One week into the job, Art Gallery of South Australia Director Rhana Devenport surveys the challenges and unique drawcards of her new home.
On Rhana Devenport’s last day at Auckland Art Gallery in September, her colleagues donned masks printed with their outgoing director’s face. It was both a good-humoured show of affection as well as, perhaps, an acknowledgement that the gallery’s first female director would not be soon forgotten. The feeling was mutual. Devenport, very much a museum director of the 21st century, posted a picture of the sea of Devenports on her Instagram account. “#thankyou for 5 fantastic years of inspiration, rigour, professional brilliance and great heart,” she wrote, “truly an honour to champion what is good and important in this fragile world.”
About a month later, one week into her new role as director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Devenport welcomed The Adelaide Review into her office overlooking Adelaide from the northern side of the city – a good view which, after 12 years in New Zealand, will allow her to become reacquainted with the Australian light that captivated many of the artists (Roberts, Streeton, Heysen) on the gallery walls in the halls below. Devenport doesn’t fit the mould of what a gallery director – or, indeed, a chairperson, CEO, or political leader – typically looks like in this country. Dressed in a loose black shirt, tailored trousers and a pair of gleaming silver brogues, she may have just become the most glamourous museum director in the country. But the first solo woman at the helm of the South Australia state gallery in its 137-year history is running out of new material on the topic that every journalist has questioned her on.
“I can’t give a simple answer,” she says, “being a woman is not something I’ve overthought in my career and I think that’s because I always had great female role models and mentors. I have also worked obsessively and opportunities have arisen.”
Today, Devenport seems more interested in discussing the past week, a week that’s proved to be a rapid induction into Adelaide’s cultural heart. Tarnanthi is fresh on her mind following the opening of John Mawurndjul: I am the old and new and the Tarnanthi Art Fair.
“I’ve never seen such a generous opening,” she says, “it was open to the public and over 1000 people gathered on North Terrace. An all-female band from Maningrida in central Arnhem Land played some extraordinary music. It was a true celebration of artists and culture and tremendous to observe how welcome people feel at this gallery.”
Art was a language Devenport spoke from a young age. Her father was an architect and artist in Brisbane. Surrounded by his paintings and watercolours, art seemed a tangible enough career path to follow. “Art was everywhere and was just a part of life,” she says.
Devenport took after her father, passing around hors d’oeuvres at his exhibition openings and selling her first painting at age 12. The first time she remembers visiting the Queensland Art Gallery was for a high school trip, where she saw an exhibition of historical Chinese paintings. Little did she know then, it would be working in Asian art at that gallery that she would lay the foundations for her future career. Devenport spent a decade at the gallery’s Asia Pacific Triennial, cutting her teeth as a curator and museum professional.
“It changed the course of my life in many ways,” she says, “I learned a lot about listening to artists, and that art is a political act, an act of true defiance in some parts of the world. It was a humbling and inspiring experience.”
In 2004, Devenport relocated to Sydney, where her partner (multimedia artist Tim Gruchy) was then based. During this time, she had stints at the city’s major cultural festivals and institutions including the Sydney Festival and the Biennale. Somewhere in the middle of this, she spent three months as curator in residence at Auckland’s Artspace gallery, and a seed of attachment to Australia’s southern neighbour was planted.
She accepted the directorship at the Govett-Brewster Gallery in the North Island city of New Plymouth in 2006, where she spearheaded the fundraising effort for the new Len Lye Centre, New Zealand’s first public gallery devoted to a single artist. By the time the building – now considered an architectural marvel, with its reflective, rippled walls a distorting mirror to the surrounding city – opened in 2015, Devenport was two years into her directorship of the Auckland Art Gallery.
At Auckland she became a true advocate for New Zealand and its artists. In 2015, she curated an exhibition by Maori artist Lisa Reihana that incorporated a multimedia work In Pursuit of Venus. Two years later, artist and curator would take the show to the Venice Biennale where the critics raved. Back in Auckland, exhibitions such as The Body Laid Bare: Masterpieces from Tate saw works from one of the world’s great collections travel further from their London home than they had ever before ventured.
“I left Auckland at a point of great momentum,” says Devenport, “which is exactly how you hope to leave. Arriving in Adelaide, I feel that same sense of momentum again.”
Adelaide, a city with a population slightly smaller than Auckland’s, faces some of the same geographical challenges. It is a harder sell to draw major international blockbusters to a smaller Australian city than it is to east coast centres of Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. Devenport’s predecessor, Nick Mitzevich, managed this with great success, particularly with this year’s Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay that broke all attendance records for the AGSA. Devenport also inherits the problem of a gallery that has long struggled to secure adequate funding from the state government.
“It’s not the best funded museum in the country, that’s for sure. However, the philanthropic support for the gallery is extraordinary and has potential to grow. It will be a challenge,” she concedes, “but an exciting one.”
But, for Devenport, the gallery’s collection is its major drawcard.
“There is such depth in the historical collection,” she says, “I think that sets up very exciting hinge points or pivots in terms of where the modern and contemporary collection could go.”
Mitzevich, who became director of Canberra’s National Gallery in July, championed the need for a second gallery building to showcase the state’s art collection, much of which lies in storage. He had the support of former Premier Jay Weatherill and the project to build a new contemporary gallery at the site of the old RAH was in the works. This year, with a change of government and the project’s biggest proponent in Canberra, plans for a new gallery building seemed to wobble. Premier Steven Marshall questioned how such a building would stand apart from similar projects to extend the state galleries in Sydney and Melbourne. Marshall’s government proposed instead a gallery devoted solely to Aboriginal art and, at the time of writing, has yet to fully commit to any plans. Devenport, with her experience in the fundraising and development stages of the Len Lye Centre, seems the right person to take up this torch. She, like Mitzevich, is adamant that South Australia’s state collection requires more space to breathe, as well as more room to showcase the work of living artists from throughout Australia and beyond.
“Artists are at the heart of what art museums do,” she says. “Art is an expression of who we are and where we come from. It can create lines of empathy between cultures and open our hearts, minds and souls to other ways of thinking and being in the world. As we watch this rise of fundamentalism and restrictive ways of thinking in many parts of the world, I think the voices of our artists become even more vital.”