Regional gallery conference tackles the pressure points

Soundbites from regional galleries conference to trigger new thinking around topics of diversity, sustainability, disaster preparedness and more.

With the title, Transformative Conversations Empowered Actions, the Regional and Public Galleries of NSW 2023 Conference was held last week in the far South Coast town of Bega, drawing about 60 delegates together for a much needed conversation – one steered by that all-encompassing word ‘change’, and the need for ‘future forward thinking’.

The last conference was presented in 2015 and, in the interim, public galleries across the state have managed pandemic impacted program pivots, navigated floods and bushfires, and faced reduced staff, funding constraints, attendance shortfalls, growing inflation and freight hikes – in the face of ‘business as usual’.

It has also been a time that saw many new facilities join the public gallery sector with one of the largest boosts to cultural infrastructure and spending in the state for decades.

At the centre of this massive pendulum swing of impacts – from boom to bust, and back again – the zeitgeist across the conference sat, not simply with the notions of pivoting and resilience (words that landed hard with this group), but a growing sense of convoluted and challenged local council relationship, within this whole cosmos of wins and losses.

While there was no panel discussion that unpacked some of those struggles, it was largely the topic of ‘off podium’ discussions.

Read: 2023 Arts conference and summit planner

The sector was clearly exhausted, but also buoyed by a sense of hope in their collegiality and strength – with great case studies across the state showing the way, and arguably leading their city peers in areas of embedding diversity, bespoke sustainability projects and collaboration. Perhaps, the biggest share across this conference were lessons of disaster preparedness, taken on board from colleagues at the coalface, and some interesting pilot projects around mental health and young people in the gallery space.

ArtsHub will be rolling out some of these individual panel discussions over the next week, but here’s a snippet of the energy of those discussions.

NSW Minister for the Arts, Ben Franklin addressing delegates at the 2023 Regional Public Galleries Conference in Bega. Image: Courtesy M&GNSW.

Soundbites from Bega

‘The Regional Public Gallery sector is turbocharging how we think about engagement and collaboration.’ – NSW Minister for the Arts, Ben Franklin.

You can’t really curate diversity, and I think one of the biggest challenges connected to this, is just creating trust … that is definitely hard if the people that you’re looking to engage don’t already see themselves reflected. That’s what we’re trying to change, and this is why we’re turning it into a collaborative process – turning it into a shared sense of authorship is so important.’ – Liam Benson, artist.

‘I find it incredibly difficult working regionally, just because sometimes it feels like you have to explain something that has already been proven – that’s already working somewhere else – because of that fear of difference.’ – Cayce Hill, Bega Multicultural Centre.

In terms of disaster preparedness: ‘One of the learnings, is that we would be a much better place if we had these sort of on-the-shelf-ready-to-go funding packages, because this is going to keep happening, that’s certainly something that we’re taking away and looking at, and learning from now.’ – Peter Wood, Regional Arts and Partnership Manager, Create NSW.

‘I do recognise, of course, that the sector is facing serious challenges and ongoing uncertainty as a result of the long-term impact of the pandemic, high inflation, labour supply challenges – the existential crisis has been broadly, and brutally, apparent.’ – NSW Minister for the Arts, Ben Franklin.

‘We did not realise the international reach of doing live streaming; that totally opened up our whole global view. That was unbelievable.’ – Lauretta Morton, Director, Newcastle Art Gallery.

‘We have an agenda that we’re actually talking about here, which is diversity – it’s just a trigger word, because what does it really mean? …if you’re really connected to your space, then diversity happens. It’s not something you can force to happen. How do we get people from diverse backgrounds to come into our space? Obviously, we have to be part of the community first in order to invite them in.’ – Cayce Hill, Bega Multicultural Centre.

On city-based expertise flying in to run programs: ‘Probably more important, is a way of creating opportunities to resource our staff, to give opportunities to them, to train them. We’re all like short-staffed. The regions don’t have access to arts professionals as easily as the city, so being able to pull on our casuals and go, “OK, I’m going to elevate you and train you”, and then they can step up and train the next person. So by training them and offering them more hours, we’re investing in them, and can pass those skills on to the whole community, so they are not lost. – Conference delegate from Glasshouse Regional Gallery.

I think the word ‘reach’ gets put out a lot, in terms of looking at data and who’s engaged with the gallery, and ‘reach’ is through the roof with digital. But actual data doesn’t really exist in terms of looking at what worked and what didn’t work. So the post-COVID digital experience, in terms of moving forward … I think the key is looking at particular groups and trying to figure out what is going to be best for you. So going back to that idea of consultation with many people. – Isobel Taylor-Rodgers, Regional Initiatives Manager, National Gallery of Australia.

‘In such a rapidly changing landscape, we all need to be nimble. And we all need to be responsive in the way that we work in order to make the most of the opportunities and to navigate the risks that will come our way. Out of necessity, many cultural institutions have already reset their approach, developing new ways of creating and distributing art. I think these conversations will be critical.’ – NSW Minister for the Arts, Ben Franklin.

The conference was hosted by SECCA, South East Centre for Contemporary Art, Bega over 2-3 March 2023. ArtsHub attended the conference as a guest of RPG.

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