06/02/2008 - 22:00

Culture corner: John Barrett-Lennard

06/02/2008 - 22:00


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Director, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, UWA, for six years

Culture corner: John Barrett-Lennard

John Barrett-Lennard

Director, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, UWA, for six years


WABN: Describe – in one sentence – a day at work.

JBL: “I spend a lot of time working with others to identify and achieve on our goals; communication is a huge part of the job, as indeed is thinking about and looking at great art.”

WABN: What is the best piece of advice you can give someone to motivate a team?

JBL: “I try to assure my team at all times that what we do makes a difference, and that we stay focused on outcomes. For the people we are dealing with, the quality of our work is the key to those outcomes, and it can be enormously rewarding for our team to see the results of what they do and to hear the responses of our visitors and audiences.”

WABN: What is the main quality you are looking for in your team members?

JBL: “Intense professional commitment – that they truly want to be working at the highest possible standards – and an ability to see, value and understand the outcomes they contribute to. Individuals also need to work well with others, and value the full mix of expertise and skills involved in a place like this.”

WABN: What's best measurement of your performance, and can you name a highlight in your career?

JBL: “On an overall level I’m very pleased that organisations I’ve been directing or leading have grown and changed, some very markedly, during my tenure, and that this has continued after I’ve left them. I have spent a lot of time leading institutions to point where their existence and the work they do can seem inevitable or natural to others, when that may not have been the case at all beforehand. If this is successful, the results won’t always be obvious to others – they will have bought into and own the changes themselves – but if looked at from outside, the fairly fundamental nature of what’s happened will be apparent.

“I’ve also worked a great deal as a curator for exhibitions or developing art collections, which offer me somewhat more private, but occasionally similar, rewards. I enjoy working closely with good artists, and seeing how their ideas and work connect to experiences we all share.

“Often when working on projects, I’ll start with something that intrigues or puzzles me and that seems to resonate with others, and then look at art and artists who can open up those issues and help to bring them into focus for others. It is wonderful to bring art and artists together for audiences in ways that can allow new connections to be made.”

WABN: How do you deal with egos in your workplace?

JBL: “Not playing to them wherever possible, while still assuring people get just recognition. Where it’s not possible, working to understand the limits ego makes for those enmeshed in it, and developing lateral approaches that don’t get trapped by its pitfalls.”

WABN: What frustrates you the most about your sector and what would you do to change it?

JBL: “Beyond the limits of funding (ones which are common to all cultural organisations), the critical issue is the widely held idea that the arts are somehow different from the rest of the world; that we do it all for love, that we neither understand, operate as or need to operate in a sophisticated and business-like manner.

“We have to be strategic, goal focused, to understand resources and opportunities, to be careful and at the same time ambitious in our operations (and finances), and to communicate well with supporters and our audiences (or, ‘customers’). I get very frustrated by assertions, typically from those outside the arts, that it must be so good to work in an art museum, surrounded by lovely things and, in essence, untouched by world, which is matched with other assertions that we don’t (and won’t) understand the real world.

“I spend a lot of time and effort communicating about how similar we are to other businesses (and how careful public art museums are in ensuring probity and professional behaviour in all things). This leads into, of course, assuring people that the funds we are given go a long way—and the very real public (and private) benefits of supporting us.”

WABN: What are the specific hurdles that you meet on a daily basis in your sector? How do you deal with them?

JBL: “We have enormous opportunities, and a great many people wanting us to do well and to do more, while at the same time have very limited resources (in time, staff or funds), and in a public art museum, having no easy feedback mechanism that will deliver more resources. More visitors or improved visitor experience does not translate readily into more funds, as we don’t charge visitors for our services.

“I spend a lot of time dealing with admin and management and resource issues – and getting time to look at the art and work with it is always an issue.

“So the hurdles of opportunities without corresponding and ever-growing resources have to be met with rigorous focus on key goals, strategic thinking and communicating the value and importance of what we can deliver. The time for art, for the critical content of this place, has to be found, and its primacy fought for.”

WABN: Have you read a good book on management/leadership that you can recommend?

JBL: “I don’t read many management books (though do look closely at arts and museum management journals). The most recent book I read was Good to Great by Jim Collins, which was useful in it focus on building consensus for change and the idea that all things can be done better – and that being great should be a major goal of organisations.”

WABN: Who has influenced you professionally?

JBL: “There are a few mentors who’ve been very influential for me, principally in providing great examples of professional work in the visual arts, but also in asking me challenging and sometimes uncomfortable questions.

“One major figure in this regard is Daniel Thomas, the former director of the Art Gallery of SA, the first curator of Australian art at the National Gallery of Australia, and prior to that the first ever curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of NSW. Daniel is enormously generous while at the same time probing.”

WABN: What were you doing before your current position?

JBL: “I’ve worked for over 20 years in related positions, most recently as a freelance art curator for the Australian exhibition at the 2001 Biennale of Venice. This was a great job, though very demanding; and I spent eight weeks there, which was heart breaking.”


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