Exit Interview: Ashleigh Wilson, Arts Editor at The Australian

As he leaves The Australian, Ashleigh Wilson wraps up two decades with the paper, half of which was spent shaping its arts coverage. How has he seen The Australian and arts criticism change in that time?
Exit Interview: Ashleigh Wilson, Arts Editor at The Australian Ashleigh Wilson. Image Mclean Stephenson.
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George Dunford

Monday 29 June, 2020

For his final column in The Australian, Ashleigh Wilson invoked Ned Kelly and Karl Marx (‘Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.’) all topped with an image of Brad Pitt menacing the camera with a Bowie knife at the end of Inglorious Basterds. It was tough to find words to sum up the two decades he’s been with News Corp after the organisation tore ‘down Rupert Murdoch’s “silo model” of journalism’ and made 13 journalists redundant at The Australian alone.

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Wilson was at the paper through stints in Brisbane and Darwin (where he won a Walkely for his coverage of carpetbagging in Aboriginal art). He returned to Sydney in 2008 and took on the mantle of Arts Editor in 2011 – where he covered a national beat that ranged from Brett Whiteley to Bluey. Somewhere in all of this he found the time to write two books – one on Whiteley, and On Artists which explored the connection between artists and their unethical actions.

Here, Wilson responds to our questions about the future of arts criticism, News Corp, and what's next in his career.

ArtsHub: Tell us a little about your career before The Australian and what brought you to the role?

Ashleigh Wilson: It feels like a lifetime ago, but before becoming a journalist I considered myself a jazz pianist. That’s how I made a living, such as it was. Whether I had much of a future in that world is another question, so I made my way by circuitous route to Holt Street, Surry Hills, News Corporation’s Australian HQ in Sydney, where I landed a job as a copykid, fetching faxes and coffees and answering phones. They later gave me a cadetship at The Australian, launching me into several wonderful years around the country in various roles, first as a general reporter in Sydney and then in Brisbane before moving north to become Darwin correspondent. They’re a forgiving lot in the north, which explains why I was invited to play keyboards in the Fourth Estate, a ramshackle musical ensemble led by the likes of Chips Mackinolty, Jamie Gallacher and the late Andrew McMillan. I wrote some stories too, but that band was something else.

AH: Before you were arts editor, you were Darwin correspondent and won a Walkley for your work on Indigenous Affairs. How did that inform your role as Arts Editor?

AW: Darwin was a great adventure, a never-ending process of education and growth. It was a similar story for me in Brisbane, where I was lucky to be able to cover a range of stories, including the downfall of Peter Hollingworth – but I was on my own in the Northern Territory, thousands of kilometres from head office, all of which forces a certain kind of focus and perspective that doesn’t really exist elsewhere.

When I returned to Sydney from Darwin, I quickly made my way towards the arts desk, run at the time with great poise by Matthew Westwood. It felt like home. After a few years as Matthew’s deputy, I was given the daunting task of taking over as arts editor in 2011.

To this day I’m still amazed by the opportunities I was given, from interviews with high profile figures like Ai Weiwei in Paris or Matt Damon in Sydney to the constant exposure to some of the most dynamic creative minds around the world. If there’s a better job in the media, I can’t think of it. But more significantly, it also offered a daily reminder of the centrality of the arts to our lives and to our national character. Hence the importance of strong, robust coverage of cultural affairs, not just at The Australian but across the media in general.

AH: The Australian covers the national arts scene in a way few other newspapers can. How do you balance the tensions of covering local vs national?

AW: It’s a tricky balance, but experience helps. It also helps to have a stable of critics who know the grassroots, which is why I always encouraged reviewers to suggest shows that might have otherwise have escaped my notice. As a national paper, the focus tends to fall regularly but not exclusively upon the major players, whether that’s the state galleries or major performing arts group.

Sometimes it’s a question of scale, but at other times it’s about access: the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for instance, will perform in many cities across the country in ways that, say, Perth’s Co:3 may not. What will readers value more? There’s no easy answer, though it would be wrong to settle on the major players alone. On one day we could run a feature on a small regional company making interesting work while on another, it could be all about The Australian Ballet or a major musical bankrolled by the state. The challenge is to identify and reflect the breadth of activity across the country. An imperfect science but a stimulating challenge.

AH: What changes have you observed in the arts sector over the last 10 years?

AW: The arts moves in step with the world around it, and so it’s been impossible to ignore the attempts to boost diversity across the sector in terms of participation and access, as well as the stories being told. The result is undoubtedly a richer experience for all.

