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Farewelling our Chair Susan Oliver

Read Friday, 25 Mar 2022

As Susan Oliver AM hands over her baton as Wheeler Centre Chair to Julie Ligeti, she reflects on the last four years, including how talks and discussions sustained her through lockdown and what it was like to meet Monica Lewinsky at Broadside Festival in 2019. 

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What are some Wheeler Centre moments that stick out vividly in your mind?

Outgoing Chair Susan Oliver.

Broadside was a wonderful event during my time as Chair of the Wheeler Centre. I distinctly remember approaching the Melbourne Town Hall and seeing the queue go up Collins Street and around the corner into Russell Street.

The Broadside speakers were challenging, highly articulate and the nuances of the feminist agenda were important to explore. Monica Lewinsky was an amazing guest that I had the pleasure of meeting and spending some time in conversation with at a reception that the Governor of Victoria, Linda Dessau, hosted at Government House. It was a rare privilege and very moving.

During the long Covid lockdowns, the Wheeler Centre was my constant friend and companion, and I don’t know what I would have done without its programming.

How has the Wheeler Centre changed over the four years you’ve been Chair?

The change for our audiences is our move online. Prompted and accelerated by Covid lockdowns, this has been accompanied by a higher quality of production. Shifting focus to online during the pandemic brought more international guests into our homes, removed the need for international travel and permitted more opportunistic programming. This has given us our chance to deliver on our strategy of proactively exploring critical and challenging topics relevant to our audiences and our world today.

Another significant area of change is our increased outreach to new audiences through dedicated programming for teens, children and people in regional areas. We are also forming new and exciting partnerships across cultural agencies such as our recent Alison Bechdel collaboration with Melbourne Theatre Company and an exciting upcoming event in Sydney with the Australia Chamber Orchestra.

Less visible to the public are the changes that have taken place in how the organisation operates and is accountable to our many sponsors, supporters and staff. Under CEO Caro Llewellyn, we have created a strongly governed and managed organisation which is fit for the future and for our important purpose as a key Victorian cultural organisation. The board is strong and capable and our new Chair, Julie Ligeti, is inheriting an organisation I am proud to hand over. I acknowledge the hard work and diligence of my board over my time as chair. These are voluntary roles, and my board have given a lot of time and attention to our change agenda. I thank them all warmly.

Australia has experienced a multitude of political, environmental and social challenges in recent times. What’s the biggest challenge you faced as Chair? And the biggest win?

One of the very important roles a Chair has is to ensure there is a robust strategy that gives the organisation resilience in the face of incredible challenges and uncertainty. Also, that there are strong capabilities, culture and processes in place backed by strong financial systems, reporting and accountability. These are all in place, and I am confident their presence gives the Wheeler Centre the resilience it needs.

You are heavily involved with Melbourne’s cultural and arts landscape (Susan sits on the boards of Melbourne Theatre Company and previously the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, is an opera and ACO subscriber and NGV member, and has three offspring engaged in the arts. She also developed Arts 21, the strategy for arts and cultural industries in Victoria through to the year 2000) – how is our city responding to the upheaval wrought by the pandemic? What role do you see the Wheeler Centre playing in that recovery?

I live near the city and love to walk to events and venues. Melbourne as a location for the Wheeler Centre should not be lost despite the programming we do online and regionally. There is an intimacy and ‘village feel’ amongst those of us privileged to access these events. It is one aspect we need to maintain as it brings people together. However, it is a privilege, and we need to extend the privilege beyond our comfortable social group and our city boundaries.

I believe that one of the critical activities the Wheeler Centre undertakes is to introduce different opinions and strongly held points of view and enable them to be discussed and questioned without polarising audiences. As politicians, media and social media trends deepen the divide between one opinion and another and try to make the world black and white, the Wheeler Centre’s approach is an incredibly important demonstration of how democracy should work.

Lastly, where do you see the Wheeler Centre in five years?

Always adapting and remaining ahead of the game. Continuing to explore and deepen knowledge and awareness of the things that matter.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.