Kevin McLeod of Grand Designs said, Buildings have a powerful potential to heal. This is a rare place of healing, built in 1937 for WWI veterans, where over 1,000 survivors per week of all conflicts and battles from Gallipoli to Long Tan have come for rehabilitation support.
Quiet efforts over the past few years by a dedicated team to preserve this WWI related site from sale to developers, during this Centenary of WWI period, have been to provide a sustainable world’s best practice, Arts and health response to the growing challenges faced by veterans, for whom this place was built. We aim to make 310 SKR, once again, a place of supported healing for veterans with a shared lived experience of war and service.
Government currently spends $180 million on mental health; that clinicians themselves admit is only partially effective. Our political leaders and ex-service organisations have all called for more to be done. The Chief of Defence recently said more needs to be done outside the medical system to support veteran’s mental health. Frankly, something different needs to be done. At ANVAM, a unique charity dedicated to the Arts for the ADF and veterans, we emphasise innovation in service delivery; to change the paradigm while working collaboratively with Government, DVA and veteran communities for a common goal; the wellbeing and quality of life of our veteran survivors. Part of our approach to innovation is to learn from the first Australian’s, including our local Wurundjeri people, about the role of the Arts in creating community and their proud culture and identity. Thanks to this place the possibilities for learning and innovation are enormous; Books will be written, doctorates awarded and lives changed.
Applying the Arts to veteran’s mental and social health is not new. Our highly professional and qualified creative Arts facilitators have worked in clinical and community settings with survivors in their 90s through to family members in their early teens for over a decade now. Our person centred approach tailors facilitated Arts engagement that can and has been, for many, transformative. One young veteran, for example, wrote that he was a soldier and now calls himself an artist.
By providing hope, purpose, dignity and validation of service through facilitated Arts we are indirectly addressing social issues like homelessness and unemployment, particularly during times of transition. We are, in effect, putting into practice the words of one surgeon and elite sportsman, military leader and prisoner of war; Weary Dunlop when he said “give the troop’s access to the Arts so that they may have an interest in life”! Weary would have travelled past here on a daily basis after the war; and I can imagine how he would have wondered through those doors to check on the wellbeing of the survivors inside.
There are also many veterans whose experience of service has been extremely positive. Through the Arts we are able to celebrate their experiences and pay tribute to them too. Some of Australia’s most celebrated artists who have contributed enormously to Australia’s culture and identity, are also veterans or family members; Banjo Paterson, Sidney Nolan, Clifton Pugh, Bud Tingwell, Jack Thompson, Judith Durum, Anthony Field and Richard Flanagan to name a few. It was a veteran, Gordon Darling, who founded the National Portrait Gallery and eight veterans share 23 Archibald prizes for portraiture between them. Decorated naval veteran Ken Myer led the NGV for many years and our current Federal Arts Minister is a veteran. The Prime Minister’s recent public reflections on his veteran grandfather includes references to the Arts and the Defence Minister has said she was “Particularly encouraged to pursue her own interest in the Arts by her father, a veteran of WWII”; which is an opportunity we aspire to for all veterans. The last veteran to serve as Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, established our peak Arts body, the Australia Council; with whom we aim to establish a positive relationship.
While only slightly out of context, when Winston Churchill asked, “for so much what shall we repay?”, perhaps the answer is that we, as a nation, owe it to our veterans to given them a cultural place of their own. It is also, in part, an answer to the call of one young veteran, James Brown, in his book ANZAC’s Long Shadow, for a place for younger veterans to tell their stories. To achieve this ANVAM aims to create, here at 310SKR, that place for all veterans to feel that they can come and leave their mark; to tell their own story, authentically, on canvas or clay, in song or film, on stage or a page. We invite all veterans, young and old, to be involved and feel a part of this place that has already heard so many stories of survival, and will honour and hold dearly all of those yet to be told. And we ask for the generous help of all Australian’s in creating this place of healing, and celebration of survival, for our veteran community.
Over nine fortnights from early march to late June, ANVAM has been running a series of visual art workshops at the new Soldier On HQ on Royal Parade in Melbourne. Happily, participants have been generous enough to leave many of their gorgeous artworks to brighten the fresh walls of the designated art room at Soldier On, showcasing the various themes and materials that have been employed, from landscape to doodle art and collage to photography to paint. Each session has had its own character and energy, shaped by the shared concentration of the dynamically changing group. Often, apart from gentle music, there is silence as people enter their own imaginations, but there is also periodic conversation, mostly about the artwork or observations arising from it and as often giving voice to a sense of commonality and identification as to surprise or curiosity. A sense of pleasure and achievement has been a tangible end-note to each session so far – we love to hear people say ‘I never knew I could..’ and then immediately begin to plan their next piece: it inspires us in our personal artwork and in our work at ANVAM: a big thankyou to all our participants so far.
The founders of the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum (ANVAM), have been asked a number of times “Does it have to be THAT build?”, meaning 310 St Kilda Rd, Southbank in Melbourne (#310SKR).
In responding to these question, it has always been a resounding “Yes!”, and this is why.
Opened on 15 November 1937 as the Repatriation Commission Outpatient Clinic, #310SKR was built explicitly for the survivors of WWI; to help the survivors endure their ongoing conditions almost 20 years after the end of the war. It appears that the extent of the challenges and suffering for veterans two decades after the end of hostilities remained so significant that a building of this scale was required. Evidence of the numbers of veterans to walk through the doors validates this perception with over 1,000 per week seeking medical treatment in the facility. This is consistent with the figure of 150,000 casualties to return from the war.
Such a direct connection in Australia to the survivors of WWI is not unique, but it is rare. What is perhaps even more unusual is the proximity of a place like #310SKR, dedicated to supporting military veterans and survivors of war, to a place ostensibly built in commemoration of those who died during war, i.e. Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. Literally opposite each other on St Kilda Rd, these two buildings also hint at a metaphor for the respective prominence Australia’s war dead has in our collective consciousness compared to survivors of war and of service. Arguably the relatively high focus on the dead can be traced to the survivors of WWI themselves due to the grief associated with the unprecedented high death rate.
To many veterans and families a connection to previous generations is important in supporting their identity as members of the military veteran community. The few opportunities to express this connection are often in places of solemn commemoration like the Shrine of Remembrance, the Australian War Memorial and other memorials spread throughout Australia. Other opportunities of connecting to previous generations are limited to attending the local Return and Services League sub-branch or military museums where displays of artefacts of war are put on display.
This building, nearly 80 years old, provides a unique opportunity for a permanent and, importantly, a living tribute to all survivors of war and of service. While sitting alongside the Shrine of Remembrance, #310SKR is rightfully, and like all veterans, understated and modest in the shadow of our places of commemoration to those killed while serving overseas.
More than this, #310SKR allows us to continue the role of the former ‘Repat Clinic’ as a place of healing for veterans. In its new incarnation, ANVAM aims to transform #310SKR into a modern day place of healing through the Arts and, in so doing, provide a further connection between veterans of all eras.
Further significance of #310SKR is its location within Melbourne’s Arts precinct, and adjacent to Victoria Barracks Melbourne. These two features, along with its availability, history, location, size and layout, make #310SKR unrivalled to be the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum.