The Canberra Times – an end of an era
Late in January 1977, I received a phone call from Ian Mathews introducing himself as the editor of The Canberra Times and inviting me to pop into the office for a chat. The chat was as rewarding as it was surprising. I had just been appointed to the ANU, after studies in art history at the universities of Melbourne, Moscow, London and Oxford, to set up a Department of Art History, initially called the Fine Art Program. Of the many people I met in my first days at the university was the amazing Arthur John Birch, the world-famous organic scientist. Birch apparently mentioned me to Ian Mathews and Mathews promptly offered me a job as the Senior Art Critic for The Canberra Times.
Having a passion for contemporary art, it was an invitation too good to turn down, but being aged in my mid-twenties and with quite a bit on my plate, I asked if I could ‘appoint’ specialist writers to write alongside me in dedicated areas such as crafts, photography and new media. Mathews, a man of great charm, intellect and integrity, readily agreed and my fruitful collaboration with The Canberra Times commenced. By fruitful, I mean it lasted for over 46 years and resulted in about 3,500 exhibition critiques, articles, interviews and book reviews.
I have not researched the history of art critics writing for this paper, but I gather that it goes back about seven decades. Professor Donald Brook started writing for the paper in 1962 and my immediate predecessor was the distinguished painter and teacher Geoffrey de Groen. On my watch, until very recently, there was an arts editor at the paper who fought on all fronts to give the arts a high profile in the nation’s capital and, within the paper, fought against the encroachments from other interest groups.
The Canberra commercial art gallery scene, as well as the institutional galleries – tertiary, local government and federal – thrived on the public discourse. I have heard many times, artists telling me that they exhibited or performed in Canberra because they knew that they would be reviewed, unlike in some other cities. Arts critics, theatre critics, music critics, dance critics and book reviewers were all professionally trained in their areas of expertise and clocked up many years of experience.
The paper’s journalists were great in attending media previews and interviewing artists, curators, directors, authors and musicians and drumming up publicity for the various events, but they were certainly not part of the critical discourse. They informed readers that an event was on or a book had been published or an exhibition was about to open, but they were not in a position to assess it, evaluate it and inform professionally the newspaper’s audience. One of the few pieces of guidance provided to me by Mathews was not to use, as a critic, an expression like ‘cutting edge’, ‘it was too journalistic’.
The Canberra Times was at the centre of the city’s cultural hub and was relevant to the lives of Canberrans interested in the arts and that was, and remains, the majority of Canberrans. More people in Canberra are interested in the arts and attend arts events than sports events, although one does not exclude the other - I go to both. It follows that more of a newspaper’s pages should be devoted to the arts than to sports, unless a case can be made that people interested in the arts in Canberra choose not to read this paper and those interested in sport do.
As an art critic writing over the past 46 years, I cannot claim that I got it right every time, but I did write with honesty and to the best of my abilities. My near annual trips abroad, to Europe and New York, meant that I was largely up to date with what was happening in the art world and writing for about 30 other art journals nationally and internationally did provide a critical context for what I was saying domestically. Nevertheless, I always keep in mind what Clement Greenberg told me when, very early in the piece, I asked him what it was like to be an art critic; he said it was ‘the experience of a person who learns in public.’
On 15 May 2023 I received an email from The Canberra Times’ Features Editor that the paper is “cutting a lot of physical pages from the print product, and cutting down drastically on outside contributors across the board” and could I come in for a chat. It sounded ominous and I had already heard of cuts in music, dance and theatre reviews. I anticipated that this would be the end of my career as an art critic for the paper. Friends debated whether after 46 years of faithful service and being paid only a symbolic remittance, I would be given a gold watch or some suggested a gold-coloured biro. Both proved wrong and at our meeting I was told not to take it personally that this was purely a cost-cutting measure. From now on, there would be no reviews published in the paper, except on exceptional occasions where they could possibly call on me. Otherwise, they would only be publishing previews written by the paper’s reporters. No watch, biro or even cup of tea, not even a word from the editor.
Each newspaper makes its own financial decisions based on marketing data and assumptions not available to the rest of us. The proof will lie in the pudding. If there is no widespread outcry and only a few hundred subscribers will not renew their subscriptions and a few galleries will withdraw their limited advertising the matter may end there. If there is a major outcry and the paper’s existence looks as if it is under threat, decisions may be reversed. The paper has abandoned the arts community and the arts community will abandon the paper as it has become a paper without a soul. There is also now an opportunity for one of the major interstate media players to move in and bring out a weekend Canberra edition complete with arts coverage – time will tell.
Personally, I’m saddened by these developments when 70 years of tradition is discarded for very minor savings, especially in this digital age where column space is no longer expensive. Surely a simple option would be for the arts to go digital and to encourage the arts community to take out digital subscriptions. For myself, there are other publishing outlets that I will keep on using and I will look out for others, however, I feel sad that the Canberra art scene has lost an important cultural voice in The Canberra Times.
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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