ABC TV’s new arts program: here’s our wish list

What would the team at ArtsHub and ScreenHub like to see featured in the national broadcaster's new arts program?

It’s been recently announced that a new arts program is slated to appear on ABC TV, to be hosted by Virginia Trioli. Though it’s encouraging that it will be set in prime time TV, the overall reception has been qualified enthusiasm. As our Performing Arts Editor Richard Watts posits, ‘Can the ABC’s newly announced TV program reverse the degraded coverage of the arts on the national broadcaster?’

So far, not much is known about this as yet unnamed show, except for the fact it will be an interview-style focus that will take ‘the audience into the world of major arts luminaries’. If this is indeed the case, its remit seems not only safe, but predictable. Does the Australian arts scene need yet another talking heads program of already-famous people holding forth on various matters?

ArtsHub and ScreenHub writers have come up with our own ideal wish list of what we would like to be featured.

ScreenHub Managing Editor Paul Dalgarno says, ‘I’d love to see the ABC peering more deeply into the pipeline of arts in Australia (including unvarnished insider views on how TV shows and films are commissioned, how crews are found, how budgets are secured and spent) rather than (or maybe in addition to) a show celebrating the glossy finished product.

‘That goes for screen, but likewise for all of the arts. There’s nothing particularly exciting in seeing someone we already know reflecting upon a success we already know about. The so-called “arts” in Australia are full of genuinely interesting stories of perseverance in the face of almost certain failure and I’d love to see that covered properly – the “why” and not just the “what” of the arts.’

Read: ABC iview: best new shows and premieres in September 2023

ArtsHub‘s Diversity and Inclusion Editor, Celina Lei, agrees, arguing, ‘The phrase “major arts luminaries” already raises many questions and, from the visual arts perspective, suggests fame and recognition grounded in the Western framework of art history. The baseline of what we need on a national arts program is to spotlight living, practising artists.

‘More so, we need to move away from the sensationalisation of individual success, and really take people into the back stage of creative practices that are rooted in collaborative efforts and contributions. It’s not about putting artists on a pedestal. Only through fostering an understanding of how the arts are embedded in the everyday can we hope to advocate for its value for all, rather than just for “arts people”.’

Meanwhile, our Feature Writer, Suzannah Conway, advocates for a big picture, broad brushstrokes approach. ‘I think one way to look at this is to pitch what Australia is doing in a global context. Particularly in the performing arts – music and dance – we are currently punching way above our weight globally. We have some exciting and innovative work happening in contemporary dance, circus, classical music and musical theatre, for example. We could also look at interviewing ex-pat artists and directors, choreographers, filmmakers and classical musicians who are making it big overseas, (like theatre/opera directors Barrie Kosky and Cameron Menzies) – and who we may be inviting back for festivals or to show their work here.

‘It strikes me this is an interesting idea … of creating a new approach to an arts program, rather than just rolling out the same old suspects – though I am sure there are new companies and creatives on the ground here that are worth exploring/interviewing too. But a fresh approach that puts us in the centre of the world, rather than at the bottom of it, could be exciting.’ 

Clearly, any new arts program on ABC television is better than nothing at all, says Watts. ‘However, I’m unsure that a weekly program focused on “the world of major arts luminaries” (to quote the ABC’s own media release) can balance out the Corporation’s failure to properly respond to one of the key responsibilities of its own Charter, which is “to encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia”.

‘Virginia Trioli is a superb interviewer, and will no doubt draw out compelling and insightful comments from her high-profile guests. But we need more than coverage of art world luminaries,’ Watts continues. 

‘We need a program that delves behind the scenes to examine and document the challenges of creating new work and doesn’t just celebrate the finished product. We need a program that interrogates the challenges facing the sector: the shortage of trained technical personal and the blocks in the development pipeline due to COVID; and the impact of arts courses at tertiary institutions around the country being abolished, downgraded or becoming increasingly inaccessible due to the rising costs of pursuing an arts career,’ he says.

‘Will Trioli’s program interrogate the class barriers that keep working class kids predominantly locked out of the arts sector? Will it celebrate emerging artists working in the independent sector or exhibiting at artist-run initiatives and showcase their work? Or will it only focus on artists performing on our mainstages and exhibiting at our major institutions and most prestigious commercial galleries? Will it spotlight organisations like Contemporary Asian Australian Performance, the National Theatre of Parramatta, Yirra Yaakin and the Yellamundie Festival, and the important role they play in correcting the balance of whose stories and which performers are or are not seen on our stages?’

Watts also notes: ‘If it is to be successful, Trioli’s program also needs to be properly resourced and supported, including employing informed researchers and arts-loving producers on its production team. It will also need appropriate publicity support – which at the moment the ABC seems to be failing to do with the excellent Art Works, hosted by Namila Benson. I honestly can’t remember the last time the ABC publicity team sent ArtsHub a media release about who would be appearing on Art Works in the coming weeks!’

There’s going to be a lot of interest in Trioli’s new program, he continues. ‘I just hope ABC management believe in the importance of the arts enough to properly finance and support the new program, so it can achieve at least some of what we’re asking for,’ Watts concludes.

As for me, as the Reviews Editor of ArtsHub with a literary background, I’d like to see some book reviews slotted into the program, written and presented by actual literary journalists, to make up for the axing of the previous ABC program, The Book Club (otherwise known as The First Tuesday Book Club) that was hosted by Jennifer Byrne and also featured Jason Steger and Marieke Hardy on the panel. Readers may remember that it ran from 2006-2017 and has since never been replaced.

Given the exponential depletion of books coverage in mainstream media – which includes interviews, features and reviews – it would be judicious for an arts program to pick up the slack and include book content in various permutations. However, I would like to see underrepresented authors that are not household names to be invited on the guest list or have their books championed; “luminaries” are already feted and have access to many platforms to promote their works.

I would also like different genres to be featured – traditionally, adult fiction and non-fiction are always top of the hierarchy of art forms spoken about, but what about graphic novels, poetry, YA, children’s books?

A new arts program offers a chance to shakes things up a little and experiment with content and structure that may even attract new audiences, instead of slipping back to formula.

So here’s a provocation: wouldn’t it be great if Trioli and ABC management took heed of some of the items in our wish list?

Thuy On is the Reviews and Literary Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her debut, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was released by University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP). Her second collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Her third book, Essence, will be published in 2025. Twitter: @thuy_on Instagram: poemsbythuy