Faculty of Arts alumni shaping the Australian Art scene

Is art your passion? A vocation? Do you dream of working in the arts, surrounded by beautiful objects? Kirsty Grant (BA(Hons) 1990, PgDip in Art Curatorial Studies 1991) and Nicholas Thompson (MArtCur 2013) share their insights about the Australian art scene, the challenges involved with the notoriously hard-to-crack industry, and how they have built up their careers.

Kirsty Grant

Kirsty Grant assumed the role of Director and CEO of Heide Museum of Modern Art in January 2015. Kirsty was previously the Senior Curator of Australian Painting Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980 at the National Gallery of Victoria, in addition to more than 20 years experience working in major State galleries, following her studies in Art History and Art Curatorship at the University of Melbourne. Kirsty has published widely in the field of Australian art and curated numerous exhibitions of important Australian artists, including Fred Williams, Yvonne Audette and John Brack.

Could you tell us about the Heide Museum of Modern Art?

Heide is a wonderful place. It opened to the public in 1981 and before that time, was the home of John and Sunday Reed, who were central to the development of Melbourne modernist art and literature through their championing of contemporary art and culture.  They counted some of the most significant artists of the day as their friends and Heide became a hub for creativity and avant garde ideas.  Sidney Nolan famously painted his iconic series about the life and times of Ned Kelly on the dining table at Heide.

Today, Heide's focus is on modern and contemporary art and we present a series of exhibitions each year across three exhibition spaces (two of which were houses the Reeds lived in between the 1930s and 80s), which are set on 16 acres that incorporate a sculpture park, productive kitchen gardens and parkland.  Heide is unique within the context of Melbourne's cultural sector, bringing together art, gardens, architecture, as well as a rich social and artistic history.

How difficult is it to create art momentum in Australia? How would you describe our local art scene?

There is great momentum in the Australian art scene.  There is an ever-growing band of artists making really interesting work; artist-run spaces; commercial galleries; auction houses; biennales; art fairs and so on.  There are also more and more people who collect art in a serious way. There are lots of places to see contemporary art but also many fantastic galleries where you can see well-curated exhibitions of historical art which provides the context for what's happening today.  There is also a big audience for art in Australia, although there are still many people for whom visiting a gallery is an unfamiliar experience and I think that is one of the biggest ongoing challenges for all of us who work in the visual arts.

Do you visit a lot of cultural institutions, art fairs or biennales to inspire yourself and become familiar with new curatorial practices?

If you work in the visual arts it's inevitable that much of your spare time and holidays are spent looking at art.  It's through this process that you learn, add to your visual experience and importantly, refine your ability to think about art, to contextualise it in a meaningful way and to display it to advantage.  Heide's Deputy Director, Linda Michael, curated the exhibition of Fiona Hall's work at this year's Venice Biennale and I was in Venice for the opening week.  It was an amazing experience to be in that beautiful city with what seemed like the entire contemporary art world, and to have the opportunity to see so much art from around the globe.  There were some real highlights – the Japanese pavilion by Chiharu Shiota and the paintings by Adrien Ghenie in the Romanian pavilion for example – and Australia looked very strong. In fact, I think it was one of the best.

What do you consider the most important steps or milestones in your career trajectory so far? Which project or accomplishment are you most proud of?

Every step you take in your professional life is important but I think my first two curatorial positions – at the Queensland Art Gallery where I worked as Assistant Curator in the Prints, Drawings and Photographs Department, and then in the Prints and Drawings Department at the National Gallery of

Victoria – were fundamental to my career development. In both of these galleries I was privileged to work with Senior Curators who were models of professionalism – intelligent, principled, hard-working (as all curators are), creative and generous – and who were willing to teach a young curator who was very green, but also really enthusiastic.  I will always be grateful to Anne Kirker and Irena Zdanowicz for the training and the many opportunities they gave me.

I'm particularly proud of one of the last exhibitions I curated at the NGV, Mid-Century Modern: Australian Furniture Design.  It was a subject I'd been interested in for many years but the experience of putting it together was one of real discovery, as well as a process of collaboration with design historians, collectors, dealers, as well as my colleagues at the gallery – from the furniture conservators to the exhibition designer.  Importantly, the exhibition also received a really positive response from the visiting public who loved it.

What were some of the challenges, both anticipated and unanticipated, you encountered throughout the course of your work?

The biggest challenge early on was simply getting a foot in the door and securing my first paid gallery job.  I spent at least eighteen months applying for every curatorial position that came up – from Shepparton to Campbelltown in New South Wales and everywhere in between – you have to be prepared to move if you really want to work in this field. I also sent lots of letters to curators and gallery directors just introducing myself in the hope that they would remember me when a position came up.  I continued to volunteer at the NGV throughout this time and it was in that context that I heard about the vacancy coming up at the Queensland Art Gallery.

What are your thoughts on the representation of women in Directorial positions in cultural institutions?

