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25 Years of WV: Interview with Bev Roberts

Bev Roberts was the very first Coordinator of the Victorian Writers Centre. In celebration of the organisation’s 25th anniversary, Bev tells how the exciting story, “filled with drama, blood, sweat and tears”, all began.

Many of the members of Writers Victoria may be surprised to know that the organisation had quite radical beginnings in community arts, Bev says, specifically ‘community writing’ which emerged as a lively movement in Australia in the 1980s – influenced by the even livelier and more overtly political movement in Britain.

In the mid-1980s, activists in several States were calling on the Australia Council Literature Board to “democratise writing” by provide funding for community writing activities such as writer-in-community projects, workshops and writers’ weekends. Here in Victoria, most of those activists were members of the Community Writing Subcommittee of the Victorian Community Arts Network.

Bev remembers that, “some of the members of the Literature Board were initially resistant to these ideas and demands, as were many established writers, literary magazine editors and critics. Funding, they argued, should go to them – the ‘real’ writers and literary community – and not to encouraging hordes of ‘bad’ writers. Who would want to read their work anyway? But those more established writers changed their tunes when they discovered the possibilities of earning money from community writing workshops, readings, projects and mentoring programs.”

In Victoria, there was a push to provide more assistance to writers – particularly developing and ‘non-mainstream’ writers – by establishing a writers’ centre (similar to the South Australian Writers’ Centre that had been set up in 1986).

The Australia Council commissioned a report to look into the feasibility of setting up a writers’ centre in Victoria, from which the position of Victorian Literature Field Officer (LFO) was created as an interim measure. The position was co-funded by the Australia Council and the Victorian Ministry for the Arts, with one of the roles of the LFO being to further investigate the level of need and support for a writers’ centre, as well as providing assistance to writers and writing groups throughout the State.

In late 1987, Bev was appointed as LFO. Her credentials made her well suited for the job. Already involved in promoting Australian literature and encouraging wider participation in writing for several years, Bev was herself a poet and teacher of creative writing, as well as being a member of the Literature Committee of the Victorian Sesquicentenary.

At the time of her appointment, Bev made it clear that she saw the position as merely the precursor to the establishment of the writers’ centre. It took two years for that to happen, and a lot of lobbying from a diversity of voices from the local literary scene, now keen to have a more equitable share of resources for their art-form. “Literature is the Cinderella of the arts,” was one of their catch-cries.

Literature was also the only art form that had no buildings, with advocates calling for recognition of the need for a focal point to give writers and writing a tangible presence in the cultural life of the State.

Eventually an agreement was reached to extend the co-funding arrangement to set up a writers’ centre and transfer Bev’s role from LFO to its new Coordinator. Then began the long and surprisingly difficult search for a suitable building, with Bev and Caroline Baum (then Literature Executive at the Ministry for the Arts) visiting a number of unlikely premises, including an inner suburban police station and derelict former nightclub (complete with dance floor). Finally, through the Ministry for the Arts, a home was found in the historic Tasma Terrace in East Melbourne.

With several large, all-purpose rooms, plus office space and a rudimentary kitchen, Tasma Terrace was not the ideal accommodation many had wanted, but it was a more than adequate beginning. And the central location was definitely ideal. An initial management committee dealt with the administrative and legal planning work, and the Victorian Writers’ Centre was incorporated in October 1989.

With furniture selected from government surplus stores, and a motley collection of mugs, plates and ashtrays, the Victorian Writers’ Centre Inc opened its doors in January 1990.

Despite predictions of opponents that the centre would fail through lack of interest, it had attracted a membership of more than 500 by the end of its first year – and just kept growing.

Now, as Writers Victoria, it is celebrating its 25th year and has become an institution – part of the ‘literary establishment’ that many of its founders had challenged.

Bev was awarded Life Membership of Writers Victoria in 1997 for her contribution to the organisation.

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