History of the Canberra Art Workshop

Seven Decades of Art Activism
Over the decades, Canberra Art Workshop
(back when we were called the Canberra Art Club)
has been active in lobbying for the creation of the
national capital’s major visual arts institutions.
Artists from around Australia have been associated
with Canberra Art Workshop — including household
names like Max Meldrum, John Coburn, Clifton Pugh,
John Brack and Lloyd Rees.
It’s worth having a look at where Canberra Art Workshop
came from and what we’ve achieved.


How CAW exhibited in 1954

Each ‘On Show’ exhibition by CAW makes history in its own ways.
As it happens, one of CAW’s friends, Dr Alan Jones, has been researching Canberra’s art societies.
We are grateful to Alan for discovering in the National Library the room sheet for our fifth annual exhibition in 1954.
Back then, Canberra Art Workshop was called the Canberra Art Club.


The 1954 exhibition included ‘hero’ paintings by three of the then modernist gods of the Sydney art scene, Roland Wakelin, Margo Lewers and Jean Bellette.
They provided six of the 75 paintings in the show (look at the prices!)
Our 1954 exhibition was turbocharged by including these ‘big name’ contemporary artists to boost visitor numbers.
And, nationally-known art personalities were directly involved with our organisation in other ways at that time

History of the Canberra Art Workshop

Members of Canberra Art Workshop paint and draw in art groups in the M16 Artspace in the inner suburb of Griffith almost every day and night of the week. Hundreds are involved.
Some of their workgroups explore experimental painting. Some do portraits. There are pastel and watercolour groups and printmakers use an etching press in the studio.
Other groups have painted en plein-air, travelling to the mountains or nearby scenery.
And the Canberra Art Workshop brings in well-known out-of-town artists as teachers to shape the city’s contemporary art activity. They’ve been doing it for more than 70 years.
For many, life drawing is the core and starting point of its workshop activities —attended by artists of all ages. They range from art students to retirees, from amateurs to exhibiting professional artist, and from accountants to public servants.
Canberra Art Workshop’s activities have viscerally shaped Canberra’s art community — despite the workshop during most of its history only ever having been in rough digs – just a step ahead of the demolishers’ bulldozers.
Back in the beginning, in 1948, it was known as the Canberra Art Club – brought together by active community artists like John Scollay and the club’s first president, Jenny Neilson.
Its first annual exhibition was held at the Canberra University Cottage, featuring an oil painting by Max Meldrum — on sale for 150 guineas. The then National Art Gallery of NSW also lent Max Meldrum’s painting Portrait of My Mother for the exhibition.
In 1950, when the club’s workshops and exhibitions were held in rooms at The Canberra University, then in West Row, it was granted 150 pounds from the Cultural Development Committee.
Then it started its work in earnest to shape, challenge and shake the city’s contemporary art, bringing Margo Lewers and Allister Morrison from Sydney to show Canberra their abstract expressionist works in 1952.
The weaver Solvig Baas Becking, one of the first members of the club, invited prominent, forward-thinking artists from Sydney and beyond to give classes through the club in Canberra.
During the 1950s and 1960s artists such as John Coburn and Clifton Pugh were brought to Canberra by the club to tutor members for six-week periods.
Reporting on the club on 7 December, 1965, The Canberra Times said, “It would be admirable if the club could make a regular feature of inviting guest artists to exhibit with it, for Canberra is rather cut off from the stimulation of the galleries and exhibitions of the larger cities”.
Over time, the club changed Canberra’s ‘landscape of the mind’ with a stream of prominent artists who included Margo Lewers, Allister Morrison, John Brack, Joshua Smith and Lloyd Rees.
Behind the scenes, the club’s first workshop group for its member artists was organised by Nancy Parker, and they haven’t stopped for about seven decades.
At that time, the club brought to Canberra an exhibition selected from finalists in the Blake Prize for Religious Art — the first time a ‘showing’ had taken place outside NSW. Among them was Michael Kmit’s1953 Blake Prize winner.
But, in the old days, the club never had a permanent home. Several ‘homeless’ decades began for the club while city authorities only provided crumbs from their table to support to their town’s grass roots community art.
This didn’t deter the club members, though. They staged mini blockbuster art shows for the Canberra community.
The club itself, however, had to shift from venue to decrepit venue until each in turn was bulldozed for development.
