Our curators do an extraordinary job of caring for, interpreting and re-interpreting our collection. They specialise in photography, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, 19th and 20th century art, contemporary art, printmaking, sculpture, Asian art, Australian and International — the list goes on! They’ve answered some of the questions you posed on 2019 Ask a Curator Day through our social channels here.
Tahlia asked: How do you obtain a career in art curatorship?
Tina, National Gallery Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art (ATSI): For me, it wasn’t a conscious decision to be an art curator, it was chance. I had wanted to be an environmental scientist, air traffic controller or taxidermist, but graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Science specialising in Museum Studies after an opportunity to study in Canberra. I eventually moved into the arts via jobs. For Indigenous people, art and culture are closely connected — they are intertwined. Moving from museums to galleries was a natural progression.
@thecloudgallery asked: Why do artists have to be already well known before they gain any traction with the larger art intuitions?
Tina: For ATSI artists this is not always the case. We have (and continue to) collected elderly Aboriginal artists who did not start their career until their 70s or 80s like Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Her career spanned 16 years from 1980, when she was 70 years old, until 1996. These elderly artists have a lifetime of knowledge and creativity that was only realised/appreciated by western society once they were exposed to western mediums. They have been creating and using art all their lives as part of cultural practice.
@thecloudgallery asked: Do artists still need galleries to be successful?
Tina: No, but galleries help artists with exposure to a wider audience and showcase them in ways that may be unavailable to them on their own.
Derek asked: How far would you go to discover an internationally known contemporary Aboriginal artist that you were totally unaware of?
Tina: Not far at all. There are a number of well-known Contemporary Aboriginal artists like Judy Watson (Venice Biennale 1997), Richard Bell (Venice Biennale satellite show 2019), Dale Harding (Liverpool Biennial 2018), Warwick Thornton (Venice Cinema Biennale 2017), Vernon Ah Kee (Venice Biennale 2009), Yhonnie Scarce (Venice Biennale 2013), Destiny Deacon (Perspecta 1993, 1999, Documenta 2002, Yokohama Triennale 2001, Johannesburg Biennale 1995, Havana Biennale 1994), Tracey Moffatt (Venice Biennale 2017) and so many more. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists show overseas in well-known or not so well-known exhibitions — so much so that we can’t always keep track of who and where they are shown.
Larissa asked: I recently visited The Art Gallery of South Australia, and I was surprised to see how differently they have displayed their artworks. I’ve never seen anything like it, most rooms were organised thematically with a mix of old, new, European, Australian, Indigenous but also the method of placing works on the walls was very unusual and intriguing. Small paintings placed up high and arranged diagonally descending down the wall, or a group of 9 by 5 Impressionist paintings literally squashed together, against each other in a corner! Have you seen this? And what do you think?
Tina: Check out the new permanent Australian galleries at the National Gallery of Australia! The former Art Gallery of South Australia Director is now the National Gallery Director, so he’s influencing our displays too.
Rowan asked: For the contemporary art curators — what things are you considering when you look at potential work for the collection?
Jak, National Gallery Senior Curator of Contemporary Art Practice — Global: Our Contemporary art collecting strategy says the aim is to ‘redress the gender bias of last century; reflect the globalization of contemporary art since 1990 and focus on ‘non-traditional’ media in order to respond to the hybridity of art-making today’. This means that for the next three years, we will be working closely with women artists, that we are looking beyond the ‘traditional’ art centres of Europe and America, and that we are focused on artists and artworks that expand our understanding of what art can be in the 21st century. For example: Urs Fischer’s Francesco — a giant melting candle, Patricia Piccinini’s Skywhalepapa — a special-shaped hot-air balloon, and Jordan Wolfson’s new animatronic sculpture for 2021 to name a few.
Tina: Creativity, innovation, connections to culture, community, Country, a meaningful story, current events or stunning beauty.
Katrina asked: What kind of lighting do you use in the galleries? Does it differ depending on what’s on display? Warm or cool, and why?
Tina: In our ATSI galleries we use both natural and artificial light. Many of the works were produced under natural light, so we try to use this where possible. The lighting in these galleries shift as clouds pass over, and during early morning, late afternoon and at dusk, as well as seasonally. A work can look very different at different times. Artificial LED light is utilised for night-time viewings or stormy days and can again shift the colours of the work too.
@bpiscitelli asked: Tell me about the work of art made by the youngest person in the collection.
Tina: The Ernabella drawings. At the time they were created, the Ernabella artists were children — they are now Elders in their communities and some still do similar designs as they did when they were children.
