Centenary of Canberra Creative Director Robyn Archer AO. Photo by Heide Smith
The following is drawn from the Canberra Day Oration delivered by Robyn Archer AO on 12 March 2011 and outlines her vision for the Centenary of Canberra.
You can read the full speech here.
“ … I have used my Centenary of Canberra mantra as the title of this oration—'Seed now, blossom in 2013 and flower for another hundred years’. But the first point I need to make is that the idea of seeding ought not to imply that nothing went before it. We can buy seeds, we can grow, we can propagate—but where did the seed come from? And, unless we’re talking genetic modification, which I’m not, the answer surely involves a history of millions of years.
So if I talk about ‘seeding’ now, there has to be an implicit understanding that an epic history lies behind it. And it’s obvious that the metaphor is flawed anyway. If I use this phrase with regard to the way we are approaching the Centenary of Canberra, it’s obvious that whatever my colleagues might have seeded five years ago, or the plant matter we seeded 18 months ago when I started in the role, this would probably not blossom just three or four years later … if I plant a seed, could it actually have blossom three years later?
I know that some species can flower for a hundred years.
We may well be seeding things for the Centenary of Canberra, but there’s a lot of history that precedes us.
I’m not really interested in the flash in the pan event. I’m not a party girl. I stopped going to parties around 1983. Yes I’m from Adelaide, but that’s not the reason. I’m not your classic wowser. It was the time when I was performing my one-woman show, A Star is Torn, at Wyndhams in the West End of London. This show was just me and two pianos. I sang and spoke for two hours with one small interval. It was a marathon … During a year of such discipline, I fell out of the habit of partying. Still, I had already had a lifetime of excellent parties by then, so I feel no loss, and it’s given me the benefit of aspiring to more than one-night wonder projects.
I have, since then, taken the long view of almost everything except my own life … it has encouraged me to accept only those offers which allow for a vision and the long, rather than the short, sight of any proposition. I think all of us in the mature phase of our careers; share a sense of needing whatever we do to be useful and to have a life beyond our own term. So my approach to how we celebrate the Centenary of Canberra has been with a long vision from the start.
These city-wide opportunities come along rarely and you have to use them wisely and carefully. In this instance I think you have a chance to kickstart the national capital for another hundred years. And indeed the kick has already started.
That said, there will of course be a huge celebration around 11 March (the public holiday), on the eve of the actual birthday … But I think even that offer of celebration to Canberrans and visitors alike, will be coloured with the hues of history and memory as well as the rich palette of the future.
The courage and high-mindedness of those who started pre-Federation, and then maintained, the debates which eventually led to searches, surveys, a bold international competition and an unlikely winner, will all be acknowledged during our celebrations.
Somewhere along the line, Australians have diminished their overt respect for our system of government. Strange that our media, along with the rest of the world, so praise the new idealistic quests for democracy in places like Egypt or Libya, yet remain so doggedly despairing of our own brand. Perhaps it just needs re-freshing. Perhaps the new school curriculum units around civics and citizenship will do that .
Whether it be the people themselves, or just the way the media represents/misrepresents public attitudes, the sense we have is that the nation has grown cynical about government and Canberra, over many years now, as the symbol of government, indeed synonymous in the media with government, has had to absorb a great deal of that cynicism.
I believe that Canberra’s Centenary gives us the one in a million chance to turn things around again. It’s like George Clooney in The Perfect Storm—there’s just one moment, if you work hard at the wheel, when you can whip the boat around and run with the tide. Well, alas, his boat went down, but ours won’t.
The Centenary of Canberra offers a similar opportunity—to bring back that sense of pride in our capital. This is the place where our ideals should be enshrined, every bit as protected and valued as the national treasures and cultural assets we hold here on behalf of the nation.
For if it’s true that our government and our democracy feel less valued and less respected at this moment, then what better way to reclaim that higher ground, than to do so through the city which should symbolise the very best of what we are.
What do we do to recreate that feeling more often? How do we manage to re-capture the hearts of a nation in the context of its capital? What do we do to stop the media constantly referring to federal government decisions as ‘Canberra said today …’ making the name of this city synonymous with all the unpopular decisions but rarely with those which find favour?
The paradoxical thing is that Canberra always has had and still has operating here the best talent, and “the most up-to date ideas which the mind of man is capable of evolving”. In design, science, education, international relations, and indeed in the nurturing of a great democracy, the very best have been here and worked here.
