular
  • but what’s the point in a critic being destructive?
  • critics should provide insight
  • a critic is a trader of ideas
  • a reviewer must be honest, which can be difficult
  • how can/should we define ‘qualified opinion’ or ‘quality comment’?
  • there’s no such thing as objective criticism
  • some critics are terrified/anxious about taking on the significant artists
  • a critic who themselves can’t take criticism doesn’t make a good critic!

Criticism and its readers:

  • people read reviews to find out what’s happening, to be informed; so a critic is someone who tells you what’s going on
  • the public is looking for criticism; they don’t want to the critic to hold back
  • in Australia, people don’t take online critics seriously (and artists still yearn for print review)

Criticism in the ACT:

  • Canberra is a culturally engaged community, there are many events across parts of society, so there’s limited press space for review
  • the city’s still feeling the loss of Muse Magazine
  • there are three pillars in the arts: artists, audiences, and interaction (i.e. review, criticism, discussion) – the interaction side of things needs to be strengthened in the ACT, though it’s no different to anywhere else
  • issue: Canberra is small, ‘incestuous’ – it’s hard to get artists writing about each other
  • the public discussion about public art in the ACT didn’t bring out a nuanced discussion
How important is it that we have a culture of robust and thoughtful arts criticism and dialogue? (Image source: Wiki Commons)

How important is it that we have a culture of robust and thoughtful arts criticism and dialogue? (Image source: Wiki Commons)

Criticism and the artist:

  • unfavourable criticism that comes from ignorance is hurtful
  • what do artists get out of arts criticism?
  • the worse thing is to be not to be reviewed at all
  • artists, if they choose, can incorporate criticism into the development of their work/practice
  • artists need to be resilient
  • but if an artist has a deliberately thick skin they might not be a good artist
  • artists are often highly critical of each other
  • artists should exercise their own critical faculties

Challenges for the future:

  • building expertise in on-line reviewing i.e. making sure online criticism is informed
  • see how restaurant reviews work – they’re very popular – and use that model for the arts?
  • due to limited payment, not every media outlet can attract the best critic/writer – this is a challenge
  • while newspapers are places where debate happens, they don’t have a moral duty to review, including ACT artists or amateur/school productions – so who takes on that role?
  • what do we do with critical silence?
  • arts organisations have a role to place in building resilience

A significant opportunity:

  • for an organisation or a number of organisations to host workshops and forums to build skills in reviewing and being a reviewer
  • who’s up to take this on?


The panelists at our forum were: Robyn Archer AO (Creative Director, Centenary of Canberra), Kerry-Anne Cousins (visual arts critic), Anni Doyle Wawrzynczak (contemporary arts critic), Roslyn Dundas (CEO, Ausdance National), Marion Halligan AM (author, critic), Cris Kennedy (film critic), Helen Musa (Canberra Critics Circle), Jack Waterford AM (Editor-at-large, Canberra Times), Caroline Stacey (CEO/Artistic Director, The Street Theatre), and Ashley Thomson (Editor, BMA Magazine).  The forum was facilitated by Yolande Norris.  Thanks and gratitude to you all for your time and being involved so enthusiastically.


Thanks also to: Allan Sko at BMA Magazine, Barbie Robinson at ArtSound FM, Helen Musa at City News, Genevieve Jacobs at 666 ABC Canberra, Joseph Falsone and team at the Gorman House Arts Centre, and Karmin Cooper at New Best Friend for graphic design support.


 Many others helped to make this forum happen. You know who you are.

Love letter to a critic, from an artist, by Kim Anderson

24 Aug

CALL_ART_CRITICS_2The Childers Group’s next forum, to be held at noon on Friday 18 October at the Gorman House Arts Centre in Canberra, will focus on the role of the arts critic.  To get the conversation started, Australian artist Kim Anderson provides a personal account of why a vibrant culture of arts criticism is so important.

Where are you, my love? I languish here, yearning for you to cast your discerning eye in my direction. I long to see your face light up with sudden recognition of my genius – which surely must be obvious to you?  I send you emails, invitations by post, media releases to which you need only add your valued name before publishing; I try to make it as easy as possible. And yet despite my attempts to seduce you, you are continuously unaware of my existence. Your lack of response is agony to me. Please, I beg you, come to my show, favour me with your words of appraisal and your shrewd nod of approval.  Even disapproval. Anything. Just look at me. Acknowledge me. For without you I remain unnoticed, unrecognised, merely wilting into the crowd of countless others like me.

Wherefore art thou, my dearest art critic?  What’s happening to you?