It’s also been impossible to miss the debates about how to reframe the work of the past. We’ve seen it in recent weeks with Gone with the Wind – a famous film, but no masterpiece – as part of a general angst about work out of step with our time. Away from the daily culture wars, audiences are looking anew at work from artists considered problematic, from Picasso and Donald Friend to Michael Jackson and Woody Allen. It’s a debate worth having. We should be asking tough questions about the work around us, though I’m uncomfortable with any moves to delete or cancel works from the past. Perhaps the Queensland Art Gallery had it right last year when it acknowledged Donald Friend’s past in a label beside one of his paintings. Did I mention I wrote a short book about this very issue?

Arts funding has become a contested space as well. There’s long been close scrutiny of government subsidies, but recently there have been more questions asked about private funding too. From the Sydney Biennale stand-off in 2014 to the backlash over the Sackler family at major galleries around the world, private patronage is no longer a benevolent space where sins are forgiven. It’s a fascinating, fluid moment, and this story has a long way to go.

AH: How has working at News Corp changed over that period?

AW: Like all newspapers, The Australian and other News Corp papers around the world have been busy reckoning with a profound shift in the way news is consumed. It’s an old story, but those with long memories can still remember an industry supported by rivers of gold and long lunches and pay phones, and it’s remarkable how much everything has changed in only a few decades.

I can remember when the internet first appeared in the newsroom: a single computer, one desktop upon which most people visited occasionally to check Hotmail. From there of course the model has shifted dramatically. Online audiences are steadily overtaking readers in print, so editors and reporters have turned their focus to the digital product in ways that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. It’s a demanding immediacy, exhausting and thrilling, but we’re constantly seeing incredible innovations taking place as media organisations look for new ways to tell stories. Along the way new conversations are opening up, thanks in part to social media, with readers no longer passive recipients of news product but more engaged than ever.

The core remains the same – trust, clarity, insight, engaging stories, breaking news and so on – but everyone needs to be a lot more agile and creative to keep up. Also worth pointing out that, amid all this upheaval, the senior editors of The Australian always believed in the importance of the arts and arts coverage, and that commitment remains to this day.

AH: What are the biggest challenges facing arts criticism today?

AW: There’s not a lot of money around. Everyone knows this. Not much space, either. But within those constraints, there have never been more voices across more platforms, a multiplicity of opinion that will continue to evolve. Those constraints are tough, though, and the challenge is to find sustainable models that value considered thought and nuanced criticism. There are some encouraging experiments underway in Australia and beyond, so I’m confident that the future is not as bleak as some fear, even if the traditional routes to publication might not be what they once were. Emerging critics also need to be alert to the role of publicists: those guys are not the enemy, not by a long shot, but their priorities and objectives don’t necessarily align with the writer’s. More on this later, but it’s important to be clear about the fundamentals when it comes to being an arts journalist or a critic.

AH: Your final column for the paper said 'We must conjure an ending that offers a sense of resolution and completeness.' What would you like to be remembered for in this role? 

AW: I also quoted Brad Pitt scalping a Nazi, which was a nice way to go out. I wouldn’t want to overstate my importance, but as arts editor I’d like to be remembered for helping to shape the nation’s most respected cultural coverage, some of which I was fortunate enough to contribute to myself.

AH: What advice would you give to someone entering into arts journalism today?

To read widely and to keep an open mind. And unless they’re working for a trade publication, they should remember that they’re telling stories for readers, not industry insiders. You’d be surprised how many people appear to overlook this point. It’s not the responsibility of arts journalists to promote individual companies or shows. The allegiance of journalists is to the reader, not the industry.

Another obvious point but an important one: arts journalism exists as part of a broader journalistic context. Consider Michaela Boland’s investigations into stolen Indian artefacts at the National Gallery of Australia, or Rosemary Neill’s revelations about the late Dorothy Hewett, or the pursuit of Harvey Weinstein by Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey and Ronan Farrow. Do we need to call this arts journalism? It’s specialised reporting, to be sure, involving considerable stores of knowledge, insight and contacts. But there’s no need to limit its scope: let’s just call it journalism.

AH: What's next?

AW: I’ve got a few projects at various levels of development, and there will be more books, but at this stage I’m happy just to take a break before jumping back into the world.

About the author

George Dunford is Content Director at ArtsHub and Screenhub. He has written for Meanjin, The Big Issue, Lonely Planet, The Good Food Guide and others. He has worked in digital leadership roles in the cultural sector for more than 10 years including at the National Library of Australia, National Museum of Australia and the Wheeler Centre.

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