The new CEO of Tandanya, Dennis Stokes, wants to revitalise the multi-arts organisation ahead of the National Aboriginal Culture Institute’s 30th anniversary next year.
“We can exist but we need to be thriving,” Stokes says. Before taking up his new position at Tandanya, Stokes was the CEO of the Mimi Ngurrdalingi Aboriginal Corporation in Katherine. Stokes, who belongs to the Wardaman, Luritja and Waramungu people of the Northern Territory and the Wagadagam people of the Torres Strait, has had many roles in the arts, including working at the Australian Council for the Arts as a project officer and positions at the National Indigenous Television (NITV) and the Australian Film Television and Radio School. He also sits on the board of Artback NT and is a panel judge for the National Indigenous Music Awards and Dreamtime Awards.
The new CEO is keenly aware of the need to represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait people from across the country, as well as the need to focus on South Australian groups, particularly the Kaurna people, the traditional owners of the land on which the institute sits.
“We need to make sure we promote South Australia, the Kaurna people especially, but the main thing is that we are a national institute.”
Tandanya, located in the old Grenfell Street Power Station, is the country’s oldest Aboriginal-owned and -managed multi-arts centre. It is one of the most impressive gallery and event spaces in the city and is open to the public from Monday to Saturday with gallery exhibitions, including the current Tony Wilson exhibition Interconnected, while it runs events such as NAIDOC Week, Survival Day and the Spirit Festival. It is also the home of the annual Tarnanthi Art Fair. Stokes believes his diverse arts and culture background puts him in good stead to run Tandanya, as it is a multi-arts organisation.
“Screen Australia came here last week, the Indigenous unit,” he says. “We’re looking at film … We want to work with the SA Film Corp. We want to work with NITV. We’re in discussions with everyone at the moment. We also want to work with theatre companies and dance groups and do a lot more programs within this organisation. It mightn’t necessarily be held here but it could be a Tandanya production that we run around the city or the state, for example. I don’t necessarily want them [the programs] to be specifically Indigenous in terms of people participating. If there’s a dance program, and say Bangarra’s doing that program, for example, that should be open to everybody, so people get an understanding of Indigenous culture. We want this space to be a community space not just for Indigenous people but for the whole community.
“It’s a role I’ve wanted for a long time,” explains Stokes, “and I think I can make it work in terms of Tandanya being an organisation that highlights Indigenous culture in this country.
“We have an opportunity here to showcase Indigenous artwork through the eyes of Indigenous people. It’s our institute, it’s not run by the government, this is for Aboriginal people. We’ve got an opportunity to do so much here.”
The state government has plans to open an National Aboriginal Art and Culture Gallery on the oRAH site and Stokes, who was just a week into his new role when he sat down to be interviewed, believes Tandanya should participate in this conversation. “I’m not privy to a lot of the information just yet,” he says. “But we would have to have a serious look at what is proposed there. We would be silly to not have a serious look at it. I think we have to. Where that puts us in the future? I don’t know. I think the Aboriginal community here needs to be part of that process to make that decision.”
But first, Tandanya. He believes the organisation can attract some blockbuster exhibitions straight off the bat.
“There is a good team here, we need to put our heads down and get it happening. I think we can get some good exhibitions in here soon, but we still need to work with the communities as well. It’s about finding balance.”
This includes a membership drive. Stokes wants to consult nationally about the institute’s vision.
“I would particularly like to have a national reference group, people from each state and territory, who don’t necessarily have authority of what we’re doing, they’re not the board, but who let us know what their communities are thinking.”
For Stokes, relaunching Tandanya ahead of next year’s 30th anniversary celebrations would be “awesome”.
“By that time we should have our plans of where we’re going, what’s this place going to look like, what our staffing looks like for the next five years and what our future is for the next five years.
“It excites me. We’re not being told by anyone on how to do things. We’re doing that ourselves. It’s a step in the right direction in terms of being the masters of our own destiny. I think this is the place. We can make this something that will be here forever.”