Our new communications officer Kathryn Allman offers up her view of Dream Big.

The Cootamundra Wattle is in full bloom already and it is a comforting indication that Spring is on the way. Much like the budding flowers and anticipation for warm weather, the annual Dream Big conference offered a wealth of fresh ideas and optimism for the future. Artists, administrators, bloggers, volunteers and regional arts supporters from across the state gathered in the Cootamundra Arts Centre to discuss movements in contemporary arts initiatives. It was a big day that consisted of two keynote addresses, a panel discussion, a how-to presentation, a PechaKucha (of sorts) that showcased seven of the latest regional arts projects and a choice of three workshops. Somehow, there were two breaks for lunch and afternoon tea, which were served up by the kind and generous volunteers at the Arts Centre.

Why can’t it [art] be more like our lives: messy, slightly dangerous and completely unknown?”  Lisa Havilah

The day began with a warm welcome to country from Wiradjuri man Bob Glanville and his grandson Peter Beath. Councillor Paul Braybrooks welcomed visitors to Cootamundra and the new Arts Centre. Lisa Havilah kicked things off with the first keynote address that focused on her involvement in regional arts and experience as the director of Sydney-based organisation Carriageworks. Lisa emphasised the importance of artist-led projects and placing less focus on numbers and more focus on challenging exhibitions. In regard to the traditional art institution’s approach to community engagement, she said, “Why can’t it be more like our lives: messy, slightly dangerous and completely unknown?” She encouraged the attendees at Dream Big to stop trying to make things simple and allow for art projects to disturb, arouse or delight viewers, because that is what great art does best.

While explaining a few of projects both from Carriageworks and Campbelltown Arts Centre including “Big Pinko,” “Edge of Elsewhere” and “Romance was Born,” she stated that the keys to the success of contemporary arts initiatives are collaboration, exchange and dialogue. It is important that she and her team maintain and support a space where community members can interact and expand on their creative ambitions. On the Carriageworks space, Cootamundra Arts Centre and regional arts spaces across the country she said, “The cultural leaders of today are here in these tin sheds.” Lisa’s thoughts on community and meaningful engagement with the arts set an energising tone for the remainder of the day.

There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in” Deepak Chopra

Tim McGarry, creative director and producer at the Monkey Baa Theatre Company, gave the second keynote address. He highlighted the imperative need to nurture creativity and imagination in young people. As a young boy he longed to be a wide range of people from the Pope and Sally Field in “The Flying Nun” to the local “quacker,” an oldie who spoke like Donald Duck due to the lack of a particular amount of teeth. Tim expressed, “There is no better way than imaginary play,” and emphasised the importance of the creative process. He explained that every one has the capacity to encourage creativity and cultivate it early in young minds. Even if the final product does not resonate directly with someone else, the final product will be innovative, distinct and special to the person who created it. As long as there is an allowance for personal growth Tim says, “The arts is a real tool for teaching life skills.” His moving personal stories and solid passion for imagination brought many laughs and a few tears to audience members.

The outcomes are limitless when you give someone a budget and support.” Nikita Agzarian

The panel discussion “So You Have A Venue, Now What?” started with Nikita Agzarian, Alicia Leggett and Elise McGrath giving a brief introduction to the venues they dreamed up and opened in various parts of NSW. Nikita opened Giant Dwarf in Sydney’s Redfern after recognising a need for low cost, accessible entertainment. She took some inspiration from her “clubbing days” and opened the space as an alternative venue for comedy shows, storytelling, theatre events and musical performances. Giant Dwarf offers a host of other activities and Nikita explained, “The outcomes are limitless when you give someone a budget and support.”

Orana Arts’ Alicia Leggett opened Fire Station Arts Centre in Dubbo out of an old fire station acquired from the Department of Local Aboriginal Land Council. The Fire Station hosts performances, visual arts shows, artist in residency opportunities and community projects. They often work together with the Western Plains Cultural Centre. Soup Sessions are a recurring event at the venue where $15 gets attendees a cup of soup and a vote towards the community project pitch that they think is the most deserving of an amount of funding.

Elise McGrath explained that the formation of the Cootamundra Arts Centre was a long labor of love. She said, “We are generalists by nature,” and wanted a space where every body could use their creative skills, what ever they may be, to share and connect with the community. The Arts Centre is the perfect example of what Lisa Havilah meant by the tin sheds that house cultural leaders in regional NSW. The building consists of an exhibition space, a black-box theatre, visual arts studio, drawing room and kitchen. After Dream Big, the Centre will host a performance from a strings ensemble, a screening of the Academy Award nominated film “Still Alice” and a workshop on the Paverpol figurine. The Centre has an amazing team of 1.5 staff members supported by valued volunteers who give their time to make cultural events happen. These three women echoed the sentiment that their venues need to exist as places not only for artists to share their talents, but also for members of the community to connect with the arts and each other. There was even talk of a Giant Dwarf and Cootamundra Arts Centre collaboration in the near future!

