Ignite: Alternative Arts Academy

Sitting on the shore of Lake Ginninderra, Belconnen Arts Centre is a well known hub for showcasing contemporary artists from across a variety of disciplines including visual art, dance, music and drama. The centre’s ability to celebrate and share the stories of artists and communities make it a vibrant and welcoming place that is making a positive impact on the future of the arts and local community. The programs offered at the centre are coordinated by a passionate team and enjoyed by an equally passionate community.

Belconnen Arts Centre has a strong reputation for delivering community engagement programs that bring people together, many of whom have experienced challenges accessing the arts. The programs open doors to major arts institutions, introduce new skills to participants, and create an environment for forming friendships.

IGNITE: Alternative Arts Academy is a series of programs that encourages participation for people with mixed abilities and lived experience of mental illness. These award winning inclusion programs cater for people at all levels from the hobbyist who just wants to have fun, to the professional who wants to extend their practice. Programs offered through IGNITE include Room to Move, Makers, Connect, Open Studio, Social and Creatives.

Increasing participation

Room to Move: Inclusive Dance Workshops became part of IGNITE in 2011. Participants enjoy dance and improvisation in a welcoming and supportive environment. The fortnightly workshops are offered for people living with and without disability at all levels of experience. Led by talented dance practitioners, the workshops not only benefit participants, but also give practitioners the opportunity to develop their programs and practice for people with mixed abilities. Philip Piggin, who has run dance programs at Belconnen Arts Centre for five years, also coordinates other programs such as Feel the Music, a dance program for people with hearing impairment, with Canberra Dance Theatre and City Teens. Philip also received funding from ACT Health to run dance programs for dementia patients and people living with Multiple Sclerosis.

Dance for people with Parkinson's

Image: Dance for people with Parkinson's

Developing practice

IGNITE is structured to support people to develop and practice their art in a variety of ways. Through the Makers program, professional artists from different disciplines run workshops for a term at a time. A class-based arts learning program, it provides participants with hands on experience in varied artistic disciplines. Past teachers include visual artist Julie Bradley and 2017 will see sculptor Mariana Del Castillo returning along with painter Naomi Zower.

The Connect program builds on the people’s experience in Makers by opening doors and access to arts facilities in Canberra. Belconnen Arts Centre partners with organisations such as Megalo, Canberra Potters Society, PhotoAccess, and Canberra Glassworks to run short, concentrated programs. Participants can discover, experiment with, and focus on different mediums. Collaborating with other arts organisations benefits participants and develops the sector by showcasing participants’ abilities and encouraging other organisations to expand their programs for people with mixed abilities.

Open Studio allows participants to book self determined time in a studio space to work on their art. Belconnen Arts Centre encourages artists to participate in exhibitions such as IGNITE7, which is curated by Belconnen Arts Centre and held in the National Disability Insurance Agency Trial Site Foyer. The exhibition consists of seven frames for seven artworks that change every few months. IGNITE 7 is a platform for artists living with disability or with lived experience of mental illness to be promoted and profiled.

 Tahlia modelling at Watson Arts Centre

Image: Tahlia modelling at Watson Arts Centre

Building capacity

IGNITE not only develops participants’ practice, it empowers them to engage with the mainstream arts sector. The Social program provides an entry point for people with mixed abilities and a supported place for them to connect with arts organisations in Canberra. Participants have gone behind the scenes of collecting institutions, such as the National Museum of Australia, National Archives of Australia and arts organisations such as Gorman Arts Centre, to discover how artists access and make use of the facilities. The program breaks down barriers and preconceptions, and demystifies elements of the arts sector. This practical knowledge and understanding assists artists to approach and work with the mainstream arts sector.

IGNITE encourages participants to exhibit in community shows and in Belconnen Arts Centre’s end of year curated show. IGNITE, says Monika McInerney, the Creative Program Director at Belconnen Arts Centre, is not a therapy program. IGNITE is about raising the profile of artists, and evolving and developing their practice in a professional capacity. IGNITE is about being an artist.

