I guess now is a good time to firstly ask—what has captured, or what do you expect to capture, your excitement the most at TarraWarra Museum in 2015?
We’ve got three sensational exhibitions coming up between now and the end of the year. The first one is called The Triumph of Modernism and is curated by Edmond Capon. He was the director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which is where I used to work. It has been a great experience working with him again. The exhibition captures the passion that Australian artists had for modernism in the post-war period and includes artists such as Brett Whiteley, Sidney Nolan, John Brack, Arthur Boyd etcetera.
One of the things that excites me about TarraWarra is the variety of our exhibitions. So we move from The Triumph of Modernism to an exhibition by French artist Pierre Huyghe. He is a very highly regarded contemporary artist who has just completed a submission for the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and has shown throughout Europe and the United States. This will be his first solo exhibition in Australia. One of the reasons I was really interested to work with him, is that TarraWarra Museum of Art is located in the spectacular Yarra Valley and we have incredible views from our museum into the valley. You see rolling hills and farmland and sumptuous vineyards. I like people to understand the view in different ways - from an artist’s perspective. So Pierre is one of those artists who looks at the interdependence between nature and culture and he considers nature in all sorts of dreamlike, unusual ways—to the extent that we will have some living creatures inside the museum for his exhibition. This is part of our international program, where every two years we feature an artist—or a group of artists—in an international exhibition.
At the end of the year, we will have a retrospective of Australian artist, Howard Arkley and that will be our summer show. The exhibition will not only include works from the 1970s until his death in the late 90s, but we’ve also invited many of his artist friends to contribute works from the period in which they knew Howard really well—as a kind of a tribute to the artist.
I think these three shows really encapsulate the breadth of our program and the different kinds of things we’re trying to do with it.
So contextualising the Museum’s 2015 program a bit more broadly within the history of the space, since TarraWarra Museum was established in 2000, who have you found—as in what demographic of people—have attended the Museum? What sort of feedback have you received from the public?
Well I’ve been with the Museum for three and a half years. It opened to the public in 2003 but it was established as an idea in 2000, you are correct, but it opened its doors in 2003. TarraWarra Museum of Art actually attracts a very broad public. Our location in the Yarra Valley, which is famed for its food and wine tourism, means we get a lot of international and Australian tourists, as well local audiences across a range of age groups, and from general visitors to art devotees.
I think that it is the variety of programs that we have on offer which enables us to attract such diversity.
We get very positive feedback on most of the exhibitions and a lot of media support which is fantastic. Visitors are often surprised to see international exhibitions ‘in the countryside’ and it is rewarding to present contemporary art to audiences who may not be that familiar with it. To be told,‘I’m not really a fan of contemporary art but now I understand what contemporary artists are trying to do—they’re inventive, they’re clever and they’re opening my mind’, is very satisfying.
Moving to some of the other initiatives that the Museum provides, could you please explain Phase Change to me and how it fits into the institution’s programming?
Yes, we were approached by an organisation called Climarte and they produced a festival during May including art exhibitions, forums and talks across Melbourne that looked at the relationship between art and climate change. They asked us to participate and I was very interested to do so because of my ongoing interest in how we look at nature, because we’re situated in it. Rather than invite an art and climate change artist to do a project, on this occasion I thought it would be interesting to talk to landscape architects, architects, designers, industrial designers about some of the real topics that are at stake in the Yarra Valley and for the Museum in terms of climate change. And what we ended up doing was having a partnership with a university in Melbourne called RMIT and they ran a masters class from our Museum for their students. And as the students gained knowledge, they would pin up their work, pin up their findings, they would have classes in the space and then they did a final presentation of their projects at the end of the exhibition. I was very pleased with the project because visitors could just sit and watch or sit and listen and repeat visitors could come and see a laboratory that was changing over time. It was a way for the museum to reach out to young people and for those young people to feel involved in museum culture.
So thinking about that and thinking about the type of works TarraWarra Museum exhibits, what contribution do you see the Museum making to the Australian art scene? Where do you think it fits in?
TarraWarra provides an original exhibition program in the sense that we contribute original ideas, we develop our own exhibitions and our choices are informed by looking at the past from the perspective of the present. Even when we have a collection show up, we will always include contemporary art in it because we want to contribute to the discussion about contemporary ideas and contemporary art in Australia. We are not afraid to take risks and try new things. The permanent collection, which was put together by Marc and Eva Besen and gifted to Tarrawarra, was a very adventurous and enterprising collection in its time. So we continue in that vein of being passionate and adventurous.
For you as the Director of TarraWarra Museum, what has been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced within your role to date?
I think it’s really important to bring your audiences with you in the risks that you take, especially when we’re trying to show an artist with experimental techniques and ideas. And that’s the challenge of any museum that is showing contemporary art alongside more historical or modern works, which is what we do. It can be a challenge to take your audience with you, but we do it through education programs, through tours, through publications, through the web and through social media. We just really ask the audience to come on a journey.
The other side of that question is, what for you has been the most rewarding aspect of working within this institution?
I love working with living artists and I love seeing the process of a gem of an idea being realised into our spaces. And the space here has turned out to be remarkably flexible. It was designed by a Melbourne architect Allan Powell and it never ceases to amaze me how good everything looks in the space. So for me the absolute joy is to work with an artist from the beginning of an idea to the realisation of it within our space.—[O]