Celebrating arts anniversaries during closure

Anniversaries are moments for great celebration – especially when an arts company survives into the double digits – but the pandemic has forced doors closed, and new ways of marking the milestones.

No one would deny, the arts profession is tough. So when major milestones roll around, the cause for celebration is all the more meaningful.

Such milestones are often celebrated with a gala performance, or a specially curated exhibition. However, with many arts organisations in lockdown for the better part of 2020, that opportunity to celebrate has been denied them – in a traditional sense.

It was the words of David Walsh, Founder of Hobart’s Mona, who best captured the feeling for all. ‘Our tenth anniversary – that’s a big thing to us decimal creatures, and it’s been made a bigger thing due to COVID-19. We’ve been forced to pause – we are thinking about the last ten years and the next ten years.’

Walsh continued: ‘The world won’t be the same, so Mona shouldn’t be the same. How it changes depends on how the world changes. Ten years ago, we were all dressed up with no place to go. Now we are naked, wondering what to wear, so it’s a little embarrassing that everybody is watching. But for Mona, any future fits.’

ArtsHub spoke with several arts organisations on how they quickly pivoted to mark these chapters, while denied the physical party.

Looking back, looking forward

1. Podcast series & digital archive

2020 marks the 50th birthday of Griffin Theatre’s home, The Stables. But facing dark theatres due to COVID restrictions, they had to reinvent how they would celebrate. Their answer was a special monthly podcast series, #50YearsOfTheStables.

Hosted by Angela Catterns, the series delved into the many formative works performed on the Stables stage, as well as accounts from some of the country’s most celebrated artists including Tommy Murphy, Anna Volska and Ros Horin.

Griffith also chose to revisit seminal works from the Stables’ 50-year canon with a series of rehearsed play readings across 2020, to celebrate important Australian works, many of which made their debut on the Stables stage.

Griffin teamed up with Austage to additionally build an online archival record of every show ever performed at the Stables. This will be your encyclopaedic one-stop-shop for information on playwrights, productions, performers and creatives.

Former Artistic Director Lee Lewis captured that spirit of moment and legacy. ’50 years ago, a group of young Australian theatremakers carved out a space for the Australian voice to grow. And 50 years ago, you started to rely on this space as a source of sounds and words and plays and performances that spoke to you in ways that were distinctively Australian.’

In some ways, this kind of celebration and access to legacy is more valuable (and lasts longer) than the big birthday bash.

2. Instagram Project & video production

When Manly Art Gallery & Museum (NSW) realised that it would still be in lockdown for its long planned exhibition 90 Years: Treasure from the Vault, it moved quick to reimagine the exhibition and to create a sense of celebration in other ways. 

One answer was 90 years: 90 stories – an Instagram project over 90 days that highlighted works from the collection show.

‘While it is disappointing that 90 years: Treasures from the Vault was postponed, we wanted to ensure this exhibition was still enjoyed, just in in a slightly different way,’ said MAG&M Curator Katherine Roberts. ‘Throwing a spotlight on the collection has been a key focus of our celebrations and we needed to quickly come up with new ways to do this while keeping the gallery and audience dialogue alive.’

Viewed as an “exhibition” in Instagram story highlights, it became part of a package of digitally engaged celebrations including a short film which takes a behind scenes peep in the gallery’s collection store on their YouTube channel. Since 2013, MAG&M has produced 14 short documentary films about artists it has worked with and projects developed, and has been using the lockdown and anniversary as a key moment to grow that archive through 2020.

The gallery also used the closure to do a small facelift of the gallery’s façade ready for reopening on 2 June. Two weeks later (14 June), and 90 years to the day, the MAG&M Society unveiled a painting by Archibald winner, Wendy Sharpe titled Blue Harbour, to mark the anniversary, as well as the gift of a ceramic work by another former Northern Beaches alumni, Juz Kitson.

3. Publication and virtual dinner parties in a pandemic

Monash Gallery of Art (MGA) turned thirty in June, right in the middle of COVID. MGA is the only public collection solely dedicated to Australian photography. It seemed fitting then, this gallery celebrated with a comprehensive publication – View Finding: Monash Gallery of Art 1990 – 2020.

MGA Director Anouska Phizacklea told ArtsHub: ‘Celebration of a significant milestone is a way we can connect with each other in a time of so much upheaval and tackling the unknown. The pandemic has certainly made concrete for me the importance of having places to go where we can connect to each other – arts and culture plays an important role is our lives.’

