In late 2014 I joined the smart, ambitious, funny team at the Wheeler Centre as Head of Programming. Led by Director Michael Williams, this impressive organisation was founded just 5 years ago, yet in that time has created a powerful and determining new cultural experience for Melbourne. On a daily basis, hundreds if not thousands of people engage with public talks, debate and conversation across platforms facilitated and guided by the Wheeler Centre: both IRL and online. With over 200 events per year – largely free – the Wheeler Centre is a respondent, agitator and leader in a publishing and media landscape undergoing massive change.
My interest in working for this place came largely from the highly unique proposition of the Wheeler Centre itself. It’s a gem with many facets: a government and philanthropically-backed start up (the likes of which Melbourne – if not Australia – has not seen for 30+ years). An institution just now finding its more mature self while holding tightly to the sense of adventure and experimentation that defined its prodigious early success. A hub for seven highly respected organisations dedicated to supporting writers, that also presents its own program. A place acutely positioned to properly explore the relationship between the live and digital experience; to embrace the intimacy and immediacy of podcasting; to promote audience participation as completely determining the cultural agenda (within and beyond); to begin seeing a cultural organisation as a publisher or masthead.
Taking a sideways step towards a tangential relationship with the performing arts, the visual arts and festivals, and a much more direct conversation with writing, media and civic discourse – where the reading, distribution, publication and discussion of books are primary, and the politics therein determine much of my day-to-day – has proved immensely stimulating, and challenging too. Despite being actively involved in the Wheeler Centre’s activities since inception, at first I felt like I’d landed in Kansas. Four months in, an equilibrium is starting to hold. Thank god for that!
In almost the same week that I accepted this new role, I was awarded a Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship. There’s no beating around the bush: these Fellowships are extraordinary. Reconciling two life-changing opportunities into one moment in time – immediately after the protracted existential crisis of leaving dear Next Wave – required a lot of tea, a lot of Parks and Recreation, a lot of advice from people wiser than me, some wonderful trips to the centre and far north of Australia, and the unwavering good sense and clear-sighted love of my partner John.
2015 and the Year of the Goat (much more compatible with my Pig self than last year’s Horse) thus represent a chance to figure out next moves and explore some bloody big questions. What is a curatorial practice in the context described above? What shape do experimentation and risk take here? What does it mean to define a new artform? How can this new space be shaped by the powerful Indigenous voices that proved so fundamental to the success of my previous work?
An artist undertaking a Fellowship can describe its impact fairly clearly: perhaps they build a new studio, commit to a residency, select to work on their most cherished ideas rather than the ones that get funded. For me – a total slashie, a curator-producer-festival director-artistic director-programmer-whatsit – the impact will unfold over time. Very likely its impact will be felt over 5, 10, 20 years, rather than the 2 in which the Sidney Myer Fund are generously investing their resources. As with all of my creative work, it will be driven by questions. Difficult ones, that make me feel lucky to be surrounded by inquiring minds and collaborators as it is through our conversations that these questions get resolved and we move onto other more nuanced territory. Having traveled to and collaborated with some of the most interesting arts festivals in the world over the past few years, I know that’s not what I need to do to now. I love them, but I am ready to explore how they intersect with other territory: radio, tech conferences, democratic projects, books, journalism, participation-driven programming, social change.
I do not know where I’m going.
But as it takes shape, I’ll keep you posted.
My first event with the Wheeler Centre: In Five, a Gala Debate on 2020. Featuring Annabel Crabb, Greg Phillips, Eva Cox, Marita Cheng, Simon Overland and George Megalogenis debating their optimistic and pessimistic views of the future.