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Arts Access: A history of open learning for country Western Australia

June Moorhouse and Ruth Ellicott
Fremantle Arts Centre


The Fremantle Arts Centre operates a range of programmes designed to encourage and promote the arts in Western Australia. Through exhibitions, publications, workshops and courses, artist residencies and an annual calendar of special events, the Centre looks to support the work of Western Australian artists and provide opportunities for participation in the arts by the general public. The Arts Access programme is one aspect of the Centre's activities.

History of Arts Access

Arts Access began in 1976 and was started by the then Western Australian Arts Council to meet the need expressed by country communities for classes in arts and crafts. At the time the programme also looked to offer a range of experiences including exhibitions, performances and workshops. The archives indicate that Arts Access would serve not only country communities, but urban communities isolated for other reasons, or example, elderly people's homes or children's refuges. There is no evidence that this has ever happened and the programme is now used exclusively by country groups.

Arts Access was begun as a pilot programme to be run over two years, 1976 and 1977, and although it was an initiative of the Western Australian Arts Council it was to be organised and administered by the Fremantle Arts Centre. It was to be responsive to the needs of the country communities. A local authority, service organisation, arts council or informal group, could decide what kind of activity it might want from Arts Access and make a request to the programme for that activity.

Eleven staff were employed - a performing arts officer, exhibitions officer, assistant to the Director, a general assistant, a receptionist, two tour managers and a painting tutor. A troupe of three performing artists provided workshops and performances throughout the year. In the area of arts and crafts, artists were contracted for the purpose of specific workshops, as they are today. In those early days, tutors were accompanied by one of the two tour managers who drove one of the Arts Access vehicles and did the organisation of the workshops on site.

The programme was funded by the Western Australian Arts Council and the Australia Council, the federal arts funding body, with some funds coming through fees from local communities. Arts Access seems to have operated very much as a Western Australian Arts Council initiative, simply based at the Fremantle Arts Centre.

For the first two years the performing arts troupe had a strong representation in the activities. After 1978, however, it was disbanded, leaving the focus of Arts Access in the area of arts and crafts workshops.

Another long-standing component of Arts Access is the book hire scheme. We provide 12 sets of books annually, with discussion notes, to some 70 book clubs throughout the State. The titles provide a selection of classic and contemporary literature with strong representation from Australian authors and one or two publications of the Fremantle Arts Centre Press (quality and advertising hand in hand!).

Arts Access today

Since 1976 the WA Arts Council has disbanded and become the Western Australian Department for the Arts. Arts Access is now much more integrated in the overall activities of the Fremantle Arts Centre and the funding for it comes as part of the General Operating Grant received by the Centre from the Department for the Arts.

Today Arts Access provides about 250 workshops each year in everything from patchwork quilting, slip casting ceramics and calligraphy, to production throwing for potters at semi-professional level and a range of performing arts workshops. We also supply judges and adjudicators for eisteddfods and for art competitions. Organising groups pay a flat fee of $275 for a two day workshop and $350 for a three day workshop. This fee is the same for people in Wyndham or Bunbury, so obviously it is cross subsidised. We look for a minimum of six participants and a maximum of ten, although we are flexible about this, depending on the artform involved and the tutor's preferences.

The programme is now much more streamlined and coordinated by one officer, who also has responsibilities to other aspects of the Fremantle Arts Centre programme.

How Arts Access works

At the beginning of each year a brochure is published and sent out to people who have used the programme over the last two years. Some are distributed also by officers of the Department for the Arts when they go on field trips. The brochure or booklet carries details of how to apply for a workshop, suggested courses and tutors, a directory of country arts outlets and city based organisations which service country people. Last year it also carried two general articles on touring performing arts and regional galleries, and incorporated the Travelling Notebook for the book clubs.

Workshops are then requested by the organising groups. They usually nominate a tutor they would like, although there are instances when they look to us for advice regarding appropriate tutors. There are no restrictions on the use of Arts Access programmes, although, as a guide, we allow a maximum of three in any given artform in any given town.

By and large communities use Arts Access simply to improve skills in their area of interest. There are a number of examples, however, of communities that have used the Arts Access programme as a developmental tool. Corrigin and Boddington are two excellent examples of this.

Boddington started 11 years ago with, as they tell it, a group of women lying under a tree on a summer's day, deciding that there must be more to life than playing tennis. They established a book club using the Arts Access book hire scheme. This led to a widening interest in the arts and crafts and a desire for more specific skills through workshops and with that, a need for better equipment and facilities. Now they have their own arts centre which functions as a retail outlet, workshop and meeting space. Most importantly, it is a meeting place for women who would otherwise be isolated.

The Boddington Book Club is still going strong. They hire books from us on an occasional basis, and they have also taken advantage of our artists in residence scheme. The late Olga Masters visited them for a discussion on one of her books, which at that time she was in the process of writing. Boddington also use the Arts Access workshop scheme for ceramics and silver working.

