When the Wheeler Centre – originally known as the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, and established in 2008 in response to Melbourne becoming a UNESCO City of Literature – first opened its doors to the public in 2010, it had already had a change of personnel behind the scenes.
‘I was appointed as the inaugural director back in – was it 2008? I can't remember. Maybe 2009? I was living in New York and for personal reasons I couldn’t take up the opportunity then. But I’m thrilled to take it on now. It was a great job back then and it's a great job now. It’s a dream come true,’ said the Wheeler Centre’s new CEO, Caro Llewellyn.
A writer, festival founder and Artistic Director, Llewellyn is the author of several works of non-fiction, including the Stella Prize-shortlisted memoir, Diving into Glass, described as ‘a searing, often funny portrait of the realities of disability’.
She began her literary career as a publicist with Random House before being appointed as Artistic Director and CEO of Sydney Writers’ Festival (2002–2006). In 2006, Llewellyn was recruited by Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie to run the PEN World Voices Festival, which he had established for the human rights organisation, PEN America, in New York City. She was also the artistic director of both the New Literature from Europe Festival in New York (2013–2015) and the Paris-based Festival des Écrivains du Monde for Columbia University (2012–2015).
Llewellyn returned to Australia in 2017 after 11 years living and working overseas to take up the position of Director of Experience and Engagement of Museums Victoria. Most recently, she established Together-Remotely.com, a ticketed online program of live curated events designed to support writers, readers, booksellers and publishers impacted by COVID-19 lockdowns.
As she prepares to join the Wheeler Centre officially on 15 July, Llewellyn paid tribute to her predecessors, Chrissy Sharp (2009–2011) and Michael Williams (20011- 2020).
‘They’ve just done an amazing job at putting this institution on the cultural map – the cultural and intellectual map of this city, but also the country. I think the Wheeler Centre has done exactly what it set out to do, and that is to foster great conversations and dialogue and debate. It’s been exemplary in that.’
The Wheeler Centre’s recent celebration of its 10th anniversary was the perfect time to join the organisation, Llewellyn continued.
‘These big milestone birthdays are good places to stop and reflect and look back over the last 10 years and then look forward for the next decade,’ she explained.
‘That’s an amazing moment to walk into an organisation and say, “All right, well, why do we want to do this and how do we want to do it?” And obviously COVID-19 presents a lot of challenges and a lot of opportunities, so it’s an interesting moment to be coming into the organisation, with the rules of business and the model of what we’ve been doing suddenly challenged out of the blue. How are we going to reframe and recast that? That will be really interesting.’
Read: Celebrating our City of Literature
Llewellyn sees the disruption caused by COVID-19 as a valuable catalyst for revisiting previously hidebound business practices.
'We have to rethink the idea that everybody has to be sitting in an office together to get their work done, which is a really wonderful thing for people with young families and people with carer responsibilities – we don’t have to be in an office. I think that this has been a very outmoded way of doing business for a long time, and COVID has given us a pause to think about it,' she explained.
Llewellyn's appointment welcomed
Victoria’s Creative Industries Minister, the Hon. Martin Foley MP, has welcomed Llewellyn’s appointment.
‘The Wheeler Centre has played an important part in our ideas and books ecology for a decade; hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis the Centre is at a critical point for its future direction. Caro Llewellyn has the credentials, connections and creativity to navigate these challenging times and I am sure the future of the Wheeler Centre and its many partners will be in safe hands,’ Foley said in a statement.
‘The Victorian Government will continue to be a key backer for the centre as it seeks new and different ways to engage with wider and more diverse audiences.’
Wheeler Centre Chair, Susan Oliver AM FAICD, said: ‘Caro brings exciting and highly relevant local and international experience to the Wheeler Centre in this, its second decade. Her energy and her love of ideas, discussion and the written word artform are infectious. We feel certain she will uphold with great skill and passion the Wheeler Centre’s mission to support writers, publishers and booksellers, and to engage the community in good writing and challenging ideas.’
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONVERSATION
Promoting and empowering diverse voices is a mission that Llewellyn is particularly keen to embrace.
‘I think that in every direction, we are being pushed to think through very difficult and challenging questions. Whether you look at race, history, gender, the #MeToo movement, all of these things – the more that we can sit down together and talk – and not just with the people who agree with us, but the people who disagree with us – the more we can shift the dial and move people to change. And I think that that’s really important,’ she told ArtsHub.
‘I think that’s a critical role of this institution, of the Wheeler Centre, that it has rigorous, thoughtful, thought-provoking, provocative conversations around really tricky issues that we’re all trying to get our heads around and come to terms with.’
Given recent cuts to the ABC and the Federal Government’s decision to significantly increase fees for tertiary study of the arts and humanities, the Wheeler Centre’s role as a facilitator of public discourse is more important than ever, Llewellyn continued.
‘This move for higher fees around arts degrees, I think that that means that there’s a greater imperative for these forums to happen outside of educational institutions. These conversations should be part of our everyday life and they should be open to as many people as we can reach, and a really diverse audiences as well,’ she said.
‘These conversations should be part of our everyday life and they should be open to as many people as we can reach, and a really diverse audiences as well.’
Given her lived experience with multiple sclerosis, as well as having a 360-degree view of the literature sector given her career to date, Llewellyn is passionate about cultural inclusion in all its forms.
‘I think that’s a very important part of what we’re going to be doing, and I think it’s been a focus at the Wheeler Centre from the get-go, but I think the conversations are happening more urgently and we’re all a little bit more aware of it, which is a very fine thing.’
Building access into programming benefits everyone in the long term, Llewellyn continued.
‘Everything that we do to make an event accessible to somebody with a disability actually helps the general public … take steps, for example. For mothers with little babies and prams, steps are not good. It goes beyond just people with disabilities.’
Given her career to date, including stints at Sydney Writers Festival, PEN in New York, the Festival des Écrivains du Monde in France and the New Literature from Europe Festival, Llewellyn has worked with writers ‘from literally all over the world. I’ve learned a lot about writing in different countries in different languages, and so that’s been a wonderful, wonderful opportunity,’ she said.
‘I have been very lucky to work with the most extraordinary writers … but there’s also so many new writers I haven’t worked with before. The next generation – the astounding new voices that we’re being introduced to and the voices that we didn’t hear before. Latina and African-American writers, Aboriginal voices that we haven’t heard from and Indigenous voices that we haven’t heard before – I think that’s exciting and that’ll be a wonderful opportunity.’
Llewellyn will commence in her new role at the Wheeler Centre on Wednesday 15 July.