It is inevitable that the history and development of Canberra as the Nation’s capital tends to be dominated by the Walter Burley Griffin plan, the infrastructure, and the buildings that emerged in those early days from an “area of emptiness surrounded by wooded hills with a willow banded river (flood prone) wandering through the open plains”. People often talk about the builders of significant features that now occupy the landscape, but seldom is credit given to the fact that many individual workers were visionaries more concerned with the finer details of what would make a Capital function as a place to live and prosper at the intellectual and social level.
The names of those visionaries recur continuously in the foundation of the institutions that even today form the lifeblood of the city. Anything from the foundation of golf and race courses, croquet and tennis clubs, newspapers, educational institutions, and art, music and drama societies, all being part of the fabric that holds a population’s attention. In the 1920’s some of these early visionaries were thought to be “talking through their hats” about what Canberra might expect to achieve, for example, the establishment of a University (or University College) or the formation of a Royal Academy of Arts, or even a National Gallery of Art. Fortunately some of these pretentious ideas have indeed been achieved, and more.
The visionaries were not the major politicians of the time, or the dignitaries associated with organisational structures, but rather people of variable stature and position and, in many cases, their spouses. The names that continuously ring out include Kenneth Binns, Robert Brionowski, Charles S Daley, Percy Deane, Henry M. Rolland, David E. Limburg, John C. Horgan, Arthur Percival, Arthur Shakespeare and Mrs Shakespeare, George Shaw Knowles, Mrs L H Rudd, Mrs G Fitzpatrick, Mr Lewis Nott, Mr J. C. Courtney, Mr Aubrey E. Mowle, Dr Walter and Mrs Doris Duffield, and Ms Gertrude Lawler. Each of these people had social dreams and drove the foundation of many of our social networking institutions. Many of these individuals worked in the district from as early as 1910 over various periods alternating between Canberra and other State Capitals.
The Artists Society of Canberra (ASOC) was founded on 7th October 1927 with Irish-born John Columbia Horgan as the inaugural President and David E. Limburg as Secretary.
Horgan was a draughtsman and Limburg was then in private practice as an architect. David Limburg was not an artist per se and circumstances led him moving to Sydney early in 1928, also resigning as Secretary. John Horgan was President until 1930 and from then on made his living as an artist to his death in 1952. He held several exhibitions in Canberra in the 1930’s although residing primarily in Melbourne, Echuca, and later in Batemans Bay. Three pieces of Horgan’s early paintings of Canberra are currently held by the Canberra Museum and Art Gallery.
On its’ foundation ASOC’s “Council” drew up early plans for a major exhibition of the works of its members, coupled with some on loan from more distinguished interstate artists. The Exhibition was held at the Civic Centre in the offices of the Architects L. H. Rudd and D. E. Limberg, and opened by the Governor General Baron Stonehaven on the afternoon of Monday 28th November 1927, running to 3 December. One hundred and sixty-eight paintings were displayed along with a further ninety-four art and craft objects. Six hundred and fifteen people are said to have attended. In addition, other early planning included a Masked Ball, held on 18th May 1928 at the newly opened Albert Hall. A second “larger” Art exhibition was held in February 1929 in East Row with the added feature of photographic works.
During this period, ASOC was also able to rent premises in the form of a small office space in the Canberra Times building. The space was kindly made available for members to use as a studio by Arthur T. Shakespeare, founder of the Canberra Times, and so began the symbiotic relationship between the fine arts and the local newspaper. Rent was originally set at one pound ten shillings per week but this was reduced to ten shillings as the Great Depression unfolded.
The Great Depression took its toll early on the building program of Canberra (1929), and with this the inevitable fall-off in jobs meant a number of the visionaries were forced to find work elsewhere, most having left Canberra by 1930. The Second World War exacerbated this problem and many institutions were forced to close their doors. It is thanks to Arthur Percival, who became the Surveyor-General of Canberra from 1929, that ASOC somehow survived by going into recess between 1934 and 1945, when Percival reactivated it.
In August 1945 the ninth Annual General Meeting of the Society, held at the “Top Hat Café” in Manuka (now Belluci’s), elected a full Committee with Arthur Percival as President. There followed an era where many ASOC office bearers were often professional draughts-men working for the Office of the Surveyor-General. The first planned Art Exhibition of the reactivated ASOC was held at the Masonic Hall, Barton in October/November 1946. There followed several early post-War Exhibitions held at the Canberra University College Hall (now the Australian National University), for example, in October 1949.
Despite its long history, ASOC has only intermittently enjoyed its own premises in Canberra. Its first long-term home was provided in 1952 when the Society obtained its own gallery and studio in one of the buildings of the former Riverside Hostel in Barton. This hostel became “The Centre” for various cultural activities in Canberra for many years. It was eventually closed and despite a commitment from the government of the day to provide alternative accommodation, ASOC continued to wander in the wilderness for many years.