Similarly, Corrigin was one of the first communities to request an Arts Access workshop. The Corrigin Creative Arts Club became regular users and in time their needs outstripped their existing facilities. Their efforts to establish the Arts Centre in the town are impressive. In two years they raised $22,000 through volunteer activities and attracted sufficient Government funding to purchase and refurbish the local TAB building.

This now provides Corrigin with a large meeting room or workshop space, a ceramics workshop with sophisticated kiln room and safe playground areas for children. Arts Access continues to service Corrigin.

Another example of how the programme has been used is in the Kimberley region. Last year a six week residency was planned by a group called the Randan Club, a group of performers and visual artists who specialise in circus skills. It is often very difficult for groups which arrive in the area to do a residency without any preplanning or an opportunity to get to know the community beforehand. Moreover, funding agencies are reluctant to cover the cost of planning visits. In this instance one of the members of the group, Lachlan MacDonald, went on the Arts Access programme to Kununurra for a weekend workshop in circus skills. He took the opportunity to stay up there a little longer and did some of the groundwork that was needed for the residency.

There is no difficulty with Arts Access responding to these needs and in fact the residency was regarded as far more successful because of the kind of early planning that Lachlan was able to do and the contacts he was able to make.

Strengths of Arts Access

So the strengths of the programme are indeed that it is flexible, it can respond to need and it can be used in very many ways. Another great strength of the programme lies in the spin offs that occur. Once skills are passed on by tutors to people in local communities, those people are frequently in a position to pass on those skills to others. Many school teachers come and take advantage of Arts Access workshops. We have also had medical people who then use it as a form of occupational therapy for their patients, and other welfare workers who will use the skills they learn at an Arts Access course to run community classes.

Another obvious spin off with our workshops is the social interaction they provide for people who are often very isolated.

Arts Access has a history of quality and reliability and is well known throughout country WA. Much of its reputation rests on the performance of the tutors. Although groups can choose their tutor, we encourage them to use experienced practitioners who derive the bulk of their income from their art or craft work. Many of the tutors also participate in the Centre's in house workshop programme which gives us the opportunity to see their work first hand.

Weaknesses of Arts Access

For all that, there are weaknesses to the programme. It is open to misuse. We have had examples of tutors who have busily tried to drum up work for themselves up north when it is cold, or down south when it is warm. On the other hand, we have also had groups who misuse the workshops by nominating friends and members of the family as tutors, sometimes people we do not regard as sufficiently qualified to be tutoring our courses.

Another grey area for us is the definition of quality. As a leading arts institution in Western Australia there are qualms about supporting work that is in fact entirely derivative in nature. Yet that is what communities might have in mind when they request that we run a course in, say, hobby ceramics. On the other hand, if that is the starting point for some communities, we have to respect that. The business of becoming the arbiter of quality is quite a difficult one and a sensitive one, and essentially one that we take case by case.

A major problem we see with the programme is that it is entirely reactive. We only provide workshops to people who ask for them, We only provide workshops in artforms or skills that people ask for and, by and large, we only provide tutors that groups ask for or those that are well known to us.

The future of Arts Access

Outlining these weaknesses leads us to the future of the programme. We are very keen to see it become much more developmental in the way it operates. For example, at the moment our only publication which outlines the programme is sent out to the users from the last two years and distributed by the department for the Arts field officers throughout the year. We would like to become become much more active in pursuing other communities and picking up on other regional mailing lists to ensure that our information is getting beyond those who currently use the system. We will also be investigating ways of promoting Arts Access to groups not normally comfortable or associated with the mainstream arts.

The issue of the publication is an interesting one, as it is our major form of communication with clients and potential clients. We are considering doing away with the annual publication and producing something on a periodical basis, perhaps a smaller publication every three months which keeps people up to date with alternative courses and tutors. Such a publication could let them know of any visiting artists conducting residencies at the Fremantle Arts Centre, or indeed in other organisations around WA, who are willing to participate in the Arts Access programme. We are looking for ways of encouraging more direct contact with and between users and creating a network. At the moment it is a network of a kind, but it is a relatively dormant one and we believe there is great potential for the users of Arts Access across the state to have much more interaction.

We have set about organising an annual exhibition at the Fremantle Arts Centre of the best of Arts Access workshops. We are planning the exhibition for March or April of next year and this will provide an opportunity for Arts Access users to have a professional display of their work in the City. We are also planning a special opening for the exhibition that combines with a bush dance, providing an opportunity for some informal interaction between country users of Arts Access and City based artists, tutors and arts organisations.


In conclusion, the Arts Access programme, over its 14 year history, has seen a lot of changes and has been a catalyst for change in the arts in country areas. It has been a highly successful programme and is now ready to look at the diverse needs of the Western Australian community in the l990's and, we believe, is in a very strong position to respond to those needs.

June Moorhouse is Executive Officer, and Ruth Ellicott is Arts Access Officer at Fremantle Arts Centre, 1 Finnerty St, Fremantle (PO Box 891, Fremantle WA 6160, telephone (09) 335 8244).

Please cite as: Moorhouse, J. and Ellicott, R. (1990). Arts Access: A history of open learning for country Western Australia. In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (Eds.), Open Learning and New Technology: Conference proceedings, 258-262. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter.

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