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Growing up in Malaysia, I developed a keen interest in the visual arts from a young age. However, I was generally discouraged by my second-generation working-class parents to pursue a career in the arts. I went on to study architecture in London and somehow married an actor from Adelaide. Early on in our relationship, I spent many evenings and weekends at various theatres and fringe venues, networked with a talented cohort of emerging artists, experimented with set design and dreamt of a future where state-of-the-art theatre facilities are the norm.


Throughout my career, I have strategically sought out work of a public nature. Work in this sector can bring high exposure and public profile, but for me, it’s the high social equity that aligns with my personal values and aspirations, which drives my desire to continuously engage in work that can positively contribute to our lives.


As an Associate at Grieve Gillett Andersen, I lead the Arts and Culture portfolio. In this space, architecture can often be seen as a means to an end – a grand gesture and demonstration of government investment in the Arts. Alternatively, my approach to the Arts stems from a sound understanding of the principles of community development.


Together with our team at GGA, we have developed a methodology that uses the design process as a tool for community engagement. We work to empower our clients and the communities they work in, to examine and interrogate the current status quo, in order to inform the future. We map out key stakeholders collectively and engage widely. We utilise a variety of techniques that are innovative, fun and interactive, and tailored to the specific target audience. We ask questions, even the difficult ones and seek to engage in open, genuine conversations. And we always close the loop in all our conversations.


Over the last year, we have used this methodology to help our clients to develop master plans for the redevelopment of arts facilities in both metropolitan and regional areas. In 2018, Country Arts SA commissioned Grieve Gillett Andersen to deliver a Master Plan for the Middleback Arts Centre in Whyalla.


Working in collaboration with Country Arts SA, we undertook early engagement with a range of stakeholders through one-on-one interviews, focus group discussions, community workshops and on-line survey. Throughout the design process, we engaged with the Project Steering Group to test design principles and strategies, and ensure community aspirations were captured. A draft Master Plan was presented to the community in an open forum. This enabled project stakeholders to develop a collective understanding of problems, alternative solutions, and the associated costs, risks and benefits. The result is a project that has benefitted from the broader communal input, an enhanced stakeholder understanding, strong collaborative project culture and lead to an enriched outcome.


The Master Plan has been well received by the community and will assist in Country Arts SA’s strategic decision making, ensuring that any new investment in the Centre meets the shared vision of all its stakeholders, patrons and users. We are continuing to work with Country Arts SA to pursue funding opportunities and are undertaking a similar process for their 3 remaining regional arts centres as well as upgrading an arts residency space in Mount Gambier.


In closing, I recently attended the Arts Plan 2019 – 2024 at the Adelaide Town Hall. The session was well attended by representatives of the South Australian arts community and demonstrates the passion, and recognition of the importance of our arts, culture and heritage. One of the main objectives of the Arts Plan is to “consider what more we can do to meet the needs of regional and rural South Australia, local cultural activity in regional towns and centres, career pathways for artists from the regions, and access to regional touring opportunities for large and small companies.”


We sincerely hope to see an Arts Plan that will equally focus investment in cultural activity in regional and rural South Australia, and allow for the reimagination of designing arts facilities by giving agency to these communities.

This article is written by Esther Chew, Associate and Senior Architect

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