Ask the Director

Curly or general, you asked the questions, and here, Colin Walker, Director of The Art Gallery of WA, answers them.

 

Colin Walker, Director, The Art Gallery of WA.

The Art Gallery of Western Australia. Photo Frances Andrijich.

Similar questions have been grouped together, and the names of questioners are published where consent was provided. 
 
Q: “Why did you decide to do research projects instead of educational activities? AGWA used to have an amazing Education Program that supported teachers with an annual program of activities (workshops, tours, resources and teacher PL) that centred the Gallery’s collection and was also aligned with the arts curriculum. This program is no longer offered. Instead ‘The Learning Team is engaged in ongoing research, consultation and the development of new pedagogies that prioritise critical inquiry, experimentation and reflective practice.’ This is a noble cause but not particularly useful or applicable. This approach, more suited to a university than a public-funded state art gallery, is an exclusive program for teachers and schools who can afford it. Curriculum links are tenuous, mostly non-existent, mentioned only to tick a box. Primary teachers are excluded more as there is no longer staff with the required skills or experience.”
 
A: “AGWA ‘s overall approach to arts learning is not traditional and is informed by ongoing evaluation. We believe we are at the cutting edge of critical thinking and arts learning. Our schools program caters to Early Learning, Primary, Secondary and Tertiary students who engage in Exhibition Tours and interactive workshops. All Exhibition Tours are free, and a nominal fee for hands-on workshops ensures that all schools can access programming. The AGWA Learning Team includes an Education Specialist with extensive curriculum expertise and 25 years’ experience in Visual Art classrooms, as well as very experienced Teaching Artists who facilitate workshops, many of which are for Primary students. Our new approach to Exhibition Resources has come through extensive consultation with educators. As I said, what we’re doing is nationally leading practice and the response to it has been fantastic.”
 
Q: “I saw that there was an announcement that AGWA was collaborating with Princeton University on a research fellowship? How is that project going?”
 
A: “It’s going really well. Associate Professor Anna Arabindan-Kesson has been working closely with the curatorial team researching the State Art Collection, expanding our networks and developing a range of initiatives and projects which will appear publicly from November of this year.”
 
Q: “Why is the State collection so impenetrable to local academics and researchers? It seems as though the excuse is always understaffing or lack of monetary resources but this same answer is what many of us have received over the past three years. If blockbuster exhibitions are the focus, what about the collection that we as taxpayers have the right to access, especially for educational purposes? PhD candidates have been and gone without any assistance from your team often being ‘ghosted’ or left cold on email. Will this ever change? And no it is not accessible currently.”
 
A: “I don’t agree with the characterisation inherent in the question on the impenetrability, and nor do I have evidence for it.  We offer access to the Collection for academics and researchers. If the questioner feels that they have been ‘ghosted’ then they’re free to contact me directly. On the broader question of access, we’re a year into the four-year process of digitising the full State Art Collection thanks to a philanthropist and the AGWA Foundation and we’ve submitted a business case to the Government for a long-term storage solution which will allow for better physical access. In the meantime, we’ve been provided $1million per annum to place and store the artworks in Upper Centenary and Gallery 5 into offsite storage which then allows us to remodel how the rest of the storage works to improve its accessibility. That money means that we will be able to open all of AGWA’s galleries and that offers more opportunity for Collection based exhibitions. On a final point, blockbuster shows are not the focus of the Collection. We publish all exhibitions in our Annual Report so judgements can be made from that.”
 
Q: “I believe that the Lester Prize exhibition has been handed off to the WA Museum (Boola Bardip). If this is truly the case, why? Why would the state’s premier portrait prize not be hosted by the state’s main art gallery?” Lindelle Winn
 
A: “We set out our general approach to exhibitions in our Strategic Directions 2020-2025 document. We’ve introduced a more dynamic program with an emphasis on representing more and varied voices in the exhibition programming. It meant that we decided to reduce long-term partnerships within a single genre as this limits the ability to engage with a range of audiences.”
 
Q: “As the Gallery has many important international artists’ work, isn’t it time they were back on display again, such as Giorgio Morandi, for example? Maybe, once again there could be a gallery for important international and Australian artists’ artwork. I think it is important to show off important works like the other Australian galleries.” Vicki Ames
Q: “Would you consider (and/or what is your opinion of) doing exhibitions that revolve around the Australian Impressionists and WA landscape artists such as Robert Juniper or Guy Grey-Smith as I have found that the younger generation is less exposed to these artists and movements, especially within the WA context.” Max Thornton-Smith
 
A: “The State Art Collection has over 18,600 works of art by approximately 5355 artists from 114 countries. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection of nearly 3000 works has multiple works from distinct Aboriginal language groups across the country. The sheer breadth and depth of that collection and cultural representation means that we have a responsibility to reflect that diversity within our own geographic context. We consider the diverse views and interests of all of our audiences in setting the exhibition program and appreciate that there are many varied opinions on those selections. It is the variety of those opinions that makes art so special for so many people and multiple cultural views so liberating. Coupled with the relatively limited space we have to display, there is a constant challenge to remain fresh, relevant and authentic. There are so many forms and themes of exhibitions we can do that some would consider more important than others. We can never please everyone and nor do we intend to. The curators work hard to find a balance and I think they do a tremendous job, as does the public, judging by the record numbers through the doors.”
 
