Glancing in the rear view mirror, while driving forward

What’s behind? What’s ahead? Curator Russell Storer speaks of bridging roles between Singapore and the National Gallery of Australia.

What’s behind? What’s ahead? These are often the thoughts that plague us when starting a new role.

While some career shifts are a continuum, others can be an exciting jolt into a new chapter. This is the case for Russell Storer, who recently returned to Australia after seven years in Singapore, at the new National Gallery Singapore (NGS). Storer arrived in 2014 ahead of the gallery’s 2015 opening, first as Senior Curator and later moving into the role of Director (Curatorial, Research and Exhibitions).

Storer has recently taken up the role of Head Curator, International Art to steer the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) into its next chapter as it marks its 40th anniversary year.

It’s a significant moment to review, consider and refresh for any institution. ArtsHub caught up with Storer to reflect on that time, and to find out how embedding himself in the region might influence his perspective as he carves out a role in the NGA’s future.

Looking back and recognising what to carry forward

Singapore was not Storer’s first engagement with Southeast Asia. He was a co-curator of the 3rd Singapore Biennale in 2011, and was Curator of Contemporary Asian Art and then Curatorial Manager, Asian and Pacific Art at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) from 2008-2014, where he played an integral role as part of the curatorial teams for the 6th, 7th and 8th  Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art.  

But really it started earlier in 2005 when he organised the exhibition Situation, a comparative study of artist-run initiatives in Sydney, Berlin, and Singapore, which led to his career-long interest in the region. In many ways, that exhibition was culminated by his appointment by the National Gallery Singapore.

Storer reflected: ‘It was really an extraordinary opportunity. It is the largest art museum in the region, and it undertakes very ambitious projects.’

‘It was just such an amazing experience to contribute to its vision of how to write an art history of the region…and then to put it into an international dialogue. That’s sort of where I came in. That historical narrative was really the mission, but [to do it] in a really reflexive way as well. There’s obviously been people working in the area for a long time, but it hadn’t really been done in an institutionalised sense.’

Singapore is an interesting art scene that, in many ways, offers a bridge between Australia and wider Asia. Further, both nations have thorny histories of colonialism, cross-cultural relationships and a search for identity.

‘I’ve always felt that there’s a lot of parallels in terms of the two places, and that’s what resonated with me, that sense of trying to work yourself out: What is our identity? And where do we fit into this part of the world?’ said Storer. ‘It was really interesting for me to think about it there.’

But Storer added that each place is also quite different. NGS is an art museum that has a regional focus, rather than a national one, and ’that was important for me to think about how that might be related to here [in Australia],’ said Storer.

He said if you go back to the founding documents of the NGA, the mission was to position Australia in the world, and to look at the region quite closely.

‘I think the way the collections have developed has not necessarily always followed that as comprehensively as it might have been initially intended. [While] there’s certainly been some fantastic projects in the past that have done that, and amazing works in the collection, that’s something I’d love to really dig into and try to join a few dots,’ he told ArtsHub.

He said this reflexive view is in sync with what has been happening with museums globally over the past five years in particular, as they are rethinking how they tell stories and who gets to tell them.

‘The expectations of audiences have changed, [and] the social function of the museum has shifted to being much more artist-driven and audience-driven, as well as to respond to the environment around it.

‘I’ve always remembered what Liz Anne [Macgregor] said when I was at the MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art Australia): to put the artist first; that “the artist is always right”.

‘It is one [question] I posed in Singapore when we were thinking about the gallery’s mission. It was more as a provocation, I guess. ‘Singapore is very pragmatic. So they were like “Well, if that’s the case, how do we do that?” It is really about when we decide to work with artists, then we should behind them – and what are the implications of that? I guess you can take it quite literally, and I think initially, they did.’

With time and discussion, Storer said the understanding of that proposition ‘became a much more complex thing’, adding that ‘it’s always important to be reflexive and adapt to the times and that each project, each artist you work with is different.’

Those same questions were a catalyst for Storer’s return to the NGA, and the shaping of its vision under Director Nick Mitzevich.

I think part of it is the fact that it is an institution that’s changing. I mean, the history is fascinating; the collection is incredible, but what’s next? This vision for the gallery – I thought was very exciting.

The need for uncomfortable art

When ArtsHub spoke with Storer, the gallery was in the process of installing a major sculpture by British artist Tracey Emin in the Sculpture Gardens; inside was the work of important American artist Kara Walker, and on the future schedule is the controversial work of Jordon Wolfson (to be unveiled next year). They’re not easy works – and the gallery has acquired pieces by all three artists.

‘I think it’s a very scary and challenging time in which we live. I think works like Kara’s and like Jordan’s really poke the finger into that, and make us think,’ said Storer. ‘It’s not about feeling comfortable at all. And these are really crucial debates to have.’

He continued: ‘Sure, not everyone’s going to like it, but I think that’s okay. I think art is a really important platform to have discussions about challenging issues, and to ask: why are we unsettled by this? They’re not definitive positions either, and that’s the wonderful thing about artists – they deal with ambiguity; they deal with the complexities of race relations, or gender relations, or our relationship to technology. That we can do this at a national institutional level – to really work in the face of some of these issues – is important.’

Storer says the gallery has done this well over the years, collecting ambitious large-scale works, or works that really say something about where we are.

‘I’ve thought about how the fog sculpture [by Fujiko Nakaya] was acquired back in the 70s, as part of the Sculpture Garden; that is a very ephemeral environmental work, which was quite radical for the time. I like that thinking within our history, and that we can really build on it, and I’m really excited to see how we can continue that, but in new directions,’ he said.

Storer makes the point that no collection can be fully encyclopaedic or comprehensive, and that they always have their strengths and their oversights. ‘It’s what you can do with that, and then where you can build from that. This is what we did in Singapore, as we developed our collection displays over time. They featured 60% collection works when I started, and by the time I left, it was more like 80% collection works.’

Setting our goal posts for the future

Storer said his experience in the Asia Pacific was a key part of taking up the Head Curator, International Art, adding that Mitzevich is also keen to rethink and build on that regional focus at the national institution.

‘Our collection is very strong in American and European modern art in particular, which is also still important, but I think there’s different ways to work with that collection,’ said Storer in terms of offering a regional lens.

An example of that is the rehanging of the International Collection at the NGA – much of which was already in play for a number of years, well before Storer’s appointment.

He said of the hang (to be revealed later this month): ‘It’s an opportunity to look at the history of the collection, but also to think about it in a more expanded sense.

‘We open the show with the Aboriginal Memorial, which is at the heart of the gallery, and positioning it as part of a worldwide view – it’s a very powerful statement, I think, and one of the things I felt strongly about starting here at the gallery, is that Australian Art is international, there isn’t really a separation,’ Storer said.

He added that initiatives such as the gallery’s recent expanded First Nations focus, the Know My Name initiative, and the gender equity strategy were a draw for his Australian return.

Storer concluded: ‘It’s an exciting moment to join the gallery, I think we’re at a moment of reflection. Forty years is an opportunity to look back, but also to look forward.

‘I think what I’ve learned from Singapore, is what an art museum can really mean for people. I greatly admired the vision there that we’re contributing something to history – to the discourse – but also to our audience’s appreciation of art. That is a really fundamental thing, to do that in a rigorous and thoughtful and considered way.’

Singapore is known for being conservative and knotted up bureaucratically, making change difficult, despite a local audience hungry to embrace the new. So one idea, is if audience engagement strategies have been tried and tested there, and it worked, then that is a good insight for Canberra.

‘It was not a deeply embedded museum-going audience,’ Storer said. ‘What inspired me about going there [to Singapore] was pretty much everything we did was for the first time, so people’s expectations were not quite set about how a museum should look or how a collection should be installed, or what are the stories that need to be told.’

Storer concluded that while the NGA is 40-years old this year it is ‘still relatively new in the scheme of things. Maybe the shifts are not also easy to digest, but I think it’s also young enough, and I think being in Canberra gives us some leeway; that we can try things a little bit differently as well.’

October 2022 marks the National Gallery’s 40th Anniversary.

Russell Storer completed his Bachelor of Art History and Theory at UNSW Art & Design in 1998, and a Masters at the University of Sydney in 2005, with a focus on Asian art. He began his career in the gallery sector as a gallery assistant with Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney, before joining the Museum of Contemporary Art as a Curator.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina