Anni shares the stories that make the art scene tick 

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Author of ‘How Local Art Made Australia’s National Capital’, Anni Doyle Wawrzyńczak.

WHEN “CityNews” visual arts reviewer, Anni Doyle Wawrzyńczak, was announced as the recipient of the 2017 ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences Publishing Prize, she little knew how different a book could be from a PhD thesis.

For it seemed to Wawrzyńczak, who had graduated with a PhD earlier in the same year, that her doctoral dissertation, titled “Transcending The National Capital Paradigm: The Evolution Of Local Arts In Australia’s National Capital”, was just about ready to go.

She was to find otherwise as she wrestled with the task of transforming academic artspeak into comprehensible English for a broader readership – not just visual arts buffs – keen to discover what makes Canberra‘s art scene tick.

Her prize was the publication of her manuscript by the ANU Press. This month at last it is in print, finally titled “How Local Art Made Australia’s National Capital”, resplendent with a spectacular image of Patricia Piccinini’s “Skywhale” on the cover, 37 pictures inside and crammed with true stories, statistics and larger-than-life arts personalities.

It’s been quite a journey, full of love, heartbreak and a mighty amount of research.

Back in 2008, while reviewing visual arts for “CityNews”, Wawrzyńczak had already enrolled in a doctorate at the ANU on the politics of Aboriginal art in Queensland.

Tragedy struck when in the same year her husband, the noted community arts leader Jan Wawrzyńczak, died from injuries sustained in a motorbike accident.

The politics of Queensland was the last thing she needed to explore, so the PhD went on hold while she recovered, but when art professor Sasha Grishin approached her in 2010 with the idea of writing a history of Canberra Contemporary Artspace, she resumed her candidature.

Soon Wawrzyńczak realised that she couldn’t tell the story of the Artspace without telling the whole story of arts in the ACT.

Anni Doyle Wawrzyńczak.

Central to her narrative in the book is the emergence of self-government in the ACT – that has its own chapter.

Sympathetic political figures emerge from the pages, like arts czar David Williams and former arts ministers Bill Wood and Gary Humphries, acting in bipartisan agreement on matters like the $19 million casino premium to the arts.

This idea of a national capital and a local city in itself is unique, she believes. And, strange in a political city, was the curious lack of political correctness in the arts, attested to by painters Mandy Martin and Bob Boynes, who arrived in the late 70s from politics-ridden Adelaide to find Canberra “a breath of fresh air”.

A good part of the book is to do with how women came to make art. Wawrzyńczak, who was earlier in life a jazz singer and is still a professional stage manager, had never studied feminism, so it came as a shock to her to find out that year after year the Canberra Contemporary Art Space was exhibiting more female than male artists.

Among them were influential figures, like Alison Alder, the printmaker who helped found Megalo print studio and the Bitumen River Group which preceded the Contemporary Art Space who now lectures at the School of Art and Design and rebel eX De Medici, who “relentlessly went her own way”.

Martin Ollman‘s photo of the Skywhale reflects Canberra’s own complexity.

So is it mostly a visual arts book?

“It wasn’t solely about the Art Space, it was about the nature of Canberra itself… a broad story that held within its smallest stories,” she says. 

“While the visual arts stand as a marker of Canberra as a unique art space, not like anywhere else in the world, the same could be said for dance and music.”

The finished book begins with arts practice from 1913-1978 and goes through to 2001, with a short conclusion that brings the narrative into the period of the present arts minister, Gordon Ramsay.

The cover was a problem, as none of the colourful types spelled out “Canberra”. But Martin Ollman‘s photo of the Skywhale had been on the fridge door for the previous two years and she soon realised it had to be on the cover. ANU designer Teresa Prowse did the rest.

“Skywhale’s complexity echoes Canberra’s own… I wish the rest of Australia would understand that parliament has nothing to do with the way we live and work in this community,” Wawrzyńczak says.

“How Local Art Made Australia’s National Capital”, ANU Press, free download or $60 print version, order at press.anu.edu.au/publications

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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