Current Issue #484

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AGSA's 2020 vision

Julia Robinson, Australia, born 1981, Beatrice, 2019‒20, Adelaide, silk, thread, felt, steel, brass, gold-plated copper, foam, cardboard, pins, fixings; This project has been assisted by the South Australian Government through Arts South Australia, its art funding and advisory body. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery
Saul Steed
Julia Robinson, Australia, born 1981, Beatrice, 2019‒20, Adelaide, silk, thread, felt, steel, brass, gold-plated copper, foam, cardboard, pins, fixings; This project has been assisted by the South Australian Government through Arts South Australia, its art funding and advisory body. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery

The release of the Art Gallery of South Australia’s 2020 exhibitions program is an opportunity for director Rhana Devenport to reflect on the journey, one year into the job.

When it comes to running a contemporary art museum, bold, creative thinking and programming is needed to engage public audiences that might otherwise settle for Antiques Roadshow. No longer within ‘rooms’, but ‘transactional spaces’, today’s museum-goers are increasingly immersed in a range of experiences that insert them into feedback loops designed to blend personal experience with the inner life of artists and curatorial narratives.

Rhana Devenport, now one year into her role as director at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), is very aware of this challenge – to find ways to attract and speak to audiences of all ages and backgrounds while conducting a collections/exhibitions display business (with associated commercial activities) within a retrofitted 19thcome- 20th century building complex.

The breadth and calibre of AGSA’s holdings she knew about when taking up the position. Now, given time to get up close and personal with the various collections, she is even more convinced that the gallery is “a marvellous organisation that is poised for change”. Devenport is armed with the facts. “The Art Gallery is a much-loved institution.” Per capita and overall visitation numbers back this up with a record of over one million visitors in the 2017/2018 financial year.

Love has also been expressed through significant benefaction, a tradition that has its roots in the late colonial period and extends to the present, as seen in the recent James and Diana Ramsay outstanding bequest of $38 million for the acquisition of major works by the gallery. Devenport sees the key factors as the bequest’s longevity (dividends not capital to be drawn on) and the fact that it is not tied to any one collection.

In practical terms the activation of this bequest coincides with a rewriting of all acquisitions and collections policies and procedures and the setting up of a Board Acquisitions Committee. This sounds a bit dry but is a reminder that collections development needs to be strategic rather than a splash the cash exercise. Along with such structural developments Devenport lists a new website with expanded collections access, a rebranding of the gallery and a new online shop as significant 2019 achievements.

Apart from ongoing benefaction-driven collection development, Devenport draws attention to the “three anchors” that give excitement and structure to event programming. These are Tarnanthi, the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art and the Ramsay Art Prize. The impact of these three ongoing projects is that around 60 per cent of exhibition/event programming is contemporary Australian art. And that’s something to weigh up when considering if the gallery has the capacity or commitment to be relevant to contemporary audiences.

Saul Steed
Rhana Devenport

This is borne out by the balance of the 2020 exhibitions program with the Leigh Robb-curated 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art : Monster Theatres, marking 30 years of extraordinary longevity, supported in contemporary terms by Tarnanthi 2020, Phenomena: Art as experience and performance-based Seeing Through Darkness (an interpretation of the gallery’s holdings of George Rouault), and balanced by exhibitions drawing on the gallery’s historical collections, including a spotlight on Japanese warrior culture (Samurai), monstrosity as subject in European printmaking (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters), a reimagined Morris & Co. display – all bookended by two ‘Adelaide moderns’ shows, Adelaide Cool: The abstract art of David and John Dallwitz and Dusan and Voitre Marek: Surrealists at sea.

In the meantime, the collection, and the staff, continue in Devenport’s estimation to be “worked very hard”. Works tour or are on constant rotation. Extensive rehangs, such as the Australian Collection Elder Wing make heavy demands on resources. But these things are necessary, Devenport believes, if people are to keep coming to the gallery and having their perceptions of the collections, and art, refreshed.

The porous delineations that have become a feature of collection display, along with a long-standing tradition of integrating decorative arts and design with the other collections give the gallery an advantage in this process. Given Devenport’s interest and background in performance programming at Queensland Art Gallery, expect to see dance, choral and other performance projects, along the lines of Sonic Blossom, interwoven with regular exhibitions and collection hangs. From her perspective, it’s allabout expanding the parameters of art.

The flip side to all this: the gallery’s small footprint (which means that only 1.5 per cent of the collection gets on the floor at any time), a chronic lack of storage and very limited facilities (particularly the one café, no restaurant, one bookshop and small after-hours events areas) remain high on the agenda. Storage may soon be addressed under the government’s Arts Plan provisions for all North Terrace institutions.

The quid pro quo lever is being pulled, which, from an outsider’s perspective, looks something along the lines of, ‘We (the gallery) build the assets (the collection is one of the state’s most valuable assets) and our programs give interstate/overseas visitors the incentive to come to South Australia (cue dollar multiplier effect). In return, you (the government) ensure the gallery has the physical capacity to adequately display the breadth and depth of its collections but also mount ticketed exhibitions and conduct other income-generating activities (cue coffees, merchandise, events etc.).’

Devenport believes that “great creativity comes out of restrictive resources” but also subscribes to the idea that if art museums aren’t thinking about expansion then museum directors aren’t doing their job. Devenport is clearly doing hers but, right now, the crystal ball that reveals how (and where) this let’s-walk together process will transpire is a little cloudy.

John Neylon

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John Neylon is an award-winning art critic and the author of several books on South Australian artists including Hans Heysen: Into The Light (2004), Aldo Iacobelli: I love painting (2006), and Robert Hannaford: Natural Eye (2007).

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