Dr Possum discusses his artwork at the opening of Ignite Sparks, I-Day event 2016

Image: Dr Possum discusses his artwork with Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith at the opening of Ignite Sparks, I-Day event 2016


In February 2017 a new addition, IGNITE: Creatives, will take artists further in their professional development. Creatives is taking seven artists with mixed abilities through a paid two year, one-on-one collaborative program with a professional artist in their discipline. The program is described as collaborative rather than a mentorship, as the artists chosen are all practicing in their own right. To participate, artists had to be working on a project or have an existing relationship with a mentor. A strong relationship is key because the project is a long commitment and a personal journey.

Creatives aims to build the capacity of the artist to take their art to the mainstream. The projects are driven by the artists, who devise a program that is responsive to their needs. The first stage of the project will focus on sector awareness, networking and professional skills such as how to write exhibition proposals and grant applications. The second stage involves artists identifying where they want their project to go, refining exhibition proposals and preparing grant applications, as well as developing their body of work.

While all of the artists have a track record of achievement, they are at different levels. The aim is for the artists to achieve something more ambitious than their current level. Paul Dumetz is a ceramic artist who has had many ACT based exhibitions. His next step is to exhibit interstate. Another artist, Dr. Possum, who is established in his visual arts practice, plans to create an illustrated novel. Dr. Possum is paired with writer Sarah St Vincent Welch, who will mentor him through the writing process.

Creatives is about milestones within the journey, such as devising a plan of action for new work, rather than an end result. One artist will be documenting these milestones through his own project. Every week Justin Ray, who is collaborating with Robert Nugent, will film other artists in the program and their collaborators to produce a one minute edited snapshot of the week’s process. Belconnen Arts Centre will put the snapshots on its blog so the wider community can follow the project. The weekly snapshots are a way of capturing the stories and achievements for the artists involved. Justin’s aim is to compile and produce a half hour film for showing at film festivals.

Creatives provides a learning experience for the mentors as well as the artists. Jenny Heckendorf is an artist with Cerebral Palsy whose life revolves around the shifts of her carers. She will be writing a memoir in collaboration with Sarah St Vincent Welch. Sarah had planned to provide a number of texts for Jenny to read in preparation for writing her memoir. However, as Jenny uses eye activated software to read and write, this would have been a challenging exercise so Sarah adjusted her plans and instead, read to Jenny. The process of collaboration also allows the artists to explore opportunities for their work in a technical sense. For Jenny, this has meant revisioning her memoir from a full-length manuscript to a more refined novella.

IGNITE: Creatives came about through conversations with IGNITE participants who wanted more background information of the arts sector, as they were not aware of the opportunities that exist or how to access them. This addition to the IGNITE suite provides a next step for artists, with a few IGNITE alumni participating in the first program. Vera Delova who is a textiles artist and IGNITE alumni, is now working with Jayne Simon to design and launch a fashion/textiles range. Kathy Leo, also IGNITE alumni, has a strong mentoring relationship with Marzena Wasikowska. The two will collaborate on a body of photographic work. The program gives guidance and support to these existing mentoring relationships. IGNITE has provided opportunities beyond the program for some participants. Moira Nelson, an IGNITE participant, was provided professional experience through a position as a studio assistant. Moira said the experience made her feel “valued, respected, useful, and relevant”. On participating in a past exhibition, Moira said “We all feel important and valued”.

With opportunities in circus, glass, ceramics, screen printing, dancing, and drama, IGNITE participants find it hard to choose a favourite. Through in-house tuition and the ability to engage with art institutions across Canberra, Belconnen Arts Centre provides people with mixed abilities and lived experience of mental illness with opportunities to further their artistic practice and curiosity. IGNITE participants value the program, saying it is testing on the mind, lots of fun, and provides a place to be with new friends. One participant said IGNITE makes you feel like you have finished something; you have help but nobody does it for you. You have achieved something, learnt new skills and maybe even surprised yourself on the way.

Ignite sparks Installation 2016

Image:Ignite sparks Installation 2016

For more information about Ignite email ignite@belconnenartscentre.com.au or visit the Ignite page on the Belconnen Arts Centre website here: http://www.belconnenartscentre.com.au/programs/ignite/External Link