Directing the Art Gallery of WA

LYN DI CIERO

Art Gallery of WA Director Colin Walker with The Party, 1986, enamel paint, cotton duck, 180 x 180 cm by Jon Campbell. Photo courtesy of the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney. © Jon Campbell. Photo Lyn DiCiero.

Now half way through his five year contract as Director of the Art Gallery of WA, Colin Walker’s impressive achievements in steering the gallery so far might have been slowed by the pandemic, but there is so much more on his list to achieve in the next two and a half years. Walker had been in caretaker mode at the gallery for six months while the recruiting process for a new director took place. He officially began his tenure as director of the Art Gallery of WA the day Western Australia locked down due to the pandemic in March 2020. “I’m a year behind because of it,” says Walker. “But I think I’ll be able to do most of what I want to do in these next two and a half years to feel as though I’ve made enough of a difference so whoever comes next knows at least some issues have been dealt with.”  
 
Funds are now flowing into the gallery from non-government sources, up from $2.8 million to about $7.3 million, and just as quickly spent. The reason, he says, is to maintain momentum. “More funds don’t mean profit, because as fast as the money is coming in I’m busily spending it,” he says. “For instance, in any given year we’ll spend about $500,00 to $600,000 on exhibitions. This year we’ll end up spending $1.9 million.”
 
Walker convinced Treasury and the Government to take AGWA Foundation funds out of a public bank account and invest it instead in the markets. “The interest on that $29 million account was about $88,000. Now some is in fixed term deposits, and the rest is in the markets. We did it really conservatively at first, but if it stays at the current rates it will give me $580,000 in cash versus the $88,000.” Walker says he had a very clear view of what he needed to do with the money side of things from the beginning. “That’s my nerdy particular comfort zone,” he says.
 
But it’s not just money flowing into the gallery – people are too. The average yearly visitation over the past ten years has been around the 260,000 mark, whereas the forecast for this year is 440,000 to 450,000. Walker says the gallery has never had such numbers. “Given 35 to 40% of our audiences are tourists, either international or interstate, those numbers are astonishing, especially given the decline in tourism.”
 
WA artist’s have benefited since 2020, with over 360 involved in group shows at the gallery, as well as solo exhibitions by Lance Chadd, Eveline Kotai, Tom Mueller, Sharyn Egan, Pilar Mata Dupont, Stuart Ringholdt, Emma Buswell, Carla Adams, Tee Ken Ng, Keos, Media Space, Barbarra, Michael Torres, Tim Meakins, Jack Ball, Erin Coates and Jon Tarry. A Covid stimulus fund saw 400 WA artists benefit financially, and since 2020 the gallery has purchased 254 works by WA artists, 92 of these being new artists to the State Collection, with a spend on these purchases edging towards $2 million. Around 250 artists also benefited from being employed for the new Rooftop space at the gallery, the newly opened Design Store and other events.
 
Walker says he doesn’t think in terms of the number of exhibitions a year the gallery might hold, but rather the types of exhibitions. “I’ll then look at the time frame it’s going to take and organise resources around that. What’s consistent is that people want to see different things each time they visit. So the idea you can just keep things on the wall for very long periods of time is not the way people want to engage.”
 
The gallery may be small in scale in national terms, but developments like the AGWA Rooftop Bar reinterpret the building back to its original intention as a used space, and also engage new audiences. Now about $7 million has been earmarked to demolish the car park at the gallery and develop a multi-use space. “It’s a big space to play with,” says Walker. “It will be a sculpture park and an event space for about 2000 people. Then we have a public art commission coming for the front of the building as well.”
 
He’s also secured funding for a publication strategy over the next three years with 11 publications set to be produced. One shelf of a bookshelf in his office contains all the publications produced by AGWA, first established in 1895, over more than 125 years. “It’s not a lot of output,” he says. Some of the books planned will be based on the collection, and others will be artist-based. While there might be some environmental debate about whether these new publications should be digital only, Walker says there will always be something special about an art book. “Especially a hardcover art book,” he says. “They feel serious. They are serious, and they are usually beautifully produced.”
 
Regular gallery visitors would have noticed a marked increase in Aboriginal art on show. Walker says when he first started, the AGWA collection of Aboriginal art was literally in the smallest available gallery space in the building. “Now its in the first large gallery you see as you come through the front door, so that was a point of importance. There’s the enormous commission on the Rooftop space by Christopher Pease which is a fairly significant work by an Aboriginal artist. Then we did BlakLight for six weeks where every artwork in the gallery was by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artist.” Walker says although this was an important moment, it did attract criticism. “It wasn’t much, to be honest,” he says. “And it was comments about too much Aboriginal art, but I’m sure if we did Matisse for six weeks, nobody would’ve said a word. I felt it was important to make a statement, and you can’t be a state gallery in Australia without overt recognition of First Nation’s art.” Unapologetic, he says there were just five complaints. “You can’t give equivalent to this very small fraction of people who come through the door who make those kinds of statements, so I don’t.”
 
Aboriginal employees at the gallery have increased from one to four, as well as staff increases across education, installation, curatorial and in registrations, with calls out now for an associate historic curator, and over the next three years a fellowship with Princeton University will see the depth of the collection explored. AGWA is also looking to neighbouring Asia for exhibitions, with just 12 exhibitions or commissions from the region since 1959. ”For a gallery to speak so little to where we are in the world over those years is a judgement call for others to make, but it’s not the same judgement call we’re going to make. We’ll be doing six exhibitions in the next two years, plus we’re negotiating another two.” 
 
When Walker first started at the gallery he said he wanted AGWA to be a broadcast media organisation. He admits its taken a little longer to pull together while the gallery was focused elsewhere. “In order to do this we need a dedicated team, or at least collaborate with people consistently, but we’ve had a good insight into the technical capabilities we need inside the organisation, with many mini documentaries on artists, and we hope to experiment a bit more.”
 
He also didn’t realise the extent of changes which needed to be in place to better prepare for the future. “It’s not a criticism of what has happened before, it’s just more  we’re entering a much different time. There’s the acceleration of ideas through social media, to the immediacy of other works from other places. Previously you would fly in a curator and install team for an international or national show, whereas now it can be done remotely, giving cost savings.”  
 
In a reflective moment, the Liverpool-born first time director says we do sit in an interesting part of the world. “We are lucky, I have to say,” he says. “People from here probably don’t feel as though it’s that interesting, but when you’ve lived and worked in a lot of places it’s different. I find it endlessly fascinating. I really do.”   

Speech Patterns AGWA installation view, September 2022. Jon Campbell It’s gonna take a lotta love 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney. © Jon Campbell. Nadia Hernández Como el sol y toda su energía (Like the sun and all its energy) 2020. The State Art Collection, The Art Gallery of Western Australia. © Nadia Hernández. Photo by Duncan Wright.

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