You and I, we have a complicated relationship – there’s a bit of love, a fair amount of hate, some amount of disdain, and possibly a lot of confusion involved. I don’t think we’ve ever actually agreed upon your role. Some would argue that your raison d’être is merely a construct of the needs of media industries and academia. Nevertheless, it is fairly evident to me that we need each other – I might timidly raise the possibility that you actually need me more. I can keep making art without you, even if it is unacknowledged and unseen by the vast majority, but you must rely upon the continued creative output of artists such as myself in order to have something to critique. But having said that, and feeling momentarily empowered by the thought, it is my responsibility to create art that is worth writing about.  Maybe we’re both at fault here; perhaps I’m just not coming up with the goods. Either way, the glaringly awful truth is that you, the authoritative voice of mainstream institutional Art Criticism (capitalisation deliberate), are in trouble.

Oh, dear, this is such a difficult letter to write. My heart contracts in making these claims; this is only coming from the best of intentions. Bluntly pointing out your particular failures will only lead to further disharmony between us, so I will lightly sketch a picture of some of the issues we are facing.

First of all, visual art needs a response, but I’m afraid that the current one is rather unsatisfying.  Recent statistics declare that more people are ‘participating’ in the arts than ever and they are turning up to the blockbuster exhibitions in droves.[1] But where are the audiences for the smaller shows, the more cutting-edge contemporary galleries and artist-run spaces? And where are the critics to inform those audiences, to challenge them to view art and artforms outside the mainstream? Unless such events are part of a festival program and promoted in the corresponding media campaigns, they rarely draw comparative numbers let alone column space.

We must work together if this relationship is to survive and thrive. Marcel Duchamp makes the point that the creative act is not performed by the artist alone, that it is the spectator who ‘completes’ the work of art by deciphering it, interpreting its inner qualification, and bringing it into contact with the external world.[2] You, my dear critic, are a special kind of phenomenon: a spectator yourself, presumably with some expertise on the subject of art, you are also an intermediary between the artist, their work, and other spectators with less insight than you.

This is really a huge amount of responsibility, and perhaps it’s where the vital importance of your role lies. I’m sure we can easily agree on the key elements of good quality arts criticism: yes – providing an informed visual analysis and recounting your experience of the work, providing context for the artist and their methods/concepts/techniques etc., and – the essential factor – stating your opinion and how you arrived at that particular value judgement. Ideally you are conducting an intelligent dialogue with your audience, inviting them to respond by viewing the work in question with additional knowledge and understanding.

But – and this is the trouble – the space for your voice is diminishing, in a rather paradoxical way. In mainstream media lines are being cut from reviews, and arts programs are disappearing from our screens and airwaves at an alarming rate, and yet at the same time the space for discussion in the virtual sphere – the Internet – is increasing exponentially.[3] The old canon is fading away, those familiar names that were once published several times a week with feature-length reviews on weekends.  Certainly their word-counts are decreasing until they are becoming little more than brief ‘what’s-on’ listings.[4] Your expert voice is struggling to be heard above the ever-increasing cacophony of bloggers, twitterers, Facebookers, and YouTubers; the new era of Web 2.0 is threatening to drown you out.

Viennese art critic Dr. Gertrude Langer inspecting a local art show, Brisbane, 1940 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Viennese art critic Dr. Gertrude Langer inspecting a local art show, Brisbane, 1940 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This concerns me, for despite everything I am still on your side. In this age of ‘Like’ and ‘Unlike’ (apparently a verb now) everyone can be a critic – where does that leave your refined art of sustained, meaningful analysis? Once considered a specialised skill, ‘critiquing’ is now something that anyone can do at any time. This new online democracy certainly has its advantages in generating animated conversation and interaction amongst arts audiences, however I feel truly uneasy about a number of issues: the lack of quality control, lack of transparency, and the anonymity. Real names are not required, therefore no-one is accountable. There is even a danger that the seriousness and depth of intellect required for decent critical writing is being parodied and belittled by such tools as the “Arty Bollocks Generator” that spew out incomprehensible jargon-filled rubbish easily mistaken by the unsuspecting and uninformed as genuine commentary.

I urge you to fight against this, even if it means using the very medium that threatens to destroy you. In fact, there is room for both the old and the new. Artists, such innovative folk, have been quick to embrace ‘new media’ (such non-descriptive terminology as it is), but there is still a place for more traditional techniques. We are still drawing, painting, and sculpting more than ever alongside and even in combination with the use of the Web and other new technology. In taking yourself too seriously you have been a species slow to adapt, but this is survival of the fittest and there is no reason why you cannot save yourself. It is obvious that the public want to talk about art, to make sense of their experiences. They need your insight to inform their discussions about what constitutes good, interesting or worthwhile art, so it’s up to you to dive into the fray and provide it by whatever means you can.