Perhaps now, more than ever before, it’s important to celebrate moments and milestones that remind us of a shared past, present and future.

The publication was always going to happen, but COVID precipitated its online launch, and to rethink how “celebration” could happen.

As part of MGA’s anniversary progam, it commissioned four leading Australian artists to explore the City of Monash by responding to key issues facing the community. Portrait of Monash: the ties that bind opened in February 2020, just before lockdown.

‘The exhibition kicked off the year of celebrations we had planned, which included a Darkroom Dinner celebration event that was to be held in the gallery in June when we were to launch both our 30 year anniversary publication as well as limited edition prints with works drawn from the collection, said Phizacklea.

‘What we have done since the COVID-19 restrictions put in place to temporarily close the gallery or reduce numbers, is to create digital engagement opportunities – so we redeveloped the exhibition microsite and continued to add new content including creating a virtual tour of the gallery,’ she continued.

‘We also have been hosting online engagement events, including a virtual dinner party where guests were treated to a dinner from BlakesFeast delivered to their door including a bottle of wine, with a jazz musician playing while they ate, we got a tour of some of the guests personal collection as well as an in-conversation with artists Hoda Afshar, David Rosetzky and Cherine Fahd with a session called ‘you cant ask that’ where guests got to pose questions they have never been able to ask before – so super fun and super engaging – it’s a moment to rethink how we engage innovatively.’

Phizacklea concluded:  ‘It is strange, but we see we are able to reach a different audience, ones that might not be located in Melbourne or who might not be able to attend events due to family or work commitments, I think that like everyone, we are all adjusting to working online and engaging and connecting with each other virtually.

The engagement activities and resources we are creating speaks to a digital transformation journey MGA started two years ago, including a partnership with RMIT University that has seen the creation and launch of a new Australian Photography Channel.

ANAM Cellist Eliza Sdraulig, 2018 AFCM. Image supplied.

4. Mini festival to mark a milestone

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music (AFCM) was to celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. The Townsville-based event attracts musicians and fans from all over the world. It was also to be the last festival under the artistic direction of Kathryn Stott.

COVID-19, however, put an end to that. But the festival didn’t want to let their anniversary pass without any celebration, so they created Festival Prelude, a three-day online event from 7-9 August.

Stott told ArtsHub: ‘I think all the AFCM team felt that to have a complete void between April 2019 and July 2020 was not much fun for our wonderful patrons and Festival Prelude was conceived as a way of continuing our engagement with music loving people throughout Australia.’

She said that one of the challenges of a festival during a pandemic was scale, and getting the digital pivot right.

‘I think it’s fair to say that Festival Prelude is a very far cry from the huge 10-day event which makes AFCM the largest chamber festival in Australia. With up to 30 concerts and events and 46 artists, the festival itself is a very full musical experience. So this is not meant to redesign or replicate, as that would simply be impossible during these challenging times,’ Stott explained.

‘AFCM thrives on interaction with musicians working together in different combinations, many collaborating for the very first time. We also thrive as a festival because of the interaction between patrons, and the combined experience of these two elements, I feel, is what makes any festival tick. This online festival is a way to bridge the gap and provide some live music-making (something many of us are badly missing!) interspersed with more lighthearted moments.’

Festival Prelude is headlined by three feature concerts live-streamed to audiences, in partnership with the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. The feature concerts are supported by a program of digital content and specially-recorded performances where Stott herself plays with some of the biggest names in chamber music including violinist Jack Liebeck (incoming AFCM Artistic Director) and baritone Roderick Williams. 

Each day is hosted by Kathryn Stott with interviews, flashbacks, a daily Chamber Challenge, and a celebration of Townsville and North Queensland.

5. Sector takes a digital bow, and celebrates by future proofing

Australian Design Centre (ADC), NSW’s peak organisation for craft and design, is 55 this year, while artisan (the peak body for craft and design in Queensland), Craft Victoria and Craft ACT are all celebrating their 50th anniversaries in 2020.

It is a major milestone for not only these individual organisations, but the maturity of the sector.

Each is celebrating in a different way. For Craft ACT, they hope to raise $50,000 for their 50th anniversary, to secure their next 50 years. It is less pandemic focused, and more alert to a shifting economic landscape in the arts and culture sector, using legacy to bolster the future.

‘Craft ACT was thrilled to announce that we received a matched funding grant from Creative Partnerships Australia’s Plus 1 program,’ said Director Rachel Coghlan in a statement. ‘Until December 2020, every dollar you donate to our Fifty@50 campaign will be doubled to ensure more artists, more audiences and more venues can be part of the Craft ACT story for many more years.’