“The arts community is powerful, imaginative and skillful.” Tamara Winikoff

Next was a Skype conversation with Tamara Winikoff, Executive Director of NAVA, on how to pitch arts advocacy to politicians. She suggested that the initial pitch should emulate an elevator and last no longer than a minute and a half. Essentially, start simply then go up and up until ending with what is needed from the politician. In this approach, it is important to be informed (do the research), purposeful (incorporate personal experiences), anthropological (be aware of the nature of the politician as a human being), strategic (build alliances with other organisations) and enduring (gather public support and community engagement). Tamara also encouraged attendees to keep their cool, be willing to negotiate and never take no for an answer. She reminded the group that, “The arts community is powerful, imaginative and skillful.”

Dream big, but start small.” – Victoria Lowe

Later in the afternoon, came the rapid-fire blitz of seven recent and future regional arts projects. The seven speakers had approximately seven minutes each to share their project with group. First, Cootamundra’s Sarah Last spoke about The Wired Lab’s digital media meets ham radio culture venture. Gemma Meier from Grong Grong spoke about the proposed “Earth Park” and met its initial criticism from council members with the statement, “Critics are your best friends.” Louise Cooper from Leeton shared “For Prosperity’s Sake,” a creative ageing project that used storytelling and animation to connect children and seniors from her region. Wagga Wagga’s Victoria Lowe presented “Hall-A-Day Adventures,” a project that utilised gathering halls in nine rural villages to bring together families who are curious about culture; Victoria stated, “Dream big, but start small.” Eastern Riverina Arts’ Scott Howie shared “BOLD: Selfies by Oldies,” a photography project that supports creative ageing. Greg Pritchard from Regional Arts NSW presented a promotional video for Artlands 2016: Dubbo. Kylie Dunston ended with a brief presentation about REROC’s volunteer recruitment.

The last event of the day was a “choose-your-own-adventure” workshop. The choices included Riverina-grown and Sydney-based artist Jeff McCann’s “The New Workshop,” Scott Howie’s “It Takes A Village” and Wagga-based communications expert Vanessa Keenan’s “I Heart Instagram.” Each session was an adventure into the various aspects of gathering support for regional arts. Jeff addressed the changing nature of arts workshops by creating original illustrations for attendees to color in, which culminated in a Dream Big coloring book. Scott utilised valuable brainstorming tactics to demonstrate the process of a project’s growth and Vanessa shared how to generate support for regional arts organisations through social media. Vanessa explained that, “Instagram is a way to grab someone’s attention in a second.” The social media platform uses hashtags and personal tags to generate support for organizations and social causes. It can also be used to meaningfully engage with members of the social sphere and push the visibility of regional centers and arts projects.

The speakers are great because they encourage me to think about initiatives that I could implement in my community.” – Bernadette

Eastern Riverina Arts’ Tim Kurylowicz offered a wrap-up of the day featuring some of the speakers’ most poignant nuggets of wisdom. Attendees had a lot to mull over on the drive back to their regional hubs, but there were strong aspirations of attending next year’s Dream Big conference. Krystal and Hannah from Leeton’s Roxy Theatre attended last year’s conference and came to Cootamundra to hear the diverse range of speakers and ogle at the town’s new black-box theatre, they said, “It is a great networking opportunity and you always learn something new.” Bernadette and Cathy from Ganmain came out to gather ideas to diversify the future events held at Ganmain Hall. Bernadette explained, “The speakers are great because they encourage me to think about initiatives that I could implement in my community.” It is clear that Dream Big is as much an opportunity for arts workers to share their projects and experiences, as it is an opportunity for attendees to acquire the skills, ideas and inspiration to carry out projects in their towns. It is this balance that sustains the strength and endurance of regional arts.

Be open to constant change.” – Lisa Havilah

One of Lisa Havilah’s major sentiments was, “Be open to constant change.” This statement could be the broad theme of the day. Things are always changing from federal government movements to the repurposing of a small town’s old country depot into an arts centre. This year’s Dream Big conference showed how regional arts initiatives shine bright in the face of adversity. They are the projects that bring small towns together and nourish their residents’ growth and wellbeing. After a long Winter, it is a relief to see flowers pop out and paint the country in rich, vibrant shades of Spring. This diverse beauty should be a sign for communities to shed their wooly sweaters, climb out of hibernation and embrace their imagination and creativity.

Stay in touch:


The Arts Centre Cootamundra


Monkey Baa Theatre Company

Giant Dwarf Theatre

Fire Station Arts Centre


The Wired Lab

Grong Grong Earth Park

Western Riverina Arts

Eastern Riverina Arts

Regional Arts NSW


Jeff McCann

Comms & Co

Western Riverina Arts have also provided a great wrap-up. Check it out here