In 1970, ASOC leased a block of land from the Government in the industrial area of Fyshwick on which it was given permission to erect a garage for the purpose of storing equipment. Groups of members met there to paint in far from ideal conditions: no running water, no heating or cooling and a primitive outdoor toilet. People who knew what became known as the “Tin Shed” both loved and hated it. Overtime it was fitted out with some of the necessary amenities; and it was certainly better than having no studio at all and many recalled lots of happy times in that environment.
As an aside one of the main avenues for ASOC to apply its expertise in organising art events came from an inspiration by one of our life members, David Hatton.
David recommended that ASOC host a ‘Summer Art School’ based on the Bathurst Summer and Winter schools. In January 2001 the inaugural ASOC Summer Art Experience (SAE) was held at Orana School comprising seven 5-day intensive workshops, conducted by high-profile artists, both local and inter-state, with extensive experience in tutoring. Some 91 artists took part in the SAE and it was deemed a great success.
The SAE continues in vibrant form to this day, and in 2010 celebrated its 10th anniversary with a combined tutor and student exhibition, opened by David Hatton. Over the years the SAE has been held in Lake Ginninderra College and the CIT, Bruce, but in 2011 returned to Orana. From 2012 the SAE was held at the Kingsford Smith School, Holt, then the Campbell High School in 2016, and in 2017 the Canberra College, Phillip. The SAE has become, along with the Spring Exhibition, a signature event for the Society attracting new members, income and art tourism from far and wide. The SAE also supports ASOC members in developing their art practice through intensive periods of tuition.
Although the Summer Art Experience is not as profitable as it was in its early days, it continues to be a significant aspect of the educational role in ASOC, along with being a modest source of income.
Returning to our more recent accommodation woes, it should be clear that an association such as ASOC can never afford the luxury of complacency on the issue of accommodation. We must always be on the lookout for that ”benevolent philanthropist”. Thus after almost thirty years of occupying the “Tin Shed” the new ACT Government made it clear that it had designs for the site on which the premises were standing, which included a new road construction program. The Government declared their support in assisting ASOC in finding alternative accommodation.
In 2003, ASOC signed a 3-year lease for space in the new Canberra Technology Park in Watson. Unfortunately after only two years, access difficulties with the location and rapidly increasing rental rates led ASOC to relocate once again. While this was a very difficult and unsettling time for the Society, it did give members a clear idea of what we needed in order to pursue the practice of the many media and art forms. The experience also sensitised members to what they should avoid in the future in terms of leasing premises.
By August 2010 ASOC signed a lease for a workspace in the new arts precinct in Blaxland Crescent, Griffith: the M16Artspace. The new centre was opened by the Chief Minister and Minister for the Arts, Jon Stanhope on 13 August, 2010. For the first time in ASOC’s history we were surrounded by a group of established and emerging artists in their studios and by other visual arts organisations with the potential to build broad links in the arts community.
While the studio area rented by ASOC has some limitations, ASOC has been happy in these surroundings and able to form 12 untutored workgroups that occupy the premises for three to four hour spells everyday of the week. In addition, the Society runs a series of tutored Workshops mainly run over 2 day weekends almost every month, with Masterclass tutors drawn from all over Australia, and a series of tutored evening classes we initiated as ASOC-artStart run by local artists. We also use the studio for Monthly member’s meetings, often including short art demonstrations and visiting speakers on a range of topics.
In 2014, the ACT Government announced a move to establish “community rates” for its’ rental premises, including the M16 Artspace. This effectively amounted to a fifty percent increase in rents to be born by the tennants of M16, but over a five-year period. Unfortunately, this announcement also coincided with an effective fifty percent decrease in funding from artsACT to M16. Over the past two years most tenants have consolidated their position within M16, and are now part of the bid supported by artsACT for all members of the M16 Community to become a part of the proposed development of the Kingston Arts Precinct (KAP). Optimism abounds about such a move in about 2018-19 to join KAP, and provide the opportunity to be part of an arts precinct also incorporating amongst others, our colleagues at Megalo, and the Canberra Glass Works.
ASOC Membership fluctuates annually between 250 and 300, comprising a diverse mix of cultural backgrounds, ages, artistic abilities and experiences, interests, and stages of artistic development. With a most conducive home base for a range of activities, a strong future for ASOC seems assured.
There are many other facets on the history of ASOC, which continues to develop as a major project within ASOC and the subject of a future publication. The Society has acknowledged the work of Alan Jones, Joan Costanzo and Denise Moule for their dedication and efforts ASOC’s history to date; and we look forward to attracting others to join the team to finalise and confirm many of our findings so far.
ASOC owes its origins to a public meeting convened by D. E. Limberg and Chaired by H. M. Rolland to discuss the formation of an “Arts Society” on 1 July 1927. The meeting resulted in the formation of “The Society of Arts and Literature”, which the fine-arts group seceded from in October 1927 to form ASOC.