"If art museums are to continue in their most relevant and vital form, they must know where they are and who they are connecting with"

6 September 2021

20181023 Rhana Devenport Adobe RGB 4000px Photo Saul Steed 0Z2Y9560.jpg

Interview with Rhana Devenport, member of the Board of CIMAM, Director Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia. Originally published by Tendencias del Mercado del Arte.

Do we still need museums? Why art and culture are essential to our individual and collective wellbeing?

To quote Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, museums have the potential to be ‘reality co-producers’ where artists, the public and museum workers collaborate to produce new knowledge through creative and discursive action. Works of art are vital portals to other temporal, spatial and socio-political worlds. Great art in any form and from any era speaks across millennia to connect with human consciousness and offer a space for empathy. Upon winning the $100,000 Ramsay Art Prize at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), Aboriginal artist Vincent Namatjira – who lives in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands of South Australia – stated; ‘Art is a weapon, Art changed my life, Art has the power to change the world’. As iterative and dynamic zones for cultural agency, art museums offer sites for recalibrating the past, negotiating the present, and imagining the future. What we are witnessing at AGSA after the tumult and precariousness of the past year, is a public deeply appreciative that the Gallery can once again offer an open, public, and private space for respite, solace, contemplation, stimulation, surprise, and beauty in a shared yet safe environment.

In 2020, museums and collections all over the world were deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; consequently, many public-facing institutions were required to take a position on their operations. Should museums keep open and operational in these difficult times?

In Australia (given our island status and a solid national healthcare system) we are extremely fortunate to be in an easier situation than most places in pandemic world. As a government entity, AGSA made the decision in tandem with the Premier of South Australia (who is also the Minister for Arts and Tourism) about the timing of our ten-week closure in 2020. Each museum has particular governing scenarios and the balance across financial sustainability, institutional mission, public access, and human safety are now constantly under serious renegotiation. What we all now know for sure is that nothing is for sure. Lockdown can erupt on a hairpin. This new state of the human condition echoes Zygmunt Bauman’s 1999 description of our state of ‘Liquid Modernity’ where assumptions fall away, with modes of engagement in flux, and fluid change a daily constant. Museums have also learned that the word ‘operational’ can also embrace, or be temporarily replaced by, the digital sphere.

How online projects and social media will shape the future of exhibitions? Can digital ever replace physical museums?

Last year I experienced a heart rendering one-to-one performance by a Berlin-based Korean singer as part of Taiwanese American artist Lee Mingwei’s project Invitation for Dawn 2020 in his solo exhibition at Gropius Bau. This week I attended a powerful performance, BLKDOG from British choreographer Botis Seva for his company Far From The Norm as part of the Adelaide Festival 2021. The performance took place in Sadler’s Wells Theatre via live feed to a theatre in Adelaide, at the end of the performance the dancers were in tears as this was the first ‘live’ audience that had performed to in a year. What I learned from these two encounters is that the digital can afford a level of intimacy we had never expected possible. Digital has now embedded itself deeply in how the cultural ecology operates, behaves, shares, communicates, and earns. We can’t now retract this expansion of the digital, we adapt, with the wellbeing of artists at the forefront of decision-making. There is also the sphere of digital art practice that in many ways does not need museums and is forcing museums to reconsider multiple aspects of its collecting, curating, and presentating modalities.

How museums can be drivers for economy recovery?

‘Bed nights’ has been the emblem of success for tourism agencies. Until a year ago museums were acknowledged as major attractors in a world where cultural tourism was the star growth agent for tourism. What is interesting is the shift from an analysis of numbers to encounter, from measuring visitors to ensuring memorable experiences, and from campaigns targeting potential international and national tourists to encouraging deep engagement with local audiences. One of AGSA’s flagship projects is Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. Tarnanthi involves annual exhibitions, a nation-wide education program, national and international touring, and an annual art fair where 100% of the sales (average of AUD1 million per year) goes directly to Aboriginal artists and art centres. This project is responsive to a unique network within Australia’s art ecology involving First Nations artists and the direct and expansive economic, social and cultural impact that art ignites for these artists.