Why not follow the lead of artists and negotiate a way for a cross-disciplinary approach to your own artform, a fluid and active engagement between the old ways and the new? The ‘traditional’ spaces could be enlivened by allowing contributions from some of the more well-informed online ‘critiquers’ who, I might venture, tend to visit the more obscure shows. This might not only reinvigorate the arts pages but also allow some of the less-established, unpublished writers to develop their skills and thus revive the whole profession. Or you yourself could grasp the opportunity to stop the humiliating belittlement of mainstream arts criticism by charging head-on into the virtual frontline and elevating the discussion above the level of ‘Like’ and ‘J’.[5] A further challenge could be to take yourself off the well-worn paths to the larger institutions, and wander into a space you’ve never been to before (there are hundreds of them, appearing and disappearing all the time), and hopefully your readers will follow suit.  Even – dare I say it – visit the alternative arts spaces in regional areas, and I don’t just mean the public galleries.[6] You – and your audience – might be pleasantly surprised, even excited. Be the one voice that doesn’t just join the chorus of reviews for the ‘big’ shows – a bold move, I know, as it may not necessarily satisfy the higher powers that provide your paycheque, but it may revitalise your profession and bring a newer audience back to the ‘older’ media.

I know you can’t see every single show nor use every method that’s available to deliver your words – you too are only human. I can’t really pretend to rescue you from the crisis you’re facing. After all, I’m just an artist – what would I know?  Maybe that’s the heart of the problem in this relationship: it’s not you, it’s me. I’m the one failing to inspire your attention and interest. If that’s the case I am deeply sorry, I will try harder to excite and provoke you. Maybe your expectations of me are too high, but, please, don’t give up on me yet. Let’s smooth this over. Come to my show, just once. If you write about it and I sell a drawing I promise I’ll take you out for dinner.


This article was one of two Highly Commended articles 2012 Emerging Arts Writer’s Award, which took the theme, in keeping with Art Monthly’s 250th ‘Critical Lining’ issue (June 2012), of the ‘art of art criticism’. Republished here with kind permission from Art Monthly.


A Batchelor of Fine Arts graduate from the University of Ballarat Arts Academy, and a Masters graduate from the University of Dundee, Scotland, Kim Anderson won (for the second time) the Ballarat Arts Foundation’s Eureka Art Award.

[1] As shown in the Australia Council’s well-known study, More than bums on seats: Australian participation in the arts, released in 2010. The blockbusters that the majority of people are ‘participating in’, are generally international in origin and hosted by major public institutions.

[2] Marcel Duchamp, The Creative Act, Lecture at the Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas, April 1957;

[3] This is not unique to Australia nor to the visual arts. The crisis in critical writing in general has prompted a huge amount of discussion and concern in Britain and the US, where even larger populations and presumably larger audiences cannot seem to salvage the situation.

[4] Looking forward to the weekend ‘Arts’ pages, so often I find myself disappointed and frustrated by their brevity and triviality, or even worse, their absence altogether.

[5] Blogger/critics such as Nikita Vanderbyl (Vociferous Whimsy blogsite:, and Michelle Kasprzak ( provide more long-form reviews, while better known Australian voices such as John McDonald and Marcus Westbury have gone in the other direction and complement their print contributions with online content: and

[6] The arts are thriving relatively unnoticed outside the cities too you know – we’re not all painting rural landscapes (nothing against those who do of course!)

The 2013-14 ACT budget and the arts: what we reckon

9 Jun

ACT-Budget-2013-14On Tuesday 4 June 2013 the ACT Government released its budget for 2013-2014.  Here is the Childers Group’s response to the arts component.

In the Childers Group’s budget submission dated 25 February 2013, a number of priority areas were identified, based on feedback provided through our two well-attended public forums and the various formal and informal discussions we’ve had over the last two years.

We consider the following the most critical:

  1. The realistic support of key arts organisations – ensure that through the ACT Arts Fund CPI continues to be provided to Key Arts Organisations on an annual basis.
  2. Appropriate pay for arts workers – ensure that there are no professional arts workers employed by Key Arts Organisations earning less than the average Australian wage of approximately $55,000 per annum
  3. Private-sector philanthropy – there is an urgent need for an incentives-based approach that brings together business and arts in the ACT, not necessarily paying an individual to broker relationships but rather developing a suite of strategic benefits for investment by business and individuals in the arts.  We strongly advocate for the ACT Government to provide seed-funding in the first instance.

What are our views on the ACT Budget in relation to our prority areas?

We applaud the ACT Government on its investment in the arts, particularly in relation to the following (although we note that not all of the funding below is ‘new money’):

New Works:

  • $1.8 million upgrade Canberra Theatre
  • $1.5 million Ainslie Arts Centre
  • $1 million Gorman House Arts Centre over 2 years
  • $300,000 to progress the Kingston visual arts hub

Works in progress:

  • $80,000 Belconnen Arts Centre feasibility and forward design
  • $3.6m allocated to the Fitters’ Workshop


  • $3.6 million Enlighten
  • ongoing funding to the Multicultural Festival and associated Fringe event
  • please note: we advise that the ACT Government, in collaboration with the ACT-region arts sector, should actively seek ways to build connections for ACT artists with this events

PhotographerHowever, we remain concerned that the financial sustainability of the ACT’s key arts organisations does not appear to be addressed.  All key arts organisations deliver a wide variety of professional programs, including those relating to community engagement and participation, as required by the ACT Government and to try to meet community need, but they do so with dwindling resources.

A critical issue is superannuation and long-service leave provisions. The increase in superannuation up to 12% begins in 2013 and increases steadily over the next five years and will have an impact on all funding, for organisations and one-off projects. The position of arts organisations in relation to retaining staff and meeting ACT long-service leave obligations is also a real and increasing cost attached to the $55,000 per annum figure mentioned above. The arts have legal and moral employment obligations like any other business and if there is a commitment to addressing retention of artists and arts staff in the ACT then there are real costs attached to that – arguably more so than other states e.g. there are greater long-service leave obligations in the ACT.

It should be noted that retaining and attracting skilled arts managers is now problematic as the ACT is not keeping abreast with salaries for senior personnel managing key ACT Government arts facilities. The investment in arts facilities and the resulting hubs requires highly skilled expertise to both manage and fully develop those hubs, through astute programming and strong community engagement.

What other areas of concern do we have with the ACT Budget?

Regarding the ‘disbanding of the ACT Cultural Council’ (as it is referred to in the 2013-2014 Budget Papers), the Childers Group believes that the Cultural Council model had served its purpose but no longer is it the model to best be a conduit between the ACT-region arts community and the ACT Government. However, we do seek clarification on what mechanism(s), if any, will replace the Council.  The Loxton Review of the Arts recommended the establishment of a ‘Ministerial Arts Advisory Council’ – is this still being established?  If so, what will its role be, and how will it be funded?  If not, how does the ACT Government see it being kept informed of issues in the sector?

We understand that the ACT Government remains committed to peer-assessment of arts grants applications.  However, we suggest that there is need for clear communication about how the various strands of arts funding will be assessed.  For example, will Key Arts Organisation funding be assessed through a different mechanism than Program and Project funding? Additionally, will peers be paid?  If so, has a budget been allocated for this?

We believe these matters are critical for our sector and request clarification on how the ACT Government intends to proceed, particularly given the upcoming assessment of a number of key arts organisations’ funding arrangements (5-year) in the very near future.

Do we think that the ACT Budget has addressed the issues raised in our submission?

MoneyNot entirely.

The Childers Group fully recognises that these are challenging economic times internationally, nationally and locally, and that governments at all levels must make difficult decisions.  In this context, we again congratulate the ACT Government for maintaining its investment in the arts.  However, on top of the priorities already mentioned in this survey response, we reiterate the following areas where the ACT Government can and should make a contribution:

  • Ongoing funding of the You Are Here festival – this initiative has been one of the Centenary of Canberra’s great successes, meaning that emerging and divergent art-forms flourish in a professionally curated context, whilst enlivening the city centre.
  • Increased support for one-off arts activities the Project Funding category is – regrettably – supporting fewer projects each year due to the increasing cost of delivering arts projects; this is especially true of the performing arts.
  • Improved arts publicity and promotion services – the Childers Group believes that with a more strategic approach cultural tourism could be strengthened in our region. The Childers Group has met with ACT Tourism to encourage a more entrepreneurial approach to Regional Cultural Tourism.  We believe incorporating regional attractions, including the district’s superb wineries and small galleries, will result in greater awareness of the distinctive creativity in our region.
  • A dance hub – a review by AusdanceACT found that there is an urgent need for good dance facilities in the ACT, particularly for professional practice.
  • A world-class artist-in-residence program – the Childers Group strongly advocates for ongoing funding of $200,000 over the next four years in order to fully realise the potential of its artist-in-residence program.
  • Significantly enhanced arts-in-education services the establishment of an Arts-in-Education Officer position would build relationships, partnerships and programs between the Education Directorate and the Community Services Directorate.
  • A whole-of-government service approach to arts development encouraging all directorates and agencies to examine ways in which they may directly or indirectly support the arts would enhance cultural life in Canberra.
  • Building creative partnerships with the regions – in many ways the ACT not only services the arts and cultural needs of its own citizens but also those who live in the neighbouring regions.  The regions have their own strengths and challenges, but greater partnerships between the ACT and the regions would result in deeper and more diverse opportunities.

The Childers Group is open to feedback on the above.  Our email address is

You’re also very welcome to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

A letter to the Australia Council about Writing Australia

10 May

29 April 2013

Libbie Christie
Acting Chief Executive Officer
Australia Council for the Arts
PO Box 788
Strawberry Hills NSW 2012

cc: ACT Minister for the Arts, ACT Cultural Council, artsACT

Dear Ms Christie,


I am writing to express the Childers Group’s concern at what we understand to be the Australia Council for the Arts ending its funding arrangements with Writing Australia and, through this decision, withdrawing its support for national writing infrastructure.  This letter follows previous correspondence from the Group about Writing Australia, sent in January 2012.

The Childers Group is an arts advocacy body for the ACT region, and comprises arts leaders committed to developing and promoting the arts activity from Canberra and its environs.  We situate our advocacy in a national context, as evidenced by our membership of Arts Peak.

As no doubt you and your colleagues are aware, the writing sector is currently undergoing considerable change.  The nation-wide network of writers’ centres is a key component of the national writing infrastructure and is well placed to provide advocacy and increased opportunities for professional writers during these dynamic times – in this regard, the newly formed Writing Australia organisation aimed to be a coordinated and articulate voice.

The Childers Group’s previous advocacy on this matter centred on the need for Writing Australia to maintain its presence in Canberra, with its administration operating from an office provided by the National Library of Australia. The National Library, in the context of the other national cultural institutions, was the appropriate place for the operational base of Writing Australia.  Furthermore, Canberra and its surrounding regional areas have a high level of engagement in professional writing activities, as evidenced by The Invisible Thread (Halstead Press, 2011; editor Irma Gold), a major anthology published as part of the current centenary of Canberra celebrations.

Through artsACT, the ACT Government’s arts funding agency, the ACT Writers Centre, the University of Canberra, the National Library of Australia, and a working group of eminent ACT-based Australian writers including Marion Halligan and Alan Gould, the ACT made a considerable contribution to the early development of the Writing Australia concept.

wa_logoHowever, the Childers Group is now concerned to be informed by the literary sector that Writing Australia has lost its support from the Australia Council.  This concerns the Group for two reasons: (1) that the Australia Council appears to be walking away from the emerging Writing Australia organisation and all that it had achieved to date, particularly in terms of touring established professional writers to areas beyond Sydney and Melbourne; and (2) that the Australia Council’s decision appears to set the various state and territory writers centres adrift into a new period of regionalised support rather than coordinated arts development within a national framework.

It is also of concern that there has been no official announcement or correspondence from the Australia Council about this decision, leaving the message to be circulated through rumour and innuendo.

The Childers Group maintains its view that there is a need for writers to have access to national infrastructure, and that the foundation of this infrastructure is the network of writers centre, which needs reinforcing through an appropriate level of financial and organisational support.  The Group also maintains its view that in order for writers to maximise the opportunities presented by this rapidly changing operating environment that there needs to be a level of coordination and singularity of purpose which had been available through Writing Australia.

Respectfully we ask two key questions:

  • What is the status of the Australia Council’s funding of Writing Australia?
  • How is the Australia Council, through its Literature Board, continuing to support the national coordination of writing infrastructure in Australia?

To correspond with the Childers Group on this matter, please email

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,


David Williams AM


Arts advocacy in the era of the barbecue stopper

2 May

bbqWe all do it: watch the television or listen to the radio or scroll through our Facebook and Twitter feeds waiting for news of a politician who has spoken in an informed, energised and convincing manner about the value of the arts to Australian society.  Of course, it does happen – for example, in April this year the Australian Government launched Creative Australia, the national cultural policy – but it’s fair to say that it happens all too infrequently.

Contemporary political discourse tends to focus on what some have deemed to be the ‘barbecue-stoppers’: immigration, taxation, interest rates, and, most recently, the National Broadband Network and the alternative proposed by the federal opposition.  In this context, discussing challenges faced by artists and proposing solutions does tend to get drowned by what are considered issues that matter to ‘working Australian families’ – as if artists don’t have families and don’t have work to do!

With the federal election looming in September this year, how can all those with an interest in the arts make a difference?

Keep reading over at artsHub.


11 Dec

Established in November 2011, the Childers Group has now had its first birthday and to celebrate the Group’s released a summary of its advocacy actions to-date.  We formed last year to be a positive and well-considered voice for the arts in the ACT region. We believe that we’ve been able to do that, together with all those who’ve attended our two forums and shared their ideas and hopes for the future.  Economic instability can often lead to reduced investment in the arts, and the Childers Group’s mission is to make sure the opportunities and values of the arts are heard by the decision-makers, and action ensues.

The Childers Group is a body made up of nine voluntary members, so we rely on others to help us do what we do.  We take this opportunity to thank all those who’ve helped us with venue-hire, advertising, graphic design, and web-support.  We appreciate it very much.

Next year marks the Centenary of Canberra, and there are also some significant milestones in the region, including Goulburn’s 150th birthday as a city.  The varied events planned for these celebrations provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to showcase the extraordinary arts and cultural activity that is part of our everyday life.

