Hunter public galleries make spirited effort to grow audiences

United: Hunter gallery directors Debbie Abraham (Lake Macquarie), Brigette Uren (Maitland), Jessi England (The Lock-Up) and Lauretta Morton (Newcastle). Picture: Jonathan Carroll
United: Hunter gallery directors Debbie Abraham (Lake Macquarie), Brigette Uren (Maitland), Jessi England (The Lock-Up) and Lauretta Morton (Newcastle). Picture: Jonathan Carroll

If you go to any of the three major public galleries in the Lower Hunter this month, you will see red.

For it is red, specifically Hunter Red, that unites Newcastle Art Gallery, Maitland Regional Art Gallery and Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery in a collaborative exhibition campaign, along with The Lock-Up creative space, to build closer ties among themselves and extend their audiences.

Each of the four galleries has an exhibition with their own interpretation of Hunter Red. Behind the scenes, they have encouraged cooperation among to staff to source artworks from one another that match their own show’s theme, borrow equipment or just discuss themes and approach.

The Lock-Up

At The Lock-Up, the show is Seeing Red, curated by Madeleine K Snow and Courtney Novak. Elements from 11 artists take a view of protest, locally and nationally, with highlights including a commissioned work, Breakwater, by performance artist Tina Havelock Stevens, in post-punk drumming mode, at the end of Nobbys breakwall, the site of early protest in Newcastle (over an attempt to flatten Nobbys headland). 

Lake Macquarie

At Lake Macquarie gallery, the show is Re(A)d Earth, curated by Donna Biles-Fernando, surveying the region’s close ties to the Aboriginal community. It includes new works by Hunter artists Nicole Chaffey, Sarett Fielding and Doug Archibald.

Newcastle

At Newcastle Art Gallery, the theme is Corpus, curated by Sarah Johnson, celebrates contemporary interpretations of the bodily form and humanity – blood, life, death, reproduction, mortality. The exhibition includes medical items from Newcastle Museum’s collection from the former Royal Newcastle Hospital. It also has several works from the gallery’s own collection, including Patricia Piccinini’s Meditations on the continumm of vitality (complex curls) 2014.

Maitland

At Maitland, the theme is Razzamatazz: the theatre of art in the Hunter Collections. The emphasis is on fun and drama and includes pieces like the gallery’s collection of colour woodblock prints from mid-19th century Japan featuring Kabuki actors. There is also a painting by William Dobell, who lived at Lake Macquarie, entitled Falstaff – Anthony Quayle, a portrait of the British actor he met while Quayle was touring Australia with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company.

At Maitland: Treasure, by Nell, in the Razzamatazz show.

At Maitland: Treasure, by Nell, in the Razzamatazz show.

The bigger plan

Debbie Abraham, gallery director at Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery sums up the whole project: “Really, what this is is a series of exhibitions that tie us together and try and move audiences around between the venues. It certainly is an audience development project. And part of that will be surveying all of our audiences to try collect some data in terms of how they are moving around, are they taking really advantage of the project as a whole.”

And perhaps just as importantly has been the staff development for the four galleries.

“They got to go play in each others’ collections,” Newcastle Art Gallery director Lauretta Morton says. “It was fantastic to go dip in each others’ collections and have fresh eyes and select works in a different context at each venue. That’s been key for the curatorial staff, definitely.”

For example, Seeing Red at The Lock-Up features Cadence III, a four-minute digital video by Baden Pailthorpe depicting a Taliban soldier and an American soldier performing the same dance, separately. The work was loaned from Newcastle Art Gallery.

At Newcastle: Persona and Shadow: Christ, 1984, by Julie RRAP.

At Newcastle: Persona and Shadow: Christ, 1984, by Julie RRAP.

Debbie Abraham at Lake Macquarie was very keen to borrow 68 Fletcher, Bondi, 20:20, 8.6.03 by Jonathan Jones from Newcastle Art Gallery, and this show finally provided that opportunity.

At times the art world is a small universe, and contact between the major local galleries is ongoing. But this show will add impetus to stronger relationships.

“We are looking at how we do things, what resources we have, how can we source things, what we can share – data projectors, televisions. What resources can we pool to really maximise what we can offer to our cultural and arts audiences,” Abraham says. 

While the Hunter collective of galleries was not successful at gaining a grant to have an artistic director for the project, that has not deterred their enthusiasm. They are also chasing a bigger picture – they are running a single survey across the galleries to learn if the campaign will “cross-pollinate” their arts audiences.

They are also chasing a bigger picture – they are running a single survey across the galleries to learn if the campaign will “cross-pollinate” their arts audiences.

“We all have our own support groups, and members that come to their gallery in each of our areas,” Morton says. “So we are trying to move them around as well. We have 1000 [gallery] society members. I am trying to encourage them to go the galleries, the programs, it is just a great way to cross pollinate our support groups.”

At Newcastle: Detail from a work by Juz Kitson.

At Newcastle: Detail from a work by Juz Kitson.

“We have about 23 to 25 per cent of visitors from Newcastle,” Abraham says. “25 per cent are tourists, and 50 per cent from Lake Macquarie. Our numbers have grown, and it will be interesting to see over this show how the audience breaks up.”

There is a considerable amount of performance art in the Hunter Red program, including music and dance, once again demonstrating the versatility and talent spread across the galleries and the region.

And while it may be three years away, the gallery directors are keen to pursue funding again, hopefully securing funds for a curatorial coordinator.

It is encouraging to see the four galleries pursuing big ideas, something they have never been reluctant to do.