When visitor numbers are limited, profits become jeopardized. Do you think there is a remedy for this? How the online presence will affect the funding of museums?

Art museums in Australia are currently attracting around 50% of pre-pandemic numbers, consequently, all income streams are reduced. What AGSA has seen is continuity in its philanthropic and partner support. In 2020 AGSA re-launched the South Australian Artists Fund as our Membership annual campaign and we received record support through this avenue compared with previous years. We also repurposed donor funds for artist bursaries for South Australian artists experiencing hardship during the pandemic. Monetising online is a challenge but not impossible, looking after those who believe in us is paramount; whether this means communicating with donors who action our vision, or supporting artists who are the reason for our existence.

Will blockbuster exhibitions take place in the same manner as pre-Covid-19?

Despite the heaving increase in international travel and freight costs and the new ‘install by Zoom’ modus, I suspect the large-scale travelling exhibition will continue, albeit in variant form. Perhaps the term ‘blockbuster’ will fade given its core assumptions of large visitor numbers being currently thwarted for health reasons. What is already happening is a tremendous surge in falling back in love with collections, and for art museums to take the time and space to invest in their curators and more experimental exhibition-making strategies to activate collections, offer opportunities to the resilient and talented folk who are our colleagues and provide unexpected platforms for artists to engage with collections in energised ways. Sustainability is a key issue here, the major reduction in international air travel and freight over the past year should offer new methodologies. Business as usual is not an option and forging a sustainable path forward is essential.

Over the past decades, there has been an increase in the construction and development of museums. How do you see this phenomena? Might the booming of the contemporary art market be bad for museums?

In Australia, a $396 million expansion of the Western Australian Museum in Perth by HASSELL+OMA has just opened, Art Gallery of New South Wales continues on course for its Sydney Modern project to open in 2022 with a budget of $344 million, while the National Gallery of Victoria’s third site was announced in late 2020. The NGV Contemporary will see Australia’s largest gallery of contemporary art and design spearheading a total precinct budget of a massive $1.4 billion. There seems no dampening of enthusiasm by Australian civic and cultural forces for infrastructural projects to meet, entice and expand public demand. Endorsed by pre-COVID-19 analysis regarding the international growth of cultural tourism, perhaps the enthusiasm for museum expansions is a logical coalescence of four things – exponential collection growth, the need for governmental infrastructural projects to support job creation, cultural tourism’s importance in a world where experience matters, and the acknowledgement of the contemporary museum’s place to connect in relevant and meaningful ways with public thinking and experience. Clearly, the pandemic will wreak havoc with cultural tourism and museum visitation for some years yet, however, the agency of museums to offer an essential and potent (if evolving) contribution to civic life is firmly established.

What do you think about the complaint that wealthy individuals are making the decisions that drive museum staffing and programming?

Some museums are entirely government funded, some are entirely privately funded via individuals and foundations, some are funded predominantly via commercial acumen, and many are an amalgam of all three revenue streams. In each myriad circumstance, there are powerful people who are driven by passion to achieve results. One should trust that decision making is a shared and discursive process and that the work art museums action – to offer artists agency, mount exhibitions, collect works of art, deaccession works on occasions, harness talent, maintain strong relationships with supporters, expand partnerships with companies, or radically change direction – are decided with ambition, respect, longitudinal care and sustainability in mind.

What would you say is the future of art museums?

Since the first museum was arguably founded by the Mesopotamian Princess and Priestess Ennigaldi-Nanna 2500 years ago in the city of Ur in today’s Southern Iraq, these socially-minded, idea-generating, object-focused vortexes of cultural activity have continued to morph as they have lurched from being locales for passive absorption of knowledge to being discursive fora for new ideas and generative sites for the social imagination. If art museums are to continue in their most relevant and vital form, they must know where they are and who they are connecting with, they must listen hard to artists, be immensely curious, and provide active platforms for new research, making and ideas; these trajectories should ensure a vital and open future.