Lara, National Gallery Curator of Australian Paintings and Sculpture: The works by the youngest artists in the National Gallery’s collection are most likely the exquisite paintings and drawings made by the children of Queensland and the Northern Territory who worked with the artist and educator Frances Derham. In 1938, Derham visited Aboriginal missions at Hermannsburg in central Australia and in 1948 Aurukun in northern Queensland. While there, Derham gave children drawing materials and held outdoor art classes. The range of images she collected provides a glimpse into the children’s life experiences — going to church, pig hunting, and fishing. While we may not know the specific age of the artists in this group of works, I am almost certain that they are made by the youngest artists in the Gallery’s Collection. You can learn more about this collection here https://nga.gov.au/derham/hermannsberg_arukun.cfm
@ch_anokye asked: What do you have to do to be classic as a curator? What principles are there to follow if any?
Crispin, National Gallery Curator of Pacific Arts: Be prepared! Be prepared to meet head on, and adapt to, a myriad of challenges and surprises in working towards your goals. If you love a particular area of the arts, then sink your teeth in and enjoy the journey of learning and researching. All curators have a great responsibility to the collections in their care, so, in terms of principles I would say walking with integrity is the best foundation to build upon.
@aletabatesportraiture asked: How do you see galleries becoming more engaging for the wider community and for children to inspire them to create and foster a love of art as our next wave of artists? Children’s spaces are still, largely, separate to the exhibiting space and we’re still working to a gallery model that is quiet, subdued, serious and at times stifling. How will galleries of the future work to captivate and excite the younger audience who are getting less exposure in the traditional education framework, to the visual arts? For some children who do not have creativity at home, this has been the only avenue of exposure and taking this away is hugely detrimental to our arts sphere. Will there be a concerted effort by galleries, do you think, to fill this gap and really ignite the next generation?
Tina: For me art is open to all visitors, young and old. Children should experience art alongside other children as well as with adults. It’s a learning journey we should be experiencing together — learning in galleries, outside with public art, dance, theatre, music, performance, films, in everyday life. However, as a society we should be nurturing and encouraging a love of culture, arts, creativity in all areas from birth — whether we engage in arts, environment, sciences, etc. and not just via galleries.
@paintlater asked: Is there a particular work you would “poach” from the #AGNSW if you could? & why?
Tina: Yes! 1. Yhonnie Scarce — Death Zephyr 2017 — a powerful and stunning representation of the devastating nuclear testing done at Maralinga SA and the ongoing effects on Aboriginal people from that region.
2. Uta Uta Tjangala, Untitled (Jupiter Well to Tjukula) 1979 — currently on display 20th-21st century gallery. It is a stunning work as well as a cultural masterpiece depicting the artist’s Country and longing to live out there.
Lara: 1. There are a number of works in the AGNSW collection that I would happily take into the National Gallery’s collection if they were no longer wanted in Sydney. One is Tony Cragg’s Spyrogyra, which is a very clear reprise of Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle rack. I adore the textures and colours of the bottles — Cragg has taken the everyday and honed it into a gorgeous spiralling organic form that I could look at all day.
2. Then there is Violet Teague’s Dian Dreams (Una Falkiner) — such a bold composition, such a delicious dress, such decadent flowers — I just want to be Una Falkiner really, even if I have to live in a painting.
@mezdcarlo asked: With the exponential quantity of art being produced around the world, how will galleries discern what is worth collecting, what is exceptional and who are today’s masters? There’s just so much art!
Tina: Curators continually engage with artists, communities and see exhibitions, read publications, etc. Over time, we gain an excellent sense and knowledge of what is exceptional and what is not. It’s all subjective though, as each curator’s taste and recommendations can be very different. It’s a matter of being strategic and collecting where the organisation collections are lacking or need enhancing or strengthening. It’s a hard but rewarding job and something not to be taken lightly as works are being collected for the Nation and as a snapshot of art from that time by that artist, medium, genre, etc.
@elaineg_makes asked: When artists curate their own shows, what are the key mistakes they tend to make.
Tina: Showing every work produced, whether good or bad. Only show the best!
@annmarieiversen asked: What do you do with your exhibition models? Are they available for schools to enhance learning for VCE students?
Shaune, National Gallery Senior Curator of Photography: The models are retained by the Gallery and used for future rehangs of galleries. Rehangs take place on a regular basis, so the models remain useful for many years.
Beck, National Gallery Sid and Fiona Myer Curator of Ceramics and Design: We do actually keep and reuse all our models. We are always planning our next exhibition and models are a really useful way to test out our ideas and play with the space. Sometimes we have multiple versions of the same model as we are often working on multiple exhibitions at the same time and several years in advance.
@davidsequeiraart: Love it… what about #askacuratorout day?
Tina: What a great idea David, better still #askanartistout day!