Ask the Director

What would you ask the Director of the Art Gallery of WA? See what our readers asked, and how they were answered by Art Gallery of WA Director Colin Walker.

The Art Gallery of Western Australia, exterior view. Photo Frances Andrijich. Inset, Art Gallery of WA Director Colin Walker. Photo Lyn DiCiero.

Q: The appointment to the position of Director of a person who has admitted that they have no expertise in art is a first in Australia. It is assumed that, internally, you rely on your curatorial staff to determine priorities for the Gallery’s programs, but how do you perform the externally-oriented strategic functions of your position without any understanding of why art matters?
A: I’ve worked in the arts for over 30 years from community arts organisations to the highest levels of major organisations and I have a policy background that influenced national arts policy in multiple countries so I have a pretty good understanding of why art matters. Gallery Directors internationally and historically have been curators, artists, business people, archivists, producers – people from all kinds of backgrounds. There isn’t a template for this job.
Q: We’ve heard you speak about the value that you place on increased visitor numbers to AGWA, but how do you measure ‘engagement’ to avoid being accused of only being interested in ‘bums on seats’?
A: We measure engagement (and its more important bedfellow impact) in different ways whether that’s through independent academic research through our learning team or the self-reporting of participants in our dementia and autism programs or through our general sentiment research that’s also run independently. In our dedicated participatory exhibition, we collect 1000s of handwritten testimonials and feedback from people of all ages reflecting on their engagement and the impact of their experiences. We are interested in building relationships over time and are seeing repeat visits within short periods of time, particularly from children and families during school holiday periods. We also collect engagement information through digital surveys.
Q: How does the Gallery intend to recruit and present WA based artists in the coming years? Will AGWA ever consider a designated portrait painting section? John Qazilbash
A: We’ve been presenting WA artists strongly since I started. At the midway point in our Strategic Vision document (so October 2022) we’d delivered major WA group shows including The View From Here (230 WA Artists); Collective Ground (64); Tracks We Share (70); solo exhibitions of 18 WA artists; supported 400 WA artists through the Stimulus Package during COVID; acquired 254 WA artists including 92 new to the State Art Collection spending $1,837,279 on those and employed/collaborated with about 250 other artists through the Design Store, Rooftop and Events; and provided a ton of digital content. We’ve more major and solo WA shows coming up which our curators research deeply. We’re not considering dedicating any areas to particular genres.
Q: What, if any, strategies do you have to actively look outside the classical institutional bubbles when it comes to acquisitions? This particularly applies to regional artists. Secondly, do you have processes when it comes to responding to artist queries? So often emails go unanswered and that results in unnecessary and considerable distress.
A: On the latter point, we have standards to reply to queries, so I’m not aware there were any that have gone unanswered but will check. In terms of acquisitions, aside from the deep research noted earlier, our curators consider the sector here across Australia and internationally. Not sure what’s meant by ‘classical institutional bubbles.’ We have already been acquiring works by artists who have not yet come to the attention of the institutions in the country, including many WA artists and artists from across Asia in particular.
Q: Why does AGWA attract so few visitors compared to AGNSW, AGSA, NGV etc? When are you going to replace the Curatorial Director and refresh the curatorial team? How successful is the rooftop bar? Why does the shop sell mostly products that are produced out of state? Where is the major focus on WA artists and WA made designer-maker products?
A: We’re trending towards our best visitation in the Gallery’s history, but this will still be less than some other states that have much larger galleries (and multiple ones). Until we have the similar infrastructure, then we’ll always be a bit behind although the gap is closing. We’re not appointing more curators at this time, and of the curatorial team (seven curators, one trainee, one curatorial assistant and a Senior Research Fellow), all but two have arrived since I started so I don’t feel refreshing is due. The Design Store sells a mix of local, national and international products and supporting WA makers is key for the store. We’ve recently highlighted WA Designers for WA Design Week, and product collaborations include working with Aurelio Costarella, Garbage TV, and House of Zaya.
Q: Does the Gallery have stored ceramics by Belgian artist Carmen Dionyse? Many years ago a large figure was exhibited but I wondered if it was on loan or purchased. In the 1970s Carmen and WA’s Joan Campbell worked alongside each other at a symposium in the USA. Ian Dowling
A: Yes, we have a very large work (183cm high) called Ligbeeld from 1977.
Q: Why is the entrance foyer to the Gallery so drab and dreary, it’s like a mausoleum, and when I was there the bag storage area had black curtains across it, adding to the gloom. It is certainly not an inviting first impression. Robert Hensley
A: These things are a matter of opinion, but the foyer and rooftop redevelopment received a commendation for public architecture in the 2022 WA Architecture Awards and the foyer and Design Store won the world’s best ‘Interior, Public and Institutional’ at the Loop International Design Awards.
Q: Hello! I seem to be struggling to be accepted into competitions at large galleries. My work sells all over Australia, and I hold yearly exhibitions, plus I have three stockists that sell my art weekly. I think my Artist Bio and Artist Statement is letting me down. My question is, how do I write a strong bio and statement that the Directors will accept? Do judges rely greatly on the written statement of artists when accepting them into competitions? Thank you. Alice Alder
A: This may sound obvious, and it’s not meant to, but judges look at every piece of information that’s asked for although different competitions have different weightings and criteria. All I can offer is keep trying!
Q: From first hand experience as a PhD candidate, AGWA has the least accessible collection in Australia which has hindered significant research for my own thesis. Nationwide I was able to have incredible conversations in Victoria, New South Wales and Adelaide. What are your plans for the future of the state collection and appropriate staffing to insure this accessibility increases? Perhaps instead of trying to be ‘trendy’ to appease social influencers, you could advocate for the collection you already have in front of you and assist in defining its legacy?