Here’s a list of the Childers Group’s advocacy actions during the 2011/2012 period:

  • Advocated for Writing Australia to continue to have its headquarters in the ACT, including through correspondence to the Australia Council for the arts and the ACT Cultural Council (January 2012)
  • Provided a submission on the 2012/2013 ACT Budget consultation process, advocating for a range of policy ideas and actions (February 2012)
  • Provided a submission on artsACT’s draft Arts Policy Framework (March 2012)
  • Held our first forum, ‘Burning Issues and Radical Ideas’, which was attended by approximately 150 people, including Robyn Archer, Creative Director of the Centenary of Canberra, and two members of the ACT Legislative Assembly (held at the Street Theatre in April 2012)
  • Wrote a 1200-word opinion piece highlighting the importance of celebrating the ACT region’s artistic and cultural achievements, which was published by The Canberra Times (May 2012)
  • Released our ‘Vision for the Kingston Arts Precinct’ document (July 2012)
  • Advocated for the ACT Government’s new Events ACT website to make reference to all art-forms (July 2012)
  • Meetings with the board of the Cultural Facilities Corporation and the Canberra Business Council’s Small Business Taskforce (mid-year)
  • Met with The Canberra Times about the importance of employing professional arts journalists, including retention of the literary editor position (July 2012)
  • Released our ‘Six Key Opportunities for the ACT region’ document (August 2012), which included: the Kingston Arts Precinct, the ANU School of Music, a dance hub, arts-in-education including an ACT-wide poetry slam program, and a world-class artist-in-residence program
  • Twice met with MLAs representing the three main political parties in the ACT in the lead-up to the 2012 ACT Legislative Assembly election (September 2012)
  • Held our second forum, which provided an opportunity for the three main political parties in the ACT to present their respective arts policies, with questions from the various art-form sectors (held at Canberra Museum and Gallery in September 2012)
  • Advocated for the appropriate and sustainable funding of fine-art courses provided through NSW TAFE (November 2012)
  • Distributed a variety of media releases, including on Geoffrey Rush being named Australian of the Year and Caroline Stacey being named ACT Artist of the Year
  • Various media interviews, including print and radio


A letter to the Hon. Barry O’Farrell concerning cuts to NSW TAFE fine-arts courses

20 Nov

The Hon. Barry O’Farrell, MP
NSW Government
GPO Box 5341

Dear the Hon. Barry O’Farrell,


On the behalf of the Childers Group, an independent arts think-tank for the ACT region, I write to express considerable concern at reports that the NSW Government will cease offering fine-arts courses through TAFE.

Whilst the Childers Group recognises that the NSW Government is currently undergoing a process to reduce costs, we respectfully but unreservedly suggest that cutting opportunities for people in NSW to access a fine-arts education through the TAFE system is short-sighted and requires urgent review.

The Childers Group notes that many of those educated through the TAFE system find work in the creative industries.  The creative industries are enablers of creative networks and spaces and of new business models. They contribute 2.8% of gross GDP (more than agriculture, communications, and electricity, gas and water supply). The visual arts, design and architecture makes up over 11% of the creative industries and have been growing in terms of employment opportunity.  To significantly reduce opportunities to enter this workforce could not be seen to advance the needs of those living and working in the NSW, particularly those in regional areas.

Further, whilst some members of the community undergo arts training through the TAFE system to enable themselves to work in the arts sector, many pursue these opportunities simply as a way of building connections and skills – this is particularly relevant for regional areas where unemployment tends to be higher than metropolitan areas and there is a real need to build confidence and social capacity.  There is ample Australian and international research that draws a direct link between creative practice and personal/community wellbeing.  At a time when social cohesion could be said to be a priority, we suggest that there is a need to fund fine-arts courses at a higher level, not at a lower level.

The Childers Group, which was established in 2011 to be a positive and productive voice for the arts in the ACT region, offers expertise in the visual arts, music, dance, film, theatre and performing arts, youth arts, community arts, and literature.  Our members have local/regional as well as national and international expertise and connections.  We live in and advocate for both the ACT and adjacent regional areas of NSW.  The Group is available to act as a sounding board to the NSW Government in terms of the arts, and we would be more than willing to meet with you direct to discuss this matter further.

To arrange a meeting, or to seek more information, please contact the Childers Group’s coordinators Nigel Featherstone or Evol McLeod on 0428 810 442 or 0406 378 889, or via email on

In closing, I strongly urge you to recognise the value of TAFE arts education to NSW and to ensure it continues to be funded at viable levels.

Yours sincerely,


Professor David Williams AM

The Childers Group –
an independent arts forum


November 2012


Forum No. 2: the guts of the discussion…and now it’s up to you to vote

8 Oct

On Wednesday 19 September 2012 at the Canberra Museum and Gallery Theatrette, the Childers Group held its second forum, organised for the lead-up to the ACT Legislative Assembly election (on 20 October).  The speakers were: Joy Burch, ACT Minister for the Arts; Vicki Dunne, ACT Opposition Spokesperson for the Arts; and Caroline Le Couteur, Greens Spokesperson for the Arts (positions as at September 2012).

