25 Years of WV: Interview with Joel Becker

Monday, July 28, 2014
Interview with Joel Becker

Photo of Joel Becker in front of a bookshelf
Joel Becker

Joel Becker took over as Director of the Victorian Writers Centre (as it was still called at the time) just after the organisation had moved into the Meat Market in North Melbourne in 2001.

Joel remembers the old meat hooks hanging from the building’s chilly butcher’s stalls, which were warmed by bizarre pull-cord heaters but still cold all year round (and even colder in winter).

It wasn’t the ideal venue for a writers centre, says Joel, and people found it more difficult to get to than their previous Fitzroy home. “STATE YOUR BUSINESS,” the caretaker would yell across the cavernous space every time someone rang on the bell.

The move to the Meat Market had been based on the promise of things to come. But when Joel was told that the team would have to move out again for renovations to take place, he set about looking for a new home for the organisation.

The poet Kris Hemensley invited to Joel to look at a space next to his Collected Works bookshop in the Nicholas Building (on the corner of Swanston Street and Flinders Lane). Originally earmarked for a bridal shop, Joel and then Chairperson Tom Cho grasped the opportunity to move the Writers Centre into the centre of Melbourne, and the deal was done relatively quickly.

With the organisation now based in the heart of the city, it wasn’t long before a vision started to develop for a larger literary hub: a place where Melbourne’s writing organisations could come together to capitalise on their synergies, share resources and create a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.

Along with VWC’s Patron, Noel Turnbull, Joel started putting together a wish-list for this imaginary building somewhere in the city (with the Immigration Museum and Flinders Street Station ballroom both flagged as potential options). Finally, negotiations began with the State Library of Victoria about their unused south wing: still full of construction materials and remnants of renovations from other parts of the building.

The idea was supported by the Premier’s Office, and the proposal for Australia’s first Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas was included as part of the government’s arts policy in the 2006 Election. The establishment of this literary hub – now called the Wheeler Centre – was also at the heart of the bid that saw Melbourne designated as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008.

Concurrent with the Wheeler Centre campaign, Joel also worked with Iola Mathews and the National Trust to develop what became a number of medium and long-term studios for writers at Glenfern in East St Kilda; a project that eventually got pushed over the line because of a very generous contribution from the Pratt Foundation.

VWC moved into the Wheeler Centre when it opened its doors in February 2010, along with fellow resident organisations including the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, Express Media, Emerging Writers’ Festival, Australian Poetry, Small Press Network and PEN Melbourne.

It was a big change for the organisation, Joel recalls, but one that was largely well received and that helped move the perception of the Writers Centre to being a professional arts organisation.

In celebration of our 25th anniversary, Joel shared his best wishes for the organisation:

“It is really exciting to see the VWC (oops, Writers Victoria!) celebrating 25 years, and still being absolutely true to its core values while at the same time assisting the writing community face up to the challenges of change, and embracing the opportunities this presents for writers. Almost every time I dip into a copy of Victorian Writer, or read the enews, I recognise the name of someone who has just received a grant; had a story or a poem or a book published; or won an award. To have perhaps played some small part in this fills me with joy.

Happy 25th Anniversary! I look forward to being a gnarled old codger sipping a single malt at WV’s 50th!”

Joel is the longest-standing Director of Writers Victoria, having worked with the organisation for more than eight years.