In October 2008, delegates will be streaming in to Alice Springs from around Australia and the world for the 6th Regional Arts Australia (RAA) conference art at the heart. The previous conference, held in Mackay, Queensland in October 2006, attracted 850 delegates. The curiosity factor of Alice Springs, a recognition of the value of the arts as an industry in regional Australia, and the positive experience for delegates at past RAA conferences means that organisers expect registrations to be at least as high as Mackay.

Planning for art at the heart is well underway and the person appointed to coordinate it all is well-known Alice Springs arts worker Kieren Sanderson. She has the administrative backing of the host and partner of this conference, the Northern Territory Government through Arts NT. As she is discovering, bringing together a successful conference in the middle of a desert, thousands of kilometres from the nearest city, brings its own bag of challenges.

Kieren has agreed to bring Arts Hub readers regular fly-on-the wall reports on the progress of the conference and she begins the first of these on a very hot Alice Springs Sunday.
Sunday: The sun is scorching and it’s only seven am, I walk outside to check on my slow growing Sturt Desert peas only to find them shrivelled up in disgust that I didn’t keep them shielded from the sun in their tender stages of growth. Tomorrow I meet for the first time the executive management committee for the next Regional Arts Australia national conference. I wonder how the members who are flying in from Sydney, Brisbane, Western Australia and Adelaide will cope with the dry heat. I know Harold, the local Aboriginal representative who is driving five hours to be here from Titjikala has air-conditioning in his car and, unlike my Sturt Desert peas, he’ll be fine.

Monday: The meeting goes well, previous conferences discussed, future plans explored “ art at the heart begins its life as we cover progress so far.

A lot has happened since I started this job… I began work in Alice Springs on the 19th October then, after a few desks changes, was given a fantastic office at the Alice Springs Cultural Precinct, by the Northern Territory’s Department of Natural Resources, Environment and The Arts. My office is now dubbed the ˜Conference Hub’.

The most pivotal part of my work so far has been developing the conference themes. These are the basis around which applications are being sought for the conversations, debates and presentations. They will also be crucial in shaping the artistic program, which is central to the whole conference. The themes are being developed with the help of people from a number of groups, including of course Regional Arts Australia and Arts NT. But we are also reading over the feedback from delegates who attended the 2006 conference in Mackay, as well as suggestions from the passionate and committed Australian arts workers known as RADOs, or regional arts development officers. RADOs usually work across vast tracts of land and have excellent ideas and first-hand knowledge about how the arts operate in the regions.

But the conference IS happening in Alice Springs and so it is the special nature of the arts in this town that will most define the conference. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous arts thrive here and I’m sure there are more artists and arts workers on the ground per head of population here than just about anywhere else in Australia. In mid-November, locals were invited to a community forum to discuss the conference and contributed invaluable ideas.

Tuesday: Every morning at home I fill up water containers for the euros, wallabies and kangaroos. This morning I don’t see two big majestic red males until the one closest stands up on his haunches to show off his huge shoulders and strong neck. I stand still and secretly spy on him, but pretend he isn’t there and slowly continue to fill the containers. He stands silently overseeing me from the rocks above and as I move away comes down and guzzles the treasure I have left behind.

Today is the big day to show off to the visiting executive committee the conference venues, including the Alice Springs Convention Centre, and the Northern Territory Government’s beautiful Alice Springs Desert Park and the Araluen Arts Centre. Most of the conference activities will take place at these venues and I think the visitors are impressed at the quality of the facilities. During the conference there will be an evening function in the Nocturnal House at the Alice Springs Desert Park and the committee seems very excited at the idea of sipping champagne in the midst of the lizards and snakes.

Wednesday: Most of the members of the conference planning committee leave town and it is back to business. Soon we are calling for Expressions of Interest from people interested in contributing in some formal way to the conference. This is when the themes go public. I am nervous so I rush about before work doing things at double speed.

The cicadas have come out now and as I leave for work, they reach a deafening crescendo. I get to work and my computer decides to play tag with me all morning, but I ignore it. Then suddenly it’s all over “ the blue screen of death floats in front of me. When the computer technician turns up, I discover that a cicada had crawled into my computer and met its unfortunate demise.

Luckily for me, Anja Bretfeld (Arts NT) and Ruth Smiles (RAA) take the reins and somehow the EOI document magically appears on the website, on schedule.

Thursday and Friday: Time is moving quickly “ Christmas is almost here, New Year and then 2008! The countdown has begun “ art at the heart is only nine months away. Expressions of Interest close on January 31st. I’ve been in the job for only a few weeks but already I am conscious of how important this event is for the artist and arts workers who work, often alone, in regional and remote Australia. For them it is a real chance to gather, meet, and to let their ideas and creativity cross-pollinate and flower. I keep being reminded what a drawcard this very beautiful arid landscape of Alice Springs is and I hope it translates into serious delegate numbers.

The conference is timed brilliantly, because it follows straight on from the Desert Mob Festival which has become one of the Territory’s most popular events where visitors can see and buy art that arrives in from the surrounding Aboriginal arts centres in central Australia. It is yet another good reason for people to come to Alice for art at the heart.

Regional Arts Australia promotes the development of the arts for the one in three Australians who live in regional, rural and remote parts of the country. It gives a voice to artists and puts culture at the heart of community life across country Australia.

Media enquiries: Regional Arts Australia Communications Manager Vivienne Skinner 0411 206 224