Ten years in, the National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA) leadership program for Indigenous arts workers has now sent 104 alumni into the industry. First Nations arts workers can face many challenges, from isolation, to the gulf between regional and national institutions, and issues affecting cultural safety in the workplace.
Taking up one end of this challenge, the Wesfarmers Indigenous Arts Leadership & Fellowship Program was developed to arm emerging arts workers with industry knowledge, confidence and networks – and alumni say that it’s worked.
Shane Nelson, the NGA’s Indigenous Programs Producer, is one of the program mentors alongside curators Franchesca Cubillo, Kelli Cole and Tina Baum. ‘Coming from community ourselves, we understand the issues and some of the challenges that people might face coming into an institution,’ he said.
It’s an unusual program in the current arts landscape. The ACCELERATE leadership skills program, run by the British Council and Australia Council, finished up in 2016. The Australia Council’s current Custodianship program offers residentials in regional Australia, rather than access to large institutions. Other support initiatives are either small-scale, such as mentorships offered by individuals or workplaces, or target artists and arts organisations rather than arts workers.
The Wesfarmers program focuses on showing how a large institution works. It begins outside of the gallery, with a welcome to country. Guided tours then take participants through the different departments, like conservation and registration, and industry leaders are also brought in to share their experiences.
Participants are also given a project to work on during the 10-day course, which is designed to help them forge their own connections with and learn from gallery staff.
Knowledge holders and storytellers being heard
Joann Russo went through the program last year, and credits it with giving her the confidence to move into a senior management role at the Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre where she works.
‘The program helped me better understand the opportunities available to our peoples, but it did also teach me to understand why Indigenous leaders were important in community and why we need a change – especially in the Indigenous art sector,’ she said. ‘We are the knowledge holders and the storytellers, so why shouldn’t our voices be heard?’
The range of career paths taken by the 104 alumni goes some way to explaining the challenges of running a program like this. Some, like Russo, are working at art centres in regional or remote communities. Others are curators, project managers, working in public programming, or delivering arts programs in prisons. Other alumni are also practicing artists, like Robert Fielding, Yinimala Gumana and Bernard Singleton, whose installation Nyirrma Yidjul (language tribute) is currently in Linear at MAAS in Sydney.
Participants are coming from all over the country, bringing different experiences, and heading out towards very different goals. Nelson says it’s incredibly exhausting but rewarding, and points to the ‘ripple effect’ that he sees when alumni return to their own communities.
Many alumni speak about the benefits of the program in terms of confidence. Kimberley Moulton was part of the inaugural program in 2010 and says it was ‘completely life changing’, helping her think on a bigger scale. ‘It extended my networks and connections to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country and allowed me to experience First Peoples arts at a national level,’ Moulton said.
At the time, Moulton was working at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at the Melbourne Museum. She has gone on to participate in numerous curatorial and writing development programs, including ACCELERATE and the Wesfarmers program fellowship, which involved a residency at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Gallery in the United States.
This year, she also won the Power Institute’s Indigenous writing prize. Moulton is now senior curator of South Eastern Aboriginal collections at Museums Victoria. ‘I am the first Victorian Aboriginal person to hold this role and the youngest,’ she says.
Freja Carmichael also did the program that year. What’s followed has been an ‘enormous journey,’ she says. As an independent curator interested in fibre practices, she has gone on to stage major exhibitions including Gathering Strands; Commute, a collaborative touring project with First Nations curators from Canada and New Zealand; and Weaving the Way, which is currently at the UQ Art Museum.
Carmichael says the Wesfarmers program was ‘a defining experience’ that introduced her to ‘the many possibilities available working in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visual art sector’.
Others speak about the invaluable networks they formed with both peers and mentors. Nathan Mudyi Sentance is a project officer at the Australian Museum, and a passionate advocate for First Nations voices in institutional spaces. He did the program in 2017.
‘Working in big white colonial organisations can take its toll on your mental health,’ he says. ‘Your cultural values are often challenged and, from the outside, my family doesn’t always understand, so my alumni…are people I can share stories and yarns with.’
‘It was good to meet incredibly talented people who got where they were in different ways,’ he adds. ‘It just shows there is not one way to success.’
Russo, who is in regional Queensland, says she continues to benefit from these new connections, mostly via group chat. ‘These guys have become my brains trust and I feel secure in knowing I have them,’ she says.
Nelson says there is a lot of unseen work that goes on throughout the year, keeping in touch with participants and linking them up for collaborations. Carmichael appreciates the effort. ‘When important cultural events such as exhibitions and art fairs bring us all together, it’s like catching up with family,’ she says.
Connection to community
While the program is focused on individual goal-setting, alumni remain committed to communities around them. ‘Self-development and opportunities are important but we must maintain our connections to community and where we come from and pass on our knowledge and skills to uplift those around us,’ said Moulton.
‘I see my role as a conduit for community. Our work as Aboriginal people in museums and galleries goes beyond our individual practices—it is for the community and greater goal of First Peoples’ self-determination.’ For her, that means supporting artists and writers in her community, volunteering on boards and looking for opportunities to advocate and make change for Indigenous community and arts.
Now, the 10th anniversary of the program is prompting reflection about changing needs. It began as part of a $4 million partnership between the NGA and Wesfarmers, and that commitment was renewed when a new agreement was struck in 2018. This year, a two-day symposium was held during the program, bringing as many alumni as possible back to the gallery, and it prompted discussion about possible directions.
‘With 104 alumni now, there’s a real opportunity for us to sit back and reshape the program to meet the current landscape,’ Nelson says. One suggestion he says is being discussed is running part of the program within a regional community.
For the moment, one of the biggest achievements of the program is its longevity. Nelson says art centres and the peak bodies are now thinking ahead about potential participants. ‘It’s really tricky when these things run for three or four years and then stop, because what’s built is expectation.
The fact the program has been running for 10 years means people in those spaces…build it into their own processes,’ he says. ‘It’s being seen as a stepping-stone into the national arena.’ For Moulton, that’s what it’s all about. ‘It creates an awareness of Indigenous arts on a national level—what we need to be doing to advocate state to state but also nationally.’
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