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Arts czarina Elvin steps back from the spotlight

Harriet Elvin… “I love working with a director and actor, seeing how they interpret your words, inevitably they will improve the script.”

ARTS czarina, classicist, business leader, chorister, philanthropist and playwright, Harriet Elvin is a woman of many parts. 

In surprise news recently, the long-time and only CEO of the Cultural Facilities Corporation announced that she would be moving on.

The corporation is responsible for the Canberra Theatre Centre, Canberra Museum and Gallery, the Nolan Collection, Lanyon Homestead, Calthorpe’s House and Mugga-Mugga Cottage and Elvin has been its CEO since its creation in 1997. 

A noted figure in Canberra’s arts scene, her awards have included an AM, a Centenary Medal, the 2001 Telstra ACT Businesswoman of the Year and 2001 Shell ACT Community and government awards.

As she steps down from the corporation, Elvin says that in her view it draws together disparate arts and provides a structure that allows them to flourish, which could be difficult if each had to run its own board.

“It’s greater than the sum of its parts,” she says.

“We have created program linkages, for instance between Calthorpe’s House and the museum and children’s theatre initiatives which have been linked to CMAG.”

“The job is unique in Australia, that’s what makes it so attractive,” she says.

“Some people have been surprised that I’m not waiting until a bit down the track when I would have oversight of the new Canberra Theatre,” she says, but at least, she’d had oversight of The Playhouse and Canberra Museum and Gallery, the Link and Library Project, conservation programs at the historic sites and other capital programs at the theatre centre.

As for the CFC’s hopes for a new lyric theatre capable of holding more financially viable shows than at present, under her watch that is no longer a pipedream but quite a defined priority for the ACT government.

“It’s been formally adopted as a major project – ahead of a stadium,” Elvin notes with some jubilation.

“And it’s good that we recruited someone [the new director of the Canberra Theatre Alex Budd] who can source and bring in large-scale acts to the ACT,” she says.

Happily, she reports, they won’t be replacing the “old” 1965 theatre as some people imagine.

“It is, after all, heritage-listed… it will have a future and part of its future will be its ‘town hall’ capacity… it’s very flexible and could be a multi-use venue for events like rock concerts.”

Unusually for a Canberra administrator, Elvin is steeped in the classics, with an honour’s degree in classics/law from Cambridge and postgraduate qualifications in international law, business administration and art history from the ANU.

An early fascination with the derivation of words such as “hippopotamus” (Greek for “river horse”) led her in the direction of classics which, she says: “Gave me a great love of language and literature – but of course law always comes in useful as a good foundational subject”.

HARRIET ELVIN… “We have created program linkages, for instance between Calthorpe’s House and the museum and children’s theatre initiatives which have been linked to CMAG.”

Elvin first came to Canberra from the UK in 1983 and before joining the CFC, worked in the ACT Electricity Authority, the ACT Chief Minister’s Department, the Office of the Environment and the ACT Bureau of Arts and Heritage where she hit her straps and decided, “I knew I wanted to stay in the arts”.

She also won the ACT government’s inaugural MBA scholarship, which included a four-month placement at the Australian Consulate-General in Hong Kong during the time of handover – “fascinating,” she says.

Something of a Renaissance woman, she has sung in SCUNA, Canberra Choral society and Saint Cecilia’s choir, of which she says, “the first time we sang in harmony, I was in tears”.

Since 2012 Elvin has also been a playwright, originally in the “Short + Sweet” 10-minute play festival, where she has presented gently satirical plays directed by former CFC board member and friend Evol McLeod and “CityNews” arts writer Bill Stephens.

During covid she joined Bart Meehan and Stephens in airing her play “Shopping For Underwear”, featuring Canberra actor Liz St Clair Long, on Artsound FM and says: “Actors love radio, they don’t have to memorise the words.”

Notable among the plays was “Four Letter Words”, entirely comprised of,  well, four-letter words and now, egged on by arts identity Michael White, she’s having a go at writing the sequel, “Three Letter Words”.

“I love working with a director and actor, seeing how they interpret your words, inevitably they will improve the script,” she says, but there’s a downside…“it makes me impatient with lengthy plays, I say to myself, ‘I could edit this down’.”

As she looks back on her time at the CFC, favourite moments include a joint ribbon-cutting occasion with the Mayor of Nara in Canberra’s sister city that involved white gloves, scissors, velvet cushions and her own accidental choice of a green silk suit in exactly the Nara colours.

Another fashion moment involved Edwardian costumes to mark the Centenary of Federation in 2001 where Canberra Philharmonic’s black-and-white “My Fair Lady” hats came to the rescue.

On her retirement, Elvin plans to establish a philanthropic fund to support professional development opportunities in cultural leadership and says her model is “CityNews” craft writer and arts donor, Meredith Hinchliffe.

“I’m not in the same league as Meredith, but she is my inspiration…she is the longest-standing donor to CMAG,” she says. She has already supported work by glass artist Ruth Oliphant which combines art and social history.

Another plan is to study for a master of philosophy, looking at leadership of cultural organisations and how different they are from corporate models, where she perceives a turning of the tide with more social awareness. If the topic proves fruitful, she might move on to a doctorate.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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