Why the “coolest little capital” needs greater participation in the arts

August 4, 2015
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Canberra has some of the best seasonal vistas and panoramic landscapes of any city in Australia, as well as a highly educated community, a progressive culture and an enjoyable, accessible lifestyle.

We are fortunate to have some of the best cultural institutions in the country with places like the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, with incredible exhibitions.

However, I think that many Australians are often reluctant to dabble in artistic pursuits.

When I went on a holiday to London many years ago, I was struck by the number of people who had set up an easel to paint what they saw. The act of painting was simply and purely done for joy on a beautiful summer’s day. I can’t understand why it doesn’t happen more here in Canberra.

My best guess is that we are afraid of showing our lack of skill. But “art” isn’t something only professional artists and talented amateurs should produce. Creative expression, no matter what your skill level, is a great way to unwind and relax. Recently we have seen an explosion in the popularity of adult colouring books, another great example of art done for pure enjoyment.

The new ACT government arts policy emphasises the importance of both participation in art as a fun and enriching activity, and providing pathways and support for those who want to do art activities professionally.

A cornerstone of the policy is the ACT artist residencies program which sponsors interstate and international artists to come and live in Canberra. While here resident artists collaborate with local artists and engage with the local community through exhibitions, courses and workshops.

While this has been a worthwhile program with some great results, I am more interested in how we can introduce artistic pursuits to people who have been reluctant to try them.

There’s certainly no shortage of traditional opportunities. The ACT boasts 16 artsACT facilitiescontaining a variety of general-purpose and specialist facilities where people can join in arts workshops and view exhibitions. Whether you are learning how to operate a wood-fired kiln at Strathnairn, taking your kids to the youth drama programs at Gorman Arts Centre, or learning photography at PhotoAccess in Manuka, there is lots to choose from.

Town centre facilities such as the Belconnen Arts Centre and Tuggeranong Arts Centre are a crucial part of building a community arts focus as well. They also try hard to get the broader community involved in the arts. For example, the upcoming Hidden Treasures exhibition at the Belconnen Arts Centre is being billed as a “community exhibition” with artworks being sought from people “at any stage of their creative practice”.

However, nearly all of these workshops and activities are happening within the space of the arts centres. This is a missed opportunity for engaging the broader community. These dedicated arts spaces can be a headquarters for art, but they should also be making it easy for people to take art projects home, and to do art anywhere.

Resources like directories of local artists who teach others, bands seeking members, instructions to learn artforms, and “how to” YouTube videos, could all be made available by the Arts Centres. Staff at the centres should see their role as both educational and inspirational.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr has made no secret of his ambition to see Canberra recognised as the “coolest little capital”. Part of that is that Canberra could become kind of an “artists’ colony”, where you walk around and everyone is engaged in some sort of creative pursuit.