18/09/2020 - 06:30

Walker puts pieces together for AGWA shake-up

18/09/2020 - 06:30

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Colin Walker is on a mission to connect people with the Art Gallery of WA.

Walker puts pieces together for AGWA shake-up
Colin Walker was appointed permanent director of the Art Gallery of WA in March. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira | Artwork: Reko (Gwaybilla) Rennie

Newly-appointed Art Gallery of WA director Colin Walker is building a team to help him shake-up the 125-year-old institution.

The latest high-profile addition is Perth-born artist Ian Strange, who knows a thing or two about disruption, having once had the police called to control crowds at his exhibition in Melbourne.

Mr Walker, who began acting in the role after the departure of Stefano Carboni in July last year and was made permanent in March, is determined to engage the Western Australian community in the work of the gallery online, and to redefine the physical space.

Appointing Mr Strange as guest artistic director, Mr Walker said, was key to delivering the gallery’s multimedia potential.

He said he wanted to promote local talent in a contemporary way, using different media platforms to tell the stories of the artworks.

Mr Strange, who started as a street artist in Perth and went on to build a career in New York, works across a range of disciplines and has featured in galleries nationwide.

“He is an artist with a strong following but he works across different media as well; across film, documentaries, big installations, photography work, small scale,” Mr Walker told Business News.

Mr Walker said the idea of an ‘art hierarchy’ was irrelevant, with people engaging across a range of media and art forms; meaning every interaction with a gallery platform needed to be meaningful.

“Having an artistic director who can work with the artists and with the curators and with the marketing team as a multidisciplinary team to see how every experience, every decision we make has that creative touch point to it, I think that’s what’s different, that’s what’s radical in some way,” Mr Walker said.

Proposed changes at the gallery are aimed at increasing the number of visitors and engagements, with physical visitations fluctuating during the past decade, from a low of 272,236 in 2018-19 to high of 385,230 six years earlier.

“I’ve got to get this bit right for the next five years,” Mr Walker said.

“We have got to capture a generation that is engaging with culture in different ways.”

One of the biggest challenges facing the gallery, Mr Walker said, was that young people, families and locals had not been coming through the doors in recent years.

To engage young families and children, Mr Walker said he had invested in education, adding another full-time position to the AGWA Learning program, and planning to create a dedicated physical space for families.

A second part of the plan was to reframe aspects of the state art collection in unexpected ways to appeal to young adults.

Proposals under consideration include enlisting a young artist to provide feminist readings of post war art, and presenting collections with sounds, smoke, and dramatic lighting to create new experiences.

Mr Walker detailed an ambitious plan to repurpose the car park adjacent to the gallery to an outdoor space, featuring a large artwork in the middle, to create an area for events and better connect Beaufort Street and the Perth Cultural Centre.

In addition, he said a mixed coffee and retail outlet was planned for an area near the gallery’s main entrance.

Mr Walker said these changes would make the gallery a more contemporary and lively space, while keeping visual arts at its core.

This theme is evident in the recently announced $10 million rooftop project, Elevate, a 500- person capacity event space Mr Walker envisions being used at all hours.

The project was designed by Perth-based firm TAG Architects and Sydney firm fjmt for events of different sizes, with the potential to rearrange the space for each function.

“One of the challenges of any gallery is to get different types of experiences each time you come,” Mr Walker said.

“I want to make sure on the roof that we get to play with that sort of stuff.”

While the rooftop project was a Labor state election promise in 2017, Mr Walker has modified the plans slightly to fit with his new vision.

Conservation labs, where works of art are stored, will now be on the ground floor instead of the top floor, with the new facilities to house the state art collection’s 18,000 works.

The rooftop will now feature the largest commission work the art gallery has undertaken, a 34-metre-long mural by Noongar artist Christopher Pease.

A much larger focus on indigenous art is integral to Mr Walker’s future plans for the gallery overall, including moving the Aboriginal art downstairs to one of the two largest galleries.

“It means that we can properly tell those stories of this place within our collection as an introduction by First Peoples to this building as well,” he said.

“It marries what the public wants to see, which is a deeper engagement with Aboriginal culture.

“Our tourists always say, ‘Where’s the Aboriginal art?’

“It allows me to foreground all of those types of things at once.”

Mr Walker has appointed a new indigenous associate curator to focus on Noongar art.

“To have both Carly [Lane], who is already a curator of indigenous art, and then a new associate who will look at Noongar art, [we can] start to tell a much richer story of this place,” Mr Walker said.

The broader curatorial team has been restructured, with the addition of a curator for international art to focus on Asia and the Indian Ocean rim, a curator for WA and Australian art to create a platform for local artists, and a curator to look after the technical aspects of maintaining the collection.

“It’s a different structure than in the past,” Mr Walker said.

“I think what I’m trying to do is show to local artists that the state institution is there to try to help give you a platform where you can experiment and where you can help your career.”

Experience

Born in the UK and with a background working with large arts companies, Mr Walker said the Perth gallery could forge its own path using WA’s unique geography.

“It’s like everywhere has their own cultural interests and everyone’s got the potential to play with those and promote them in a way which means you really should be producing in the place where you are,” he said.

Mr Walkers said his plans relied on using his knowledge of arts administration, government and business to recruit local experts.

He spent much of his career working for Arts & Business, a UK not-for-profit that creates partnerships between corporate business and arts companies, before moving to Perth and joining what is now known as the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries.

While at the department, Mr Walker was a co-founder of Culture Counts, an organisation that measures and communicates art organisations’ value to audiences, government and supporters, and is now used by a number of WA organisations and the Arts Council England.

“The idea is you bring in the expert people who have a general propensity to want to help and get engaged in the creative process, and then harness those in some way and create a network of people who really understand contemporary culture, really understand how people engage in that culture, whatever their cultural background is, and then find a way to make those connections,” he said.

“The interest in the aesthetics and how commercial companies operate versus the value the cultural institutions can give … it’s that marrying of these things that I brought,” he said.

“How they then get executed is all about the creative people you bring in as part of the process.”

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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