October has been big for Esther Anatolitis, with not one but two major appointments. First came the editorship of Australia’s pre-eminent literary journal, Meanjin, and less than a week later, federal arts minister, Tony Burke announced her appointment on the council of the National Gallery of Australia.
“It’s an absolute coincidence that the two were announced at the same time; it takes a few months for a national cultural institution process,” an overwhelmed Anatolitis tells Neos Kosmos. “The minister rang and made the offer just a few weeks after the election. So this is how long it’s taken.”
“In addition to Meanjin, the role sits within my broader focus around championing the the ideas that are most important to Australia today and into the future.”
Anatolitis, an arts advocate and consultant, has two decades’ experience working in arts and media leadership roles. She is the former CEO of Express Media and Voiceworks publisher, a founder of the Emerging Writers’ Festival and a founding partner of the Small Press Network, among other roles in the literary sector.
Under Nick Mitzevich’s, leadership and insistence at the NGA more artists voices are leading cultural agendas, something she feels very positive about.
“We are on the same page. I bring quite a unique perspective not coming from top end of town business, major philanthropy, or the corporate world we usually see on boards. I bring the perspective of artists, how they live and work, how they engage with that really, you know, fast moving and adventurous.”
Anatolitis is determined to keep the independent theme alive, and ensure that their rights and the challenges artists face with chronically low average incomes are not just observed but upheld and championed by galleries in the national conversation.
“I’m also deeply interested in the strategy that the gallery develops. Who visits and and where they’re from; who visits for the first time and how they are welcomed. What’s that long term relationship? What’s the experience of being in the gallery, whose voices do they hear. And that’s especially critical for First Nations arts and Australia’s multiethnic culture,” she explains.
Within that context Anatolitis is determined to spotlight and champion female artists.
“How many female Australian artists can can we name, really?” she asks delving into the work that has historically been collected often based on structural and unconscious biases.
“The collection, of course, is majority male. We want to secure a gender balance in public programming, that people of all genders are presented, and with acquisitions going forward, making sure that that disparity is readdressed. The collection of the National Gallery is estimated close to $7 billion, making it, by far one of the most important and and valuable assets that the Australian Government owns. It is also worth more than every other collection of every public gallery in Australia put together.
“At the moment this is art created in its majority by men, very few women, non Anglo people, First Nations people… and the collection of First Nations art is extraordinary,” Anatolitis stresses.
Similarly, at Meanjin, Anatolitis’ role focuses on publishing the finest the best Australian writing, which means work from a really broad range of writers, diverse in age, in culture, in gender, in the genre of writing.
“I want to see more work in other languages, greater prominence of First Nations writing and more multicultural perspective from both the best emerging and well established writers in the publication’s pages.”
Independent publishing, is one of the spaces of great cultural diversity in Australia, partly because anyone who’s involved in writing and publishing is hungry for new perspectives. As the internet becomes more and more cluttered with writing, the timely disposability of the online space makes us more hungry for that durable, familiar, yet timeless content, the work that is in print.
“That’s why we do what we do. Whether it’s new and groundbreaking writers from entirely different backgrounds or a seasoned voice, in publishing especially in print, we’re thinking a lot more. You sit down, you embrace this journal, you spend time with it, and you collect it, and you keep it. And you appreciate this cultural moment, and you inhabit it, and you’re part of it. To me, books, journals and literary magazines are here to stay and are growing.”
LESSONS FROM HERITAGE
Diversity in art and literature is an integral part of Anatolitis’ identity. Freedom of expression and respect for the difference of opinions and points of view is something deeply political for her.
“That’s one thing that is an active conversation for us as Greeks. Politics isn’t what somebody else does, and then visits upon us,” she tells Neos Kosmos.
“The political space is for all of us to contribute to, and we can do that as writers as artists, as voters, as people having a conversation with family, but it’s not a space that we give away to anyone else. That is a fundamental part of Greek identity. A reflection of democracy in our inner and outer world.”
As a first generation Greek Australian, Anatolitis can recall a time when she had to stand up for her right to differ, for her right to freely express her opinion and trust that her voice would have the exact same weight to that of her Anglo peers. That change for Anatolitis starts in school, in early education; a space that Greek schools in Australia have been making big strides in recent years.
Anatolitis argues that Australia needs more teachers, thought provokers that will inspire the youth to think bigger, think differently, with audacity and with ambition.
“In Australia, teachers are not valued enough, be it the pay or the conditions. Ideally, students about to enter university should be excited about the prospect of being a teacher. I had a teacher early on who went out of her way to befriend my parents, to win their trust, so that they would allow me to go to a public selective primary school in years five and six, where my skills would be nurtured in a more focused way. Had she not done that there’s no way I’d be where I am today. Her name is Annemarie Wagener.”
At the same time, Anatolitis holds the power of the Greek community and family in reverence even though there can be friction when it comes to allowing diverse voices within the community to be heard. Often the older generations are still holding the reins and are not being very elastic in terms of what perspectives and what type of content gets out.
When Anatolitis thinks of her parents’ generation who migrated decades ago and felt -quite rightly- a sense of hostility from the broader Australian community, she recognises that they needed to protect and defend themselves against racism and prejudice. That meant, in many ways, preserving this rather exaggerated sense of what Hellenic greatness meant, or what being Greek Australian has meant.
“In a way we have suffered from what I call ‘progonoplixia‘. Even though in Greece people evolved and changed along with the rest of the world, in Australia, and other places where Greek people migrated, they did so escaping hardship and they wanted to give us, their children, a better life. But often they failed to consider that a better life meant a different life, not the same life they considered ideal at the time they left their homeland. A new reality does not mean an unsafe or hostile reality,” she says.
“We need to stop being afraid of change and use our cultural values to move forward, take an active interest in the decisions that shape our lives, our future and the younger generations’ future. That is the true essence of our heritage and our public duty, our civic duty as Greeks.”