Ceramics and textiles have been having a strong resurgence in the visual arts, shrugging off a musty reputation, and Coates is thrilled SAM has been ahead of the curve with its superb and long-admired ceramics collection, as well as a significant contribution to contemporary practice – it is currently showing the $50,000 Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award, with the soaring work of winner Lynda Draper.
It also has strong connections with its Aboriginal residents – another emerging priority among regional galleries, whose reflection of social concerns is often entwined with programming.
Like many of Victoria’s regional art gallery directors, Coates has been assiduous about carving out a special territory for her museum, where she began as director four years ago. From Shepparton to Geelong, Sale to Horsham, Ballarat to Wangaratta and Bendigo to Warrnambool, there are 18 regional galleries that belong to the Public Galleries Association of Victoria. Fifteen are local government owned or operated, but all have their own personalities, audiences and specialties – and collections worth several hundred million dollars.
While institutions such as the National Gallery of Victoria have the capacity and funds to mount regular blockbuster-style shows, the regionals have different priorities – but must grapple with strong demands from disparate audiences and the vagaries of local council oversight and funding.
At the new SAM, the enormous cube-like building will also house Kaiela Arts, an Indigenous organisation that brings together people from many different regions.
Coates says the co-location of the organisations embeds the idea of shared opportunity, concretely reflected in programming, but also more subtly in things such as working with Kaiela to design all the fabrics for the interiors.
Like other regional gallery directors, Coates talks about a broader ecology – where these museums find themselves in an arts landscape that stretches from amateur arts hobbyists through to high-end international blockbusters. What she found interesting about SAM when she started was the opportunity to reflect local relevance – such as Indigenous history – within contemporary, global ideas.
While its engagement with ceramics was SAM’s obvious point of difference, Coates also identified telling the stories of the “strong, vocal and politically active” Aboriginal community as crucial. Amid that ambition, arts patrons Carrillo and Ziyin Gantner in 2013 pledged their large, $2 million-plus Indigenous art collection – comprising art from remote communities nationwide – to SAM. That has been part of the impetus for the new SAM home: somewhere to properly show this and the existing SAM collection.
Along with incoming families and retirees from Melbourne seeking affordable housing, and a history of multicultural demographics – many Europeans arrived post Second World War, and more recently south-east Asian and African migrants have made a huge impact – there is much richness for SAM to reflect.
At the other end of the state, Warrnambool Art Gallery director Vanessa Gerrans is at the feasibility-study end of seeking a redevelopment. WAG is one of the oldest galleries in the state (1886) and some of its ambitions are quite distinct from those of SAM, or the bigger galleries at Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo. Being almost three-and-a-half hours from Melbourne, it tends to draw on a huge catchment in the south-west and has a particular focus on families.
Recently, it held an exhibition by Paul Jennings, the children’s author and local resident, and it has also done much to engage young people in creative pursuits. One project was called “Girls are Full Steam Ahead”, which grew out of a robotics academy held at the gallery that was boy-heavy. Funding was sought for a STEAM program that would engage girls – and it was just as successful, with two launch parties and involvement from the much-loved Girl Geek Academy.
Likewise, at Bendigo Art Gallery, new director Jessica Bridgfoot sees the crucial role such engagement can have, and recently commandeered one part of the gallery’s newest wing for that purpose. Opened in 2014, the wing has been very well used but the gallery has had such huge drawcards, including the Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion show (opening on August 17), that it needs to expand again – difficult with limited surrounding space, but Bridgfoot has big ideas.
She follows 18 years of the highly respected Karen Quinlan at the helm – a bold director who brought in big blockbusters and carved a niche for Bendigo around fashion, design and celebrity. A vocal critic once sourly described the gallery as a “frock shop” – but success and quality trounced such snobbery: interstate visitors make up a tenth of all audiences, doubling for a blockbuster – Grace Kelly: Style Icon (2012) had 152,000 visitors, Marilyn Monroe (2016) had 143,500 and this year’s Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits drew 75,000 visitors.
Bridgfoot, a local who returned to work at the gallery several years ago after building her career elsewhere, trounced an international search for director: her success is a tribute not only to her own skills, vision and intellect, but to a broader confidence in homegrown talent.
But the “Bendigo effect” – local council pressure on other regional galleries to aspire to the Bendigo gallery’s fame – is neither feasible nor desirable for everyone, Bridgfoot says. “It is not a one-size-fits-all situation. It lies in what is your niche and who is your core audience and what are the possibilities.”
She was, for example, recently asked why the gallery doesn’t have a dedicated First Nations space – given it has a First Nations curator, Shonae Hobson. As Bridgfoot points out, such issues have many facets: a growing number of Indigenous artists, for instance, do not want their work quarantined but – as Bendigo has done – embedded in programming. Likewise, Bridgfoot sees diversity and inclusion not as an “add-on” but something that needs to permeate from the top down.
Anne Robertson, executive officer of the Public Galleries Association of Victoria, comprising 52 institutions, notes examples of many galleries on this pathway: SAM has Indigenous curator Belinda Briggs, Bendigo has Hobson and is a keeping place for Dja Dja Wurrung cultural materials repatriated from Beechworth last year, while Warrnambool has established a Maar Nation Advisory Committee, working closely with First Nations communities. Along with Gippsland Art Gallery, WAG is also in the process of recruiting a local First Nations curator.
Another big task for regional directors, Robertson says, is dealing with redevelopment needs. Galleries including Hamilton, Wangaratta, Warrnambool and Geelong are now at the feasibility or masterplan stage of seeking new or redeveloped spaces.
Simon Gregg, director at Gippsland Art Gallery in Sale, has been at the happy end of that process: along with Ararat gallery (Textile Art Museum Australia) and Latrobe Regional Gallery, his gallery’s redevelopment has been completed, opening a year ago. This gallery used to average about 16,000 visitors a year (Sale’s population is about 15,000) but last year had 40,000 people through.
“What I have found from the other regional galleries is if they can get an annual visitation equivalent to the local population they are doing well,” Gregg says. “For us, the main thing is about improving visibility and quality art experiences but also ensuring the local art scene is well represented. We are not just a gallery in Gippsland, but a gallery about Gippsland.”
Even so, he tries to build the gallery’s profile in Melbourne and beyond, but has discovered that the distance from Sale to Melbourne is shorter than from Melbourne to Sale. “They always expect us to visit them.”
But that is changing, and Gregg’s hard work to make it inclusive for locals and visitors is working. “After all, we might be someone’s only experience of an art gallery. Often, it might be what they see here that defines their idea about art.”