There haven't been many women in directorial roles in Australia – you can count those who have run the big galleries on one hand. There are however lots of women who have run regional and metropolitan galleries like Heide, as well as the university galleries, and if you look around now, the majority of galleries of this scale in Victoria are headed up by women.  It will be interesting to see if some of them make the move to the major state and national galleries in time. I would certainly like to see it happen.

How has your study contributed to your career development?

I had no idea what I wanted to do when I finished secondary school, and enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts, studying Classics, Politics and Art History, thinking a general education would serve me well and really hoping that at some stage during the following few years, inspiration would strike! I found I enjoyed Art History and towards the end of my Honours year, a new Postgraduate Diploma in Art Curatorial Studies was introduced at Melbourne University, which seemed to offer the perfect solution.  It was a great course and lots of my fellow students have gone on to have significant careers in the visual arts.

The best piece of career advice I've ever been given is…

The best piece of career advice I've ever been given is to feel the fear and do it anyway.  This has many applications and is always useful!

In turn, what advice would you give to our brand new graduates wishing to get into the Arts industry?

Practical experience and professional networks are critical in any field, so my advice to new graduates would be to take up internships and volunteer positions in relevant organisations whenever you can, learn from the people who have the kinds of jobs you want, and get to know them so that when an opportunity comes up, they think of you.

Nicholas Thompson

Nicholas Thompson, a Master of Art Curatorship graduate, opened his own commercial gallery, the Nicholas Thompson Gallery, in Collingwood earlier this year.  Since completing his Masters in 2013, Nick has worked at some of the most esteemed galleries in Australia, including Philip Bacon Galleries in Brisbane, and John Buckley Gallery and Australian Galleries in Melbourne. The 32-year-old is passionate about art and helping young and established artists build their careers.

Please tell us about the Nicholas Thompson Gallery.

The gallery is a primary market commercial art gallery, committed to exhibiting Australia's leading contemporary artists. The gallery holds exhibitions every month, sells artworks on behalf of the artist and takes a commission from the sale of art works.

What brought you to the Arts sector?

I completed my school work experience at an art gallery, but went into an architecture degree at UQ. I stuck it out for about three and half years and did a placement with an architecture firm but realised it wasn't what I really wanted to do. I changed my degree to art history at UQ, I completed a brief internship at the Museum of Brisbane and started working at Philip Bacon Galleries doing casual data entry which evolved into a full time position.

What is, in your opinion, an art gallery's function?

The art gallery's function is to support the practice of the artist – through sales, but also through exposure – to audiences, media, academics etc. The gallery is significant in creating a framework that supports and promotes the artists work.

What do you demand from a work of art?

I think there are always two parts to a work of art. The first is the immediate, personal aesthetic response, the subjective aspect. The second is the context of the work and the artist, their history and their place in art history, the concerns that their work deals with and their critical acknowledgement – the objective aspect. Coming from an art history background – context really interests me. There were senior artists that I approached who I had always been fascinated with, as their histories were so interesting and culturally significant, as well as younger artists whose line of inquiry really interested me. However it does all start with a subjective response to the work.

What do you consider the most important steps or milestones in your career trajectory so far? Which project or accomplishment are you most proud of?

Each of the three galleries I worked with would be milestones. I am most proud of the successful survey exhibitions I worked on, including Ian Fairweather, Justin O'Brien, Inge King and Lenton Parr. As previously stated, I love Australian art history so these were very meaningful.

What were some of the challenges, both anticipated and unanticipated, you encountered throughout the course of your work?

I think the most challenging parts were the unfamiliar ones, but they are the most rewarding when you conquer them! Mastering things like book-keeping and exhibition installing were incredibly rewarding because they disproved self imposed beliefs and limitations (mostly ones that I had carried around since school – like that I am bad at maths and manual arts!)

How would you describe our local art scene?

I'd describe the local art scene as small but dedicated, and I think galleries should try and make themselves as accessible as possible and increase awareness to build audiences. I think social media is great, apps like Instagram emphasise the visual and allow art galleries to push their artists further and reach more people.  Outside of their commercial function commercial galleries often provide a more intimate alternative to larger public galleries, they are spaces where people can experience terrific exhibitions free of charge.

Do you visit a lot of cultural institutions or art fairs to inspire yourself?

Australia has terrific state and regional galleries which I try and visit when not working at the gallery. I think the Sydney and Melbourne art fairs are important as they are the most publicly visible events for commercial art galleries.

The best piece of career advice I've ever been given is…

Know when to say no.

What advice would you give to graduates wishing to get into the Arts industry?

You need to put yourself out there, expand your skill set and make yourself an asset to your potential employer.

The Heide Museum of Modern Art is located at 7 Templestowe Road, Bulleen, Victoria.

The Nicholas Thompson Gallery is located at 155 Langridge Street, Collingwood, Victoria.