Rage greets the prospect of new arts festival

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THE new, election-year arts festival “Elsewhere” has been paused by ArtsACT in the face of the coronavirus disruptions. 

Yolande Norris… “creative producer of Australia’s newest biennale.” Photo: John Harris

Planned for July, it was prefigured in an ACT Budget where the government had allocated $225,000 to produce it.

Festival or no festival, principles about setting up a new event are under question.

For his part, Arts Minister Gordon Ramsay declared his excitement about the event, which would support local artists and celebrate the history and story of Canberra’s artistic talent.

In a media release on March 11, ArtsACT said that “Elsewhere” would “highlight the world-class work of Canberra’s creatives who have forged careers ‘Elsewhere’ after their humble beginnings in the ACT.”

Humble beginnings? Members of the Canberra arts community were asking, with a united touch of rage.

In a city good enough for national and international artists such as glassmaker Klaus Moje, sculptor Neil Roberts, poet Geoff Page, author Marion Halligan, opera singer Tobias Cole and guitarist Tim Kain to make their homes, you’d think this kind of cultural cringe unnecessary.

It is undeniable that Canberra has seen its brightest and best, such as the late Ross Stretton, who became head of the Royal Ballet, shine on the world stage.

But underlying the announcement by ArtsACT seemed to be an idea that arts and culture in Canberra began with Robyn Archer’s 2013 Canberra Century arts program, confirmed in an online video suggesting that the designated “creative producer” of the festival, Yolande Norris, had been mentored by Archer.

Norris, who now works as an officer with ArtsACT, has plenty of experience. An ANU School of Art and Design art graduate with 15 years at the coalface with Newcastle’s “This Is Not Art”, “You Are Here” in Canberra, cross-art projects with Big hART and producing “Girls Rock! Canberra”, she is also a respected arts writer.

But people with longer memories know that Canberra has always nurtured artists in many different fields, sustained two tertiary schools of art and music, and been a hotbed of experiment, as with Splinters Theatre of Spectacle and the punk artists of the 1990s, and that much of this activity was spearheaded by passionate individuals, not government entities.

So what exactly will the festival eventually be? Would we be seeing a deluge of Canberra-raised performance stars, such as electronic rockers Peking Duk, or plays by Tommy Murphy, staged by leading directors like Iain Sinclair and Tom Healey?

Well probably not. A recent mystifying interview at artshub.com.au by George Dunford titled, “Meet Yolande Norris, creative producer of Australia’s newest biennale,” while vague on detail, used a word ArtsACT had not —”biennale”, replete with connotations of a major visual art event.

That provocative word alone had members of key funded visual arts organisations in a collective rage as to why they had not been consulted.

Over two weeks in July, ArtsACT’s announcement said, “Elsewhere” would present “a select and succinct program of new, major works and performances by nationally and internationally acclaimed artists who began or built their careers in Canberra”.

Norris says, “‘Elsewhere’ will enable outstanding and established artists to ‘bring their works Home’ to Canberra. The project will offer a rich narrative around the contribution Canberra has made to the national arts ecology.”

Arts ecology? If “ecology” is defined as the study of the relationships between living organisms, the absence of serious consultation in this case suggests a failing system.



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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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