Each speaker was asked to present their respective political party’s arts policy.  Approximately 70 members of the ACT-region arts community attended; representatives from the various art forms asked questions, and there were general questions from the floor.  Actor and professional communicator Andrea Close facilitated the two-hour discussion.

The arts policies as presented at the forum can be found by clicking on the following links:

Whilst the Childers Group does not necessarily endorse any elements of the policies presented at the forum, we note some common themes that emerged from the discussion, which we suggest are also opportunities:

  • importance of acknowledging the ACT’s high level of participation in the arts
  • there is a direct link between arts and creative expression and emotional wellbeing, and this should be further acknowledged
  • there is also a direct link between creative activity and economic development
  • further developing arts activity in schools – for all arts sectors – is vital to the creative health of the region’s young people
  • artist-in-residence programs provide a real opportunity for local, national, and international artists to work in the ACT
  • the Kingston Arts Precinct is a critical opportunity for the ACT region
  • good clear communication between arts sectors is crucial, as is communication between the arts community and the broader community of the ACT region
  • public liability insurance is a key challenge for arts events, particularly live music
  • also in terms of live music, providing appropriate venues continues to be an issue
  • important to retain the community cultural inclusion officers
  • demand from professional dance practitioners in Canberra  is growing for a purpose-built dance facility that will encourage independent dance practice and further develop the dance profession through provision of professional facilities
  • demand may also be growing for a purpose-built facility for Indigenous arts practice
  • in regards to film, there needs to be investment in studio infrastructure
  • there is a need to build employment opportunities for theatre practitioners
  • need for ongoing consultation and dialogue between key arts organisations and the ACT Government
  • there are ongoing opportunities to build mutually beneficial relationships between ACT arts organisations and the national cultural institutions based in the region.

The above list is not intended to be exhaustive, and we again encourage all those interested in learning more about the discussion at this forum to visit the websites of the three main political parties in the ACT.

The Childers Group also recommends that if you were inspired by an idea presented at the forum, or you have an idea of your own, you make contact with the relevant key arts organisation or advocacy body – email us if you need assistance with who to contact.

For more information about the key areas of Childers Group advocacy, click here for a list of our six key opportunities, and here for our vision for the Kingston Arts Precinct.

The Childers Group’s six key opportunities for the ACT region

18 Aug


There is a process underway to review the brand of Canberra.  A branding exercise needs to offer an insight, hopefully with a unique selling proposition.  With regard to Canberra we suggest the city should be positioned as ‘The Creative Capital’.  Why can we make such a bold claim and why is it important:

  • it is Australia’s only ‘designed’ city;
  • it has the highest per-capita representation of creative-industry business and employees in Australia;
  • through our national cultural institutions Canberra is the holder of the cultural artefacts that articulate the Australian story;
  • we have Australia’s most distinctive (ambitious) collection of public art;
  • the arts attract  visitors – statistics from recent visual arts blockbusters make this clear; and
  • we have great artists in the region – let’s value them and recognise their achievements while promoting a different face for Canberra.


In terms of the Kingston Arts Precinct, what is most important is that all those committed to the arts and cultural life of our region – especially the ACT Government – have a grand vision, a strategic overview, a long-term plan for what’s needed to develop this area as a lively precinct for arts activity and cultural events.  It’s a rare opportunity for the ACT to work with the various development authorities and stakeholders to establish an exciting set of cultural facilities and creative spaces in the vicinity of the iconic Kingston Powerhouse, now the home of the Canberra Glassworks, which is already a major national attraction.  The Childers Group’s vision is a vibrant and accessible arts precinct for the visual arts in all its diversity, including film, new media and creative industries such as architecture, graphic design and digital technologies.  In the Childers Group vision, Kingston is a place for live performance to happen but music would not be the focus.

The full vision statement for the Kingston Arts Precinct is available here.


The School of Music was established in 1965 as an autonomous ‘conservatorium’ model of teaching (one-to-one) and performance. This vision was part of a long-term plan to stimulate, develop and enhance professional musical life in Australia’s emerging national capital city.  Funding was available to employ outstanding, experienced professional musicians for instrumental teaching and performance. Since then, the School’s presence has been the ‘life blood’ and a major contribution to every aspect of Canberra’s musical activity and the cultural life of the city. The reputation of the School of Music and School of Art was highly regarded nationally. Since 1992 when the School of Music (and the School of Art) amalgamated with the ANU, its teaching in schools and participation in concerts, performances, youth music activity and events have been a major part of Canberra’s cultural life and the public face and community profile of the ANU.

Recent developments have seen the School of Music facing funding challenges. A revised ‘university model’-based curriculum, staff cuts and new budget arrangements have been proposed to achieve financial viability and the future of the School. The changed curriculum will inevitably see the loss of key professional instrumental teacher/performers and consequently their loss to Canberra’s musical life.

The ANU, ACT Government and community support for music education in Canberra is essential to ensure professional expertise is available for teaching, participation in the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, music ensembles, choral societies, youth music, festivals and musical events. The ANU and the ACT must work together to ensure the continuation of a professional level of music performance in Canberra and the ACT region.