Q: “What stage of development is the AGWA carpark at? What are your intentions for the space and when do you think work ground will be broken?”
Q: “How is the plan for the new contemporary gallery at the Urban Orchard going?”
Q: “What happened to the $2 million public art commission on the facade of the gallery?”
 
A: “The new sculpture garden and event space in the redeveloped car park have been delayed along with the rest of the Perth Cultural Centre works more generally. I anticipate that work will begin this financial year. The space will operate as an external room to the Gallery and house new and existing work plus will have the capacity for multiple-scale events. We completed the business case for a new gallery which we think is compelling and there are multiple sites that can work for it. Hopefully the Government agrees with us and at some point we get a new gallery. The public art commission was part of the wider Perth Cultural Centre works and the project is being reconsidered.”
 
Q: “I make composite sculptures using coral, shells and other materials. The coral is legally found washed up on the beach (non marine park) or responsibly sourced from licenced suppliers. My sculptures are very popular and I would like to exhibit them. My goal is to heighten awareness of the beauty of coral, the increasing frequency of coral bleaching and the need to stop global warming to protect these sculptors of the sea. I use real coral to show their exquisite and varied forms. Is my use of real coral likely to jeopardise my chances of exhibiting my work in a gallery? Would it improve my chances if I made coral-like forms instead of using real coral?” Anita Staaden
 
A: “As long as the coral conforms with legal standards of collection, entry into the country if imported, and display, and as long as it doesn’t pose a risk to the Gallery then it won’t jeopardise its chances of display.”
 
Q: “I deeply appreciate Australia’s commitment to promoting a peaceful and multicultural environment. However, I have noticed that there has been no Islamic art exhibition at The Art Gallery of WA. As an artist who has exhibited my unique paper-cutting work in galleries and museums worldwide, I am particularly interested in contributing to your esteemed Gallery. Despite my global presence, I have not yet had the opportunity to display my work at The Art Gallery of WA. I would be honoured to participate in exhibitions, artist talks and workshops at your Gallery. For more information about my work, please feel free to visit my website: www.tusifahmad.com. I am curious to understand if there are any specific reasons for this and would appreciate any feedback or guidance you can provide. Thank you for your time and consideration.” Tusif Ahmad
 
A: “We have displayed many Muslim artists but you’re correct that in my time at the Gallery we haven’t had an exhibition focussed specifically on Islamic art as opposed to artists that are of the Islamic faith. Regarding requests to exhibit at the Gallery, we receive exhibition proposals on a weekly basis. A team of senior curators meet fortnightly to consider such proposals. I’ll pass your details on to the curatorial team.”
 
Q: “Dear Colin, what’s your preferred time of year for a shandy at the Rooftop Bar?”
 
A: “Drinking a lager, in December, about 8pm.”
 
Q: “Since the taxpayer-funded and expensive blockbuster RONE is taking over the Centenary Galleries can you confirm that the water leaks are now fixed?”
 
A: “Government recurrent funding covers staff salaries, security and a proportion of power. Everything else, including money for exhibitions, we raise. In terms of the leaks, we’ve done some extensive remedial work on the Centenary Galleries and, so far, there’s been no leaks since the works were finished.”
 
Q: “Between RONE and Sarah Bahbah, do you think the only way to reach audiences in WA is through exhibitions that evoke ‘tumblr.com nostalgia’? Especially those who are now working with advertising agencies i.e. Bahbah for Macy’s. Is art that can produce commercial and social media outcomes (e.g. shop merchandise) the only way forward to deliver the proverbial KPI?”
Q: “What is it about RONE’s work that you find so appealing?” Sam Beard
Q: “How much money is AGWA hoping to make from the RONE exhibition?”
Q: “During the peak of the pandemic you highlighted local WA contemporary artists (clearly due to borders being closed) in your programming but it seems now that has been forgotten about with shows like RONE coming up to simply bring in the influencer crowd. Has the Gallery become purely about business?”
 
A: “I think any survey of the range of exhibitions we’ve shown would struggle to suggest that we put commercial outcomes or social media influencers above anything else, noting influencers are equally as important with equally important views as any other stakeholder. Our audiences and income have grown substantially precisely because we allow the curatorial team to curate without us putting a marketing or commercial lens over them. We have a sophisticated approach to building the audience, profile and reputation of the Gallery which is less rooted in traditional not-for-profit gallery marketing but is working for us. Whether RONE makes money or not isn’t really the point; it’s not there as a fundraiser. It stands on its own as an incredible exhibition by a very talented artist, and money/influencers/tumblr.com nostalgia isn’t the reason we’re doing it. On a personal level, there isn’t much I don’t enjoy in the arts and, like most people, even if I don’t like something I tend to take something positive away from any experience. I absolutely love everything about TIME • RONE though. On the final question, we have curators dedicated to WA artists so I’m not sure there’s been the drop-off the questioner suggests. WA contemporary has remained a consistent presence in our exhibition spaces and acquisitions. We staged the major survey of abstract art, State of Abstraction, last year. This year we are presenting a survey of the work of Sandra Black and the following year Pippin Drysdale. We are showing a major installation by Guy Ben-Ary and Nathan Thompson early next year. WA artists were part of the collection show Art Display in 2023 and also in the recently opening Me, Also Me. Importantly these were placed alongside contemporaries from Australia and the world. Other projects are in the planning stage.”
 
Q: “You’ve been open in the past about the arts cutting ties with fossil fuels. Do you think the WA Museum should follow suit? e.g. Woodside.” 
 
A: “I plead the 5th.”

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