Unite - Celebrating 40 Years of Access Arts on Queensland Day

Supporters of Access Arts united to celebrate 40 years of Access Arts on 3 June 2023 at Queensland Multicultural Centre. It all started in 1983, with a small group of people with cerebral palsy who were involved in a rehabilitation program at the Royal Brisbane Hospital. Not interested in the sporting activities on offer but interested in art, they decided to paint a large mural for the Royal Brisbane Hospital beside the pool. This sparked the group’s creative flair. They then created a theatre project called Cast Off which toured Australia. And so, Access Arts was born. As Pat Swell, Access Arts’ Chief Executive, told this story at Unite, a member of the audience exclaimed “I was there. I toured with Cast Off”.  

Access Arts’ Patron, Her Excellency the Honourable Dr Jeannette Young AC PSM, Governor of Queensland, acknowledged some of the early pioneers of Access Arts when she spoke at the 40th celebration.  Robert Plant, Willie Prince (who is now a member of the CPL Group Advisory Board) and the late Liz Navratil, whose acerbic wit shone through her artistic work such as the 2002 show ‘Caca Courage’. 

Having first connected with Access Arts in 1998, Access Arts’ Life Member Peter Vance gave a moving speech on how Access Arts had transformed his life and supported him through his darkest moments. He also recalled the joy of performing with Access Arts at Asia-Pacific Wataboshi Festivals between 1999 and 2008, and helping to found Song Circles, an inclusive project that involved everybody, whatever their disability, in music-making, which they later toured to Japan in 2005. 

After a moving Acknowledgement of Country by Girrimay woman, artist and midwife Marianne Wobcke who paid tribute to Access Arts’ three decades working with First Nations rural, regional and metropolitan Queenslanders, Access Arts’ Theatre and Dance Ensemble presented a new performance piece. The Ensemble had developed this during the vibrant 'Lights, Curtain, Action!' program, a collaboration with professional guest artists in their Ashgrove workshops over the past two months. The Access Arts Singers also showcased their skills, performing original songs including a unique rendition of 'Happy Birthday To You'. David Waldie, an Access Arts participant, and his ‘boy band’ delighted the audience with their performance of Queen's iconic song 'We Will Rock You'. 

Among the highlights was the premiere of a powerful short film ‘Karen’s Passion’, telling the story of Karen Lee Roberts from childhood through to cabaret artist during her mental health journey with bipolar. 

The event also provided a chance to celebrate Access Arts' more recent achievements. In 2013, Access Arts forged its first exhibition partnership with KPMG Queensland. Since then, 42 of our artists have exhibited 249 artworks to an audience of 83,969 people: and 93 of these artworks – an amazing 37% - sold!  2019 saw our artists’ first annual exhibition at St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital sponsored by MinterEllison, promoting our artists to a different public. Since Covid, both major exhibitions have also been available online, enabling Access Arts to reach buyers outside Queensland. Examples of the artworks created by 20 different artists in Access Arts’ Yeronga visual arts studio were featured that afternoon at Unite in the theatre foyer, in a stunning exhibition called 'Self Portrait'.  

In 2014 the $10,000 Access Arts Achievement Award was established with private sector funding.  Open to Queensland artists with disability, the Award has been game-changing to the careers of every winner.  2015 saw Access Arts’ inaugural Undercover Artist Festival, now Australia’s premier performing arts and disability festival.  Collaborating with Sync UK in London, Access Arts delivered the national Sync Leadership Australia Online Program in 2021 and 2022, developing leadership skills in sixteen emerging and established Australian leaders with disability.  Access Arts is also piloting a two-year program called Earn From Your Art to enable trainees with disability to enter the arts industry as paid professionals.  

As the threads of Access Arts’ 40-year story wove together on stage, with wicked humour the afternoon’s MC Oliver Hetherington-Page regaled the audience with jokes. We learned that this talented 25-year-old actor was last year’s Access Arts Achievement Award-winner, and that he would tour his current show exploring autism, ‘The No Bang Theory’, to Darwin the following week. 

The last act was Brisbane star and ‘Eurovision: Australia Decides’ finalist, the incredible Jaguar Jonze, just back from performing at Sydney Opera House. Her unforgettable performance left the audience in awe. From the stage, Jaguar said how determined she had been to be part of Access Arts’ 40th celebrations, identifying with our other artists with disability. As one audience member put it: “I clapped so hard my hands are still bright red”.  

Access Arts received many compliments after the event, perhaps best summed up in the words: “A testament to the impact Access Arts has had in the community”. 

Looking to the future, Access Arts aims to support more artists with disability to perform on Australia's main stages, exhibit in prestigious galleries, work in the industry, and tour their work internationally.  Access Arts’ workshops offer a safe supportive environment where participants can explore various artforms and make new friends. Access Arts invites everyone to join in their journey and contribute to creating positive change in the arts community, particularly in preparation for the Brisbane and Queensland Olympic Games and Cultural Olympiad in 2032. Together, let's be part of the Access Arts Family! 

Artworks: Floating Flowers by Tanya Darl; Miriam Vale Merlo Coffee by Peter Hughes; Sunset Self-Portrait by Kerry Beazleigh; Stages of Life by Cho Fe Ng; Personowl by Kris Stockman; Underwater Woman by Sue Yule; All the Things I believe I've Done by Dion Halse; Me and My Kinda Things by Lisa Blake; Shade and Flowers by Colleen Stevenson.

Interested people can find more information and get involved through Access Arts’ website.

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