A radical option might be the establishment of new ‘National Academy of the Arts’ outside the university sector where the conservatorium model does not easily fit.  A National Academy of the Arts based in Canberra eventually accommodated in ‘state of art’ group of facilities could cater for music, visual arts, dance, theatre and film capitalising on the strong base of life and activity already present in these disciplines.  This visionary option is seen as a long-term possibility for Australia’s national capital city but would require dedicated funding commitments from Federal and ACT governments and the private sector, new legislation, governance and administrative arrangements.   The ACT Government could take a lead on facilitating discussions about the future.


Ausdance ACT recently conducted a review of dance facilities in Canberra.  The organisation found that the numbers of dancers, particularly in schools and other cultural groups, is under-reported and there is a need for good facilities in the ACT.  Building on the ‘hub’ model, Canberra is in the need for a high-quality dance hub with state-of-the-art facilities.  The facilities could be shared between a number of organisations, offering space for schools, classes, and our independent dance creators and choreographers as well as performers.  Locations that are currently under-serviced and would be suitable sites include: the inner sections of central Canberra, Gungahlin , Central Belconnen, South Tuggeranong, and Weston Creek.


There has been considerable progress in establishing links between education and the arts in the ACT but more can be done to strengthen this relationship.

The Childers Group encourages the ACT Government to prioritise arts programs in schools. We would like to see an expanded commitment to include additional artists-in-residence and the establishment of a Canberra-wide Poetry Slam-in-Schools program. There is capacity within the ACT – and region – to provide an exciting and culturally rich experience for young people by encouraging participation in a very ‘cool’ art form that’s gaining world-wide recognition as an important emerging art form.  Engagement in contemporary and relevant arts programs designed for young people has been shown to enhance their enjoyment of school, build self-confidence and lead to a stronger sense of community.

There is strong evidence from research undertaken in secondary schools, both within Australia and the United Kingdom, indicating engagement in the arts results in major benefits to young people. These include enhanced knowledge of social and cultural issues, development of creativity and thinking skills, increased communication skills, advances in social development and a heightened self-esteem. These are lifelong skills and worthy of investment.

The Childers Group estimates that $100,000 per year for three years would be sufficient to establish the ACT Poetry Slam-in-Schools program.  The program should be developed with the burgeoning ACT poetry-slam community.

For more information, visit


The ACT region has all the ingredients to offer a world-class artist-in-residency program for all art forms: a planned an accessible city, a seat of modern democracy, a suite of national cultural institutions, over twenty key arts organisations, nationally recognised tertiary education providers, a vibrant urban environment surrounded by natural beauty and pastoral landscapes, a network of country towns, and a diverse and engaged population.  Artist-in-residency programs off time and space to create, but also help to bring in national and international artists to work with local artists and the community.  The ACT Government has developed a policy statement and tool kit, along with a small amount of funding for 2012/2013.  The Childers Group strongly advocates for there to be ongoing funding within the order of $200,000 over the next five financial years in order to fully realise the potential of the program.  This would build on the impetus generated by the Centenary of Canberra celebrations.

The Childers Group’s vision for the Kingston Arts Precinct

31 Jul

At the Canberra Glassworks the public can see art being made and make art themselves.

In terms of the Kingston Arts Precinct, what is most important is that all those committed to the arts and cultural life of our region – especially the ACT Government – have a grand vision, a strategic overview, a long-term plan for what’s needed to develop this area as a lively precinct for arts activity and cultural events.  It is a rare opportunity for the ACT to work with the various development authorities and stakeholders to establish an exciting set of cultural facilities and creative spaces in the vicinity of the iconic Kingston Powerhouse, now the home of the Canberra Glassworks, which is already a major national attraction.

The Childers Group’s vision is a vibrant and accessible arts precinct for the visual arts in all its diversity, including film, new media and creative industries such as architecture, graphic design and digital technologies.  In the Childers Group vision, Kingston is a place for live performance to happen but music would not be the focus.

Possibilities include best-practice adaptive reuse of heritage places for appropriate arts activities, together with high-quality purpose-built venues for use by a range of professional and community groups, for example as exhibition spaces and all kinds of events and performance.  All the key visual arts organisations – Megalo Print Studio, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, PhotoAccess, Craft ACT: Canberra Craft and Design Centre – should be assisted to relocate to Kingston.  Other organisations, such as those relating to film, as well as creative-industry businesses, would also co-locate in the precinct.  Artist studios and artist-in-residency facilities should be a key feature of the developments.  The arts component should be enhanced with appropriate commercial infrastructure, such as cafes, bars, and restaurants.

Maximising public access to arts activity should be a core driving principle at the Kingston Arts Precinct.  All those in the community should have the opportunity to see art being made, and make art themselves.