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Galleries propose split from Museums Australia

Madeleine Dore

Public galleries are considering a proposal for a new peak body because of concerns Museums Australia does not adequately represent galleries.
Galleries propose split from Museums Australia

Madeleine Casey, Splitting Image VII via Society6 

Artists, theatre makers, writers and libraries have specific peak bodies advocating for their sector, but do existing national bodies adequately represent the unique challenges of visual arts presenters, collectors and galleries?

A proposal for a new peak body to represent galleries sparked debate yesterday at the National Public Galleries Summit held by Public Galleries Association of Victoria (PGAV) at Bendigo Gallery.

Leading the conversation was Karen Quinlan, Director, Bendigo Art Gallery and President of PGAV. Quinlan argued the existing peak bodies do not address the unique challenges of visual arts presenters. She said galleries needed to separate from Museums Australia to ensure the specific needs of the visual arts sector were properly represented.

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‘We’ve been swallowed up, to an extent, by a bigger entity, and we can’t see anywhere,’ Quinlan said.

She proposed a new Australian Galleries Associations, a peak body that could ‘present at a national level galleries and museums that collect, display and restate the visual arts through exhibition and programming,’ said Quinlan.

‘As a peak body we could offer a clear and strategic vision for public art galleries in Australia, offer advocacy, liaise with all levels of Government and provide direction and support in the form of summits and professional development. AGA could be a source of knowledge and leadership, it could develop national standards for the galleries, it could partner with government and educational intuitions to lead research in the sector – and we know that we need the research – and it could demonstrate the economic and social value of public art galleries to the Australian community,’ said Quinlan.

Public galleries are currently represented through Museums Australia but Quinlan said while she was 'very respectful of the contribution Museums Australia has made' , there was potential that was not being met.

'The proposed concept is not an attempt to ‘swallow up, compete with or indeed phase out other representative organisations. ‘This is about the evolution of a vibrant and inventive sector. We need to embrace our transformation and nurture it. We need, and deserve, a national voice and a national perspective.’

But not all galleries are in favour of a new national body. Some fear a peak body would be dominated by large galleries and it would be difficult for remote galleries and underrepresented states to have their voice heard.

Museums Australia President Frank Howarth suggested restructuring MA, including a change that acknowledge Galleries in the association name, might be an alternative.

Speaking in favour of a new peak body,  PGAV representative Dr Jody Evans, Associate Professor, Melbourne Business School, acknowledged that there are commonalities with the collection side of museums and galleries, but said unique challenges are not being address by MA.

‘When we start asking the public galleries what are the big issues for them, those things aren’t coming up,’ said Evans. In a survey sent out by PGAV to over 200 public galleries operating in Australia, capacity, securing funding, attracting and engaging audience were among the top concerns and key challenges the sector faced.

In addition, 89% per cent of  the 99 respondents said they were interested in being represented by a peak body. 

‘There are some unique issues for visual arts practitioners that really need to be addressed,’ said Evans, who added the MA has ‘had a long time’ with no competition to address these issues.

‘There is so much pressure with the language of sustainability and self sufficiency, diversification of funding streams, that a skill set around being better equipped to develop and build strategic partnerships, have new and innovative ways to engage audiences … this is a professional development need which is unique to public galleries in Australia right now,’ said Evans.

From Museums Australia, Howarth responded with words of caution, noting the Australian situation is unique. ‘I absolutely understand the situation that Karen and many of you are outlining and I applaud the interest in a strong national voice.

'It is about being more effective, it is about getting more resources, let’s just make sure we do it the best possible way,’ he said. ‘I really hope that if Australian Galleries Association gets up … that it deals with communication across the sector rather than inhibiting it,’ said Howarth.

Currently, not all the states have public gallery bodies and ‘that is where the wilderness is for many,’ said Quinlan, who added the introduction of the AGA could encourage collaboration throughout the states.

Evans wants to start the conversation about representation and collaboration at a national level. ‘Why do we keep trying to do all this in isolation? All of these great things are happening in different states but there’s not necessarily the conduit there to foster that sharing and collaboration.'

Yet for some, semantics and reconfiguring MA is not the answer. Kirsten Paisley, Director, Shepparton Art Museum said, ‘This issue for me is really about the visual arts. As a member of Museums Australia, we’d go to Museums Australia for collection matters, not for visual art measures and that is the key thing. Even with the review of Museums Australia, it will never be able to deliver to my organisation.’

The visual arts is a major contributor to the social and economic wealth of the country, a sector that ‘punches way above its weight’ and has earned its right to its own voice, said Evans.  

‘In terms of social inclusion, public spaces, safe spaces, and how much education is happening in public galleries today, this is a really valuable and viable sector that has earned its right not be grouped with a broader museum sector, but to its own the uniqueness around visual arts.’

In response to adjusting the existing structure of MA, Evans addressed Howarth: ‘While you could do it as one, you’ve had a lot of years and you haven’t done it. So maybe we will step up and do it for ourselves.’

While an exact timeframe to develop the formal proposal was unclear, further discussions between PGAV, MA and other bodies and organisations was mentioned, as was the looming Australian Council for the Arts deadline.

‘It’s not going to happen overnight…’ said Quinlan.

‘But it’s also not going to take five years…’ added Evans.

While open to discussion about the proposed concept, Howarth highlighted another caution, that being the common desire for a reduction in the number of peak bodies.

Quinlan responded: ‘We’re not afraid of that. If we represent us, then it is valid. If we believe we are different and we are a group – we are not a theatre or a library, we are art galleries. We’ve got the word art in there and that’s our content. I really think that is a positive move.'

The Fifth National Public Art Galleries Summit runs from 4-6 February in Bendigo, Victoria

About the author

Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and dedicated to communities that encourage entrepreneurial and artistic careers. Curious about how creativity is reflected in our daily lives, Madeleine founded the online interview project Extraordinary Routines sharing conversations with local creatives. Follow her on Twitter: @RoutineCurator

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