A: I don’t accept that we’re trying to be trendy. We offer a very strong program which is reflected in our visitation and engagement. We show the same amount of Collection works as we always have; however, it is being displayed through a rotating series of exhibitions that allows curators to present the works in new ways, considering new themes and conceptual arrangements. We are also publishing much more than in previous years including on various aspects of the Collection, which will significantly increase access, as will fully digitising the Collection. In terms of access for students, to the best of my knowledge we answer all requests for information, make works available for viewing to academic researchers including PhD students and run an extensive internship program.
Q: Hi, have opportunities been provided for migrant artists to display their works in the Gallery? There are many who are migrants and who have contributed and integrated to Australian culture and society very well. I was wondering if there has been enough opportunities for Australian migrant artists who bring with them diverse culture and experiences to promote their work. Shanila Samarasinghe
A: We are of course aware of the ways that patterns of migration have altered the artistic landscape here and around the world. Recently, for instance, we presented the work of the Venezuelan-born artist Nadia Hernandez in dialogue with Northern Irish-born artist Jon Campbell in a show that explored how their backgrounds impacted their practices. Additionally, the exhibitions and initiatives described earlier have many migrant artists throughout.
Q: In a recent ArtsHub interview you said that it doesn’t matter when you publicly announce exhibitions, whether it be a week or a month in advance but if the general public doesn’t know what is coming up, we won’t be coming back. Also with the Yoshitomo Nara exhibition wouldn’t it have been better to announce it months before so you could benefit from interstate or international cultural tourism?
A: The larger point in that interview was that exhibitions run for a long time and people’s decision-making is not as planned as it used to be so there’s a need to market throughout and not expend too much money upfront. Nara was produced over a condensed time period, so this meant some dates/milestones were adjusted accordingly. The show has a long run so there’ll be plenty of time for people to plan their travels.
Q: What are your plans for funding the necessary accessibility and urgent maintenance of the collection? Particularly so that university researchers and historians can have access and engage a national and international audience.
A: As part of the rooftop redevelopment project, we built new conservation labs which has helped with the maintenance of the Collection. We were also provided money in the last State Budget to examine a new long-term storage solution which would give better access to researchers. The plan is to do that work and hopefully, convince the Government to invest.
Q: The Gallery is in need of major renovations to expand its footprint. How far have plans progressed for a new gallery and when do you foresee a new building opening?
A: We completed a detailed business case last year for a new gallery which would transform the way we could show the Collection, WA artists and contemporary works from around the world, and presented it to Government. That’s as much as we can do at this stage.
Q: The Collection that is in storage is inaccessible to artists, researchers and students. How do you plan to make the Collection more publicly accessible while it is in storage?
A: Whilst it’s in storage we will be fully digitising the Collection over the next four years thanks to a substantial donation. Physical accessibility won’t improve until we have a long-term solution which we’re working on.
Q: The AGWA library is an underutilised resource and is currently managed by a team of dedicated volunteers. What plans do you have to ensure that the library is properly looked after with appropriate staffing? There is also limited public access to it, how do you plan to make it more publicly accessible? The AGWA library is the State’s preeminent repository of published and ephemeral visual arts material, required by scholars, researchers and artists. It is currently maintained by a volunteer, having been completely neglected for years. What steps have you taken to restore its condition and access?
A: The library will form part of the new storage solution. In the meantime, we are fully digitising the Collection and the items mentioned earlier give better access to parts of the Collection accepting these are not a replacement for a library.
Q: What does the future hold for the Centenary Galleries and how do you intend to utilise it if it isn’t going to be used for the display of artworks?
A: The Centenary Galleries has water ingress issues which are being investigated and costed out. Until those issues are sorted, we can’t display works in there.
Q: Why is our Gallery still really boring? Why are you afraid of connecting with WA artists?
A: It isn’t and we’re not.
Q: Would you embark on a continuing quest to dedicate exploration and exhibition of artists from regional WA, particularly the South West?
A: The Rural Utopias project has been underway for two years and an exhibition from it will be in the Gallery later this year. Our work for Collective Ground, including the exhibition which we re-hung as not enough people saw it due to COVID restrictions, also took us to all parts of the State.
Q: How about celebrating regional arts in WA?  Have you seen Emergences at the Holmes à Court Vasse Felix Gallery for example?  A superb and well curated group show of Margaret River artists. Helen Seiver
A: See above.
Q: Have you ever regretted overlooking an artist in their early years with opportunity to acquire their artwork before they became something bigger?  If so, who?? And if so, what was so different about their later work that changed your mind?
A: Not particularly. Indeed, we have been very good at acquiring early works by major artists. This would include William Kentridge, Ricky Swallow, Jenny Watson, Tala Madani and more. 
Q: Why does the Art Gallery not acknowledge the WA History of Art with the West Australian Society of Arts?
A: I’m not entirely sure what the question is here? AGWA would not present an exhibition that focused solely on AGWA historical holdings of works made by WA Society of Arts members. We have shown work by them though as part of other exhibitions.
Q: With the changing of every guard marks a major change for WA artists. Often new recruits come from other states or are young and not knowledgeable or interested in important WA artists. Mid-career and older artists are often forgotten. How do mid-career artists stay relevant and on the Art Gallery radar, and get their works collected and exhibited there? What can we do to make ourselves seen and not forgotten?
A: We are definitely aware of the need to represent various strands of practice that are not currently in our holdings. We have been identifying these and seeking to acquire works that best speak to their contribution. The figures noted earlier on exhibition opportunities and acquisitions of WA artists since I started point to us not just looking hard at what we have here but also acting upon it.

NB: Contributors names are published with permission. 

The Art Gallery of Western Australia, Concourse view. Photo Rebecca Mansell.


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