ACT News

Canberra arts in shock over death of broadcaster and advocate Sylvie Stern

The Canberra arts community is in shock and mourning, following the loss of much loved broadcaster and arts activist Sylvie Stern on Wednesday.

Stern was also a writer and photographer, a former nightclub owner and ubiquitous figure in the local entertainment scene.

Canberra broadcaster and arts activist Sylvie Stern.
Canberra broadcaster and arts activist Sylvie Stern. Photo: Richard Briggs

She died in hospital on Wednesday morning after being diagnosed with cancer.

A long-time broadcaster at 2XX, she presented the arts programs Art 'n' Soul and Artbeat, and volunteered as the arts sector member of the board.

2XX Board member and long-time associate Simon Kravis said Stern had been a fierce advocate for the station, especially during tough times.

"I think she is one of the people to whom the station owes its existence," he said.

"She's one of the people who stepped up when the station was under severe threat, and was very committed to its long-term survival."

Fellow presenter Sophie Verass, who worked with her for two years, said despite their age difference, Stern had always been both a friend and mentor.

"It was like, if you were in Year 7, she would be one of the cool people in Year 12 who let you hang out," she said.

She said the station had been inundated with messages from listeners who had known or been affected by Stern's work.

Throughout Wednesday, Twitter and Facebook were also swarming with heartfelt messages about Stern's loving, blunt but passionate and generous nature, with many expressing shock at Stern's passing.

Stern had lived in Canberra since 1993, and had become such a well-known figure that she was one of the subjects in a series of portraits by artist Barbara van der Linden in the Centenary project Faces of Canberra.

She studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and lived in London and New York, where she recorded with Donna Summer and worked with The Four Tops and Bo Diddley.

She returned to Australia after a stroke ended her singing career, but quickly became firmly ensconced in the art scene and the nightlife, managing the popular Civic nightclub Heaven in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Canberra Times film critic Cris Kennedy recalls first meeting her at 2XX's old studios in what is now the Drill Hall Gallery.

"I was hosting the arts show Rave Review and Sylvie, the bossiest guest I had ever encountered, was correcting my microphone technique, mouthing questions she wanted me to ask her while I was speaking," he said.

"Annoying at the time, I soon saw this mothering, bossy side of Sylvie in fact proof of her sense of showmanship, of her wanting people to be and appear at their very best."

Director of Canberra Contemporary Artspace David Broker said it was almost impossible to be involved in Canberra's art scene and not know Stern.

"As soon as I arrived in Canberra, Sylvie took me under her wing and told me what the scene was like, who I should be meeting, who I should be looking at and who I should be avoiding," he said.

"She loved the stories, I think that was her favourite thing, actually hearing what people were doing…She had this way of getting information out of you, which is fabulous when you're on the radio."

Author and Canberra Times contributor Nigel Featherstone also has fond memories going back decades.

He recalled that Heaven was not only a gay and lesbian-friendly nightclub, but something of an arts hub.

"Obviously Canberra's always had a really good arts scene, but she was much more interested in that underground stuff, and I think that's a major contribution for a young city - stoking that and making it known, for a start, getting audiences and building some of those careers."