One of the most important things we can do, on the occasion of the centenary, is to remind the people of our nation that this is a twenty-first century city, most worthy to be the repository of their national treasures and host to their very safe successful system of government. The symbolism of the capital and of their democracy is something to cherish and to feel proud of.
The Centenary of Canberra can be a platform on which we reinstate respect not only for the capital, but for all that it symbolises. If celebrating Canberra still feels risky to some, then this is the best opportunity we will have to overcome that risk—to use the sense of risk brilliantly to ensure that one need not be apologetic about our capital. This place is not going to go away and we would do well to respect that. In fact, I have seen how people from all over the country, from cities to the remotest parts of Australia, have a genuine sense of pilgrimage and occasion when they are asked to bring their work and their ideas to the capital. People do feel that their work and their passion have meaning when they bring it here—whether they raise their voices in a spirit of collaboration or a spirit of anger. Canberra does have that significance.
The program for the Centenary is based on the very highest ideals and couched in the very finest streams of creativity we can find, nurture and afford. The celebration becomes a year-long showcase of the best of our thinking and achievement. Yes there will be fun, and joy and awe, but in the service of ideals and values that are pivotal to the nation’s future.
Clearly I haven't got all the answers. But having already planted the odd seed we’re taking a multi-patch approach. And apart from the lovely big bash on 11 March 2013, we are trying to invest in things which have the future in mind.
We intend to create, and create here. We intend to demonstrate the wealth of local and national talent as befits the national capital. And we are trying to do things which will go on from strength to strength in the future.
My benchmark of whether we succeeded in making the very best of this opportunity will be to return in 2015 and see that the landscape has changed for the better: that the things we planted grew strong, that those who were unconvinced in 2011 no longer viewed its capital with cynicism: that in fact after 2013, people never looked at Canberra in the same way again.
This celebration of our (and I speak not only on behalf of you in the ACT, but as a South Australian) our Centenary is about re-imagining what Canberra is and can be. It is about realising its potential both as a city in its own right, and as a potent symbol of nationhood. And as much as we respect and acknowledge the noble history of its origins which we celebrate, it is every bit as much about looking to the next one hundred years. This requires an emphasis on innovation and sustainability.
Our job is to use the Centenary of Canberra to encourage a new, refreshed and realistic look at Australia’s national capital and to re-imagine its next hundred years as an exemplary 21st century city and seat of government, just as the Griffins and so many others had imagined it for the 20th century.
Artists will play their role of course, but so will scientists, sports men and women, great thinkers, newly arrived refugees, architects, planners, environmentalists, children, gardeners, chefs and designers. We are trying to reveal Canberra as it really is, not as the old outworn myth of a place where nothing happens except government (as if that would not be enough). Beyond the seminal quests for a sense of national ownership and re-invoking the idealism which the national capital symbolises, we aim to profile not just the magnificence of our national cultural institutions, all of which are working so hard to provide special projects and special 2013 emphasis for that year, but also to acknowledge the wealth of cultural enterprise at the local and regional levels.
There is already a vast amount of activity in Canberra. Anyone who ever dares to say ‘nothing happens here’ deserves to be forced to do what I do in Canberra. I can be out every night in this city: and for every event I choose to attend, from concerts at Belconnen Arts Centre to lectures at any of our three tertiary institutions or at embassies, to exhibitions at the Glassworks or CMAG and sporting events, there are at least 2 or 3 which I miss.
So, we will take that level of activity as read through 2013, and we are working towards ensuring a proper what’s-on guide, at very least online, which will both keep the public informed of the massive range of choices they have, but also hopefully do something to resolve the crazy cultural traffic jams that still occur.
The blossom during 2013 should be splendid and we await it just as my Japanese friends anticipate the season in Kyoto—ready to grab the rug and spread it beneath the pink and white profusion, breathe in the scented air, and rejoice in life. Especially today we understand just how precious these moments are, actually, but also retained in memory.
But by far the most important thing in all this will be the sense that the spadework and shoulder we put into this one year will reap rewards throughout the century and that the capital and the nation will continue to flower.
Robyn Archer AO
March 2011, Canberra and Adelaide
Download: Robyn Archer Biography (DOC - 26KB)