23 August 2022

Trailblazer Susan Ryan to be celebrated with public art work

| Ian Bushnell
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Susan Ryan with Bob Hawke

Senator Susan Ryan with Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1986: she had to be in the room where the decisions were being made. Photo: Museum of Australian Democracy.

The great men of history that dominate Canberra’s public spaces will be joined by one of the nation’s most prominent female trailblazers, the late Susan Ryan, who is to be depicted in a public artwork commissioned by the ACT Government.

The government is inviting expressions of interest from artists to create a public artwork to commemorate the life of Susan Maree Ryan AO, whose distinguished career included many firsts.

She was the first Senator for the Australian Capital Territory, the first woman appointed to a Labor frontbench position, the only woman in the first Hawke ministry and the first Age Discrimination Commissioner.

The government will spend $200,000 on the landmark artwork, part of the response to the paucity of women represented in public artworks in the ACT.

It said Ms Ryan, who died in 2020 aged 77, dedicated her life to public service through many different roles, both in public office as a Senator for the ACT and minister in the Hawke government, as well as in senior roles in the private and public sector.

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Arts Minister Tara Cheyne said she made a significant contribution to the advancement of women through her ministerial office roles and her role in creating the Sex Discrimination Act – a substantial and enduring reform that changed Australia.

Her daughter Justine Butler said her mother, a former shadow arts minister interested in public culture and an advocate for gender equality, would have loved the idea.

“We’re genuinely really thrilled. It’s a great honour,” Ms Butler said.

She hoped the work would involve a body of water, such as a lake, because her mother loved the water, and that she would be depicted as a Senator.

Ms Butler described her mother as a tough, resilient woman whose axiom, while fully aware of the hurdles she faced, was to just get on with it.

“She didn’t really want to spend a lot of time talking about it even though people asked about it because to her, it was like, ‘Well, I was the only woman but there needed to be women in the room where decisions were being made. And therefore I got myself there’.

“In discussions about diversity in Australia, now people often say, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ and, of course, that’s true to a point. But then there are also people like my mother, who genuinely were the first ones to do something. I guess that’s what a trailblazer is.”

Woman in an office with books

Susan Ryan: a life of firsts. Photo: ANU.

Ms Butler said Parliament in those days was such a different place that she and Senator Margaret Guilfoyle had to lobby for an actual women’s bathroom for the Senate.

She said her mother was a mentor and role model to many women in the Labor Party and across the aisle.

“She really genuinely encouraged them to keep going, to just kind of get on with the work because there’s still so much work to be done,” Ms Butler said.

Ms Butler said she hoped the artwork would inspire young people to become involved in public life and promote great conversation.

“That’s what we hope for as a family,” she said. “I’m hoping particularly younger people might walk past and think, who is that woman? Why is there a statue of her? What did she do?

“Maybe I could do that. That would be the best possible result, and I think that’s what’s great about public art.”

Ms Butler said her mother’s legacy could be seen in the new Parliament’s great diversity and the fact that politics did not have to be limited to one kind of person.

“We see so many women, diverse backgrounds, different ages, people with disability,” she said. “It’s looking so much more like what Australia is actually like.

“You don’t have to go to a particular school. You don’t have to be a man.”

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Ms Cheyne said Canberra’s public art should capture the diversity of human identity and experience and this was now a priority for the government when expanding the collection.

In 2021 the Member for Yerrabi Suzanne Orr presented a petition to the Legislative Assembly from Jasiri Australia calling for more statues of women in the Territory.

In the 2021-22 Budget, the government committed $200,000 to commission a public artwork by a female or non-binary artist to celebrate a significant woman and help address this imbalance in gender representation.

artsACT will be advertising for expressions of interest for this project in the coming weeks.

To learn more, email artsact@act.gov.au to be included on the mailing list.

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Capital Retro4:45 pm 23 Aug 22

The statue would compliment the one of Al Grasby inside the entrance to the Museum of London Circuit.

Well deserved indeed! Susan was an absolute trailblazer well respected by all. I do hope she is looking down!

I don’t have anything against Susan Ryan but I’m not sure that you can say “that she dedicated her life to public service” – that title should be reserved for those doing unpaid volunteer work.

To my knowledge she was very well paid for the work she did during her life.

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