Often its studio homes were cold, draughty barracks-style huts abandoned after housing the city’s early public service arrivals.
One of its homes was at Huts No. 7 and No. 8, at the ramshackle former Riverside hostel in the Kingston-Barton area — where the club hung 18 paintings from the Blake Prize.
They included Donald Friend’s St John and Scenes from the Apocalypse, Eric Smith’s Pilate Washing His Hands, and Lawrence Daws’s Golgotha – alongside two-metre tall wooden candlesticks from St Paul’s Cathedral, London, and a cope and mitre lent by Bishop Burgmann.
The club lobbied for a National Art Gallery, appearing before the Senate Select Committee on the Development of Canberra in 1955. (The Australian National Gallery finally opened nearly 30 years later).
In the 1950s the club sponsored the Canberra Art Prize, which it saw becoming a national event to develop younger artists — also a means to collect national works to be hung in a future Australian National Gallery.
And, in 1957, Clifton Pugh was the winner of the 2nd Canberra Art Club Prize (the forerunner of the Canberra Art Workshop’s Annual Members’ Exhibitions that continue to this day).
The Canberra Times reported on the Prize in 1957 that “Sir Daryl Lindsay, who was named judge when the competition was announced, must have had a difficult task making his choice.
“The winner, Clifton Pugh, of Melbourne, shows two oils, both semi abstract landscapes, and landscapes of a truly Australian character, high in colour and hot in feeling.
“In both paintings, the artist has used black to strengthen the patterns of reds and yellows.
“In the prize-winning picture, Before Summer, the angular design of black tree trunks is cleverly composed”.
The club’s early activism helped lead to establishment of the Canberra School of Art and some of the Canberra Art Club’s invited artists went on to form the nucleus of the Canberra School of Art.
Ironically, the club had been supported by a regular government grant, but this ended with the opening of the Canberra School of Art.
Ever since, it has been run as a non-profit organisation, with operating costs being met from members’ subscriptions and classroom rents — helped by the rare, occasional grant.
In 1959, the Canberra Art Club collected information and, together with the Canberra Artists’ Society, presented a report on the necessity for a Cultural Centre to the National Capital Development Commission.
When the Commission decided to build theatres only at Civic, the Canberra Art Club began a decades of lobbying to get more central space for its workshops and exhibitions — sometimes having to rally all known ‘cultural clubs’ in Canberra ahead of the bulldozers.
In her president’s report to the club in 1965, Phoebe Bischoff noted: there were then 112 members; that a grant of 170 pounds had been received from the Committee on Cultural Development for the club’s classes and exhibitions; that “the need for a large working space became very evident”; and that the club had been promised space in an extension due in 1966 to the Bunda Street Services Building, to be used by the ACT Council of Cultural Studies – to which the club was affiliated.
But the club still had to keep moving around.
Years later, under the presidentship of Dominic Mico, the club moved into rooms in the old Reid House later known as the Griffin Workshops — another barracks-style former public service hostel.
In 1971 the club was able to start full-time teaching facilities for members in the Griffin Workshops. With two rooms, it employed qualified art teachers who were known artists in their own fields, giving classes to 250 students — with a maximum of 10 students per class – and it held an exhibition at Woden Plaza of club students’ paintings.
When the Griffin Workshops were bulldozed in December 1974, the club once more faced homelessness and had to find a roof.
For a year it ran classes in a room at Woden Valley Hospital, which it shared with the occasional startled rehab patient. Then, for two years, it was based at Hughes Community Centre.
More lobbying led to the club getting premises in the old Childers Street buildings after it won the support of the then Department of the Capital Territory and the Department of Services and Property.
Once again it was able to run a full program of classes and workshop art forums which were free and open to the public — occasionally renting accommodation to cater for the crowds.
Years of activism led the club to change its name to the Canberra Art Workshop Inc in 1975.
And then, for a little while, it won part-funding from the Department of Capital Territory through its Committee of Cultural Development.
Today, there’s no steady drip of outside or government patronage.
The Canberra Art Workshop continues with about 300 members as an active, self-funded non-profit organisation, housed with other groups at the M16 Artspace in Griffith.