Director of artisan, Claire Sourgnes, said: ‘We turned 50 right in the middle of a government decreed closure. Our anniversary was intended to be a highly visible and social celebration, with programming across all sections of the organisation. We did acknowledge it, but have had to shift programming for obvious reasons.’

Celebrating artisan’s 50th anniversary during a COVID-19 shut down will now be part of our unique story.

– Claire Sourgnes

While it is easy to take the default “let’s just postpone” path, Sourgnes said, ‘It is so important to celebrate our community’s history, achievements and collective memories. I think doing this also reminds us of our resilience – something that we need a lot of in these current times. Craft and design play a pivotal role in people’s lives which we have seen very recently with people around the world connecting with making whilst isolated.’

The organisation had planned the exhibition, The Hand-made Tale: 50 years of Qld craft & design, which explores the artistic and theoretical trends running parallel to Queensland’s and Australia’s social development.

‘Obviously we have had to reschedule and we are looking to celebrate our half century in December and into 2021,’ said Sourgnes, pointing to an anniversary publication, further exhibitions and an Instagram campaign interviewing 50 people who have played a role in artisan’s history.

It’s a view of spotlighting legacy that’s shared by Lisa Cahill, Director, ADC in Sydney: ‘55 is most definitely a milestone for ADC. We are planning to do a digital series looking back at the past 55 years and forward to the next five years as we approach our 60th year – which will be a big one!’ Cahill continued: ‘The current situation with Covid-19 is difficult for everyone … Covid-19 means we have to do what we do best and find creative ways to celebrate.’

This month ADC is also celebrating 20 years of design’s longest running showcase of new and emerging lighting, furniture and object design, WORKSHOPPED20 (opens 6 August). Another part of their anniversary celebrations – less reliant on a physical space – is an online chronological timeline of ADC’s 50 year history, and a collection of stories that explore some of the histories of ADC with spotlights on collaborations and touring, design criticality, global, Indigenous, innovation and technology, and emerging and established artisans.

And, it is no coincidence that Craft Victoria will launch Craft Contemporary – a new festival exploring how craft is evolving in the 21st century – in its anniversary year.

While envisaged as an annual festival it will showcase new approaches, ideas and experimentation by today’s makers across objects, jewellery, furniture, fashion and contemporary art. through exhibitions and events across Victoria and online (1-31 October).

Craft Victoria’s Executive Director Bryony Nainby told ArtsHub: ‘We had planned to make 2020 a year-long celebration of our 50th anniversary … While we’ve had to cancel the party, some of our 50th events, such as our exhibition The Meaning of Things, have been presented online very successfully.’

She continued: ‘For the rest of the year we’ll be presenting a series of online projects which look at how craft practice has evolved over the past 50 years to its position now as the new zeitgeist of contemporary art.

‘For 50 years Craft Victoria has supported the growth of thousands of makers, nurtured hundreds of small creative businesses and challenged the boundaries of craft practice … Despite the pandemic, it’s important to reflect on this history and celebrate the journey while continuing to look toward the future,’ Nainby concluded.

A nod to those celebrating milestones in 2020

Celebrating over 100 years

  • Queensland Art Gallery (QAGOMA) – 125
  • Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) – 125

Celebrating over 50 years

  • Manly Art Gallery & Museum – 90
  • Bathurst Regional Art Gallery BRAG (NSW) – 65
  • Adelaide Festival – 60
  • Adelaide Fringe – 60
  • Australian Design Centre (NSW) – 55
  • Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery (VIC) – 50
  • The Stables, home of Griffin Theatre Company – 50
  • Craft Victoria – 50
  • Artisan (QLD craft and design) – 50

The 30 year milestone and beyond

  • Penrith Regional Art Gallery – 40
  • Artbank – 40
  • Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery (WA)  – 30
  • Monash Art Gallery (VIC)  – 30
  • Australian Festival of Chamber Music – 30

Firmly adult at 20

  • ArtsHub – 20
  • Caloundra Regional Gallery (NSW) – 20 
  • Cairns Art Gallery – 20

New to the milestone club

  • The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) – 10
  • Art, Not Apart Canberra’s largest contemporary arts festival (ACT) – 10
  • Shaun Parker & Company – 10
  • Festival of Dangerous Ideas (NSW) – 10
  • The David Roche Foundation – 4

Let us know if you are celebrating a major anniversary in 2020.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina