In September last year, Robert Heather started as the new Director of the New England Regional Art Museum. Now ten months later, we catch up with him to discuss what has been happening over at NERAM …
What has the past ten months been like?
Since starting at NERAM, there has just been so much that needs to be done, that sometimes it feels like I have been running on the spot. But looking at what we have done over the past ten months, there have been many achievements – cleaning up the building, attracting new visitors and working closely with the team at Studio 52 café, as well as lots of exhibitions and events. There will also be lots more to look forward to in the near future.
So what can we look forward to?
We are looking at how we can improve our gallery spaces and make ourselves more sustainable. NERAM was originally built in the 1980s when people weren’t very aware of energy efficiency issues; if we are to become a sustainable organisation, we need to address them now, and we have developed an action plan to sort them out.
We are installing new energy efficient LED lights in gallery spaces, which will save money and make our exhibitions look better as well as help preserve the artworks on display. We are installing new solar power panels on our roof to reduce our electricity bills. People don’t realise it, but running an art museum uses a lot of power, with 24 hour climate control, lots of lights and other electrical equipment. If the temperature in the gallery or art store fluctuates too much, it can damage the artworks. The exciting thing has been the high level of community support we have received; at present we are running our 2016 Annual Appeal and every day we are getting donations towards the installation of solar panels.
What about artistically?
We have some great exhibitions to look forward to, starting with the always popular UNESAP exhibition of works by school students in July, then a unique view of the 1970s and ‘80s by Australian photographer Rennie Ellis in August and followed by the 2016 Packsaddle exhibition, which is always a major event. There will also be some great exhibitions drawn from the Howard Hinton Collection and other NERAM collections, as well as opportunities to discover the work of local artists.
What have been some of the challenges?
We had a couple of our staff leave at the beginning of this year, and that left a huge gap in our team. But it was also an opportunity to look at what we do and whether we could do it better. We felt that we needed to concentrate more upon resourcing our curatorial team with a full-time position who can research exhibitions and work closely with artists. Following an extensive restructure process working with the board and in consultation with our staff, we advertised and recruited some exciting new people who will be joining the team here. The down side is that the process has taken quite some time, and we have all had to work hard to fill the gaps.
The other challenge has been to try and get out of the building to meet people. In order to succeed, NERAM needs to be actively engaged with the wider community, and the day to day operations can be so all consuming that it is hard to get away from my desk. Over the next few months I want to visit more artists in their studios and meet people from the other communities across New England. One of my goals is to send some small scale exhibitions across the region to galleries in places like Inverell, Glen Innes and Walcha, so that NERAM lives up the its regional brief.
What have been some of the highlights?
There have been a lot. The main thing that has struck me has been the level of enthusiasm and support which NERAM receives from the wider community. We held a function with some long-term supporters and talked to them about the need to replace our existing light fittings with LED lights, and everyone wrote a cheque to support the project on the night.
There is the wonderful work of the Friends of NERAM running fabulous events like the recent NERAMble open garden weekend, which was great fun for the 400 people who attended. They have also been working with the Armidale Tree Group to reclaim Black Gully Creek. There is also the great work which our volunteers do on a daily basis to help us keep the place running. We have volunteers who have been helping out since the gallery started in 1983, who still turn up and lend a hand every week.
There was also the artist residency at the Museum of Printing by Canberra artist Caren Florance, who stayed for a week in April and held some great talks and letterpress printing workshops. These were so popular, that they inspired group of volunteers who now come in every week to work down in the Museum of Printing.
What about personally?
One of the highlights was the opportunity to address the Arts faculty graduation ceremony at the University of New England. It was great to be part of this celebration, and I hope that I imparted some wisdom from my time working in the arts to those people graduating after years of study.
Another was recently attending the annual commemorative event at the Myall Creek Massacre Memorial in June. This was a terrible event, where 28 Aboriginal people were killed by white stockmen in 1838, and yet since 2000 the local community have created a commemorative event that is an emotionally powerful reconciliation activity. I think it is something that more people across the region should try to attend.
What do you hope to see over the next ten months?
I would like to see a diverse range of people visiting the art museum and enjoying the exhibitions and activities here. We want to break down any perceived barriers and remind everyone that NERAM is a resource for the whole community, and you are all welcome. Over the next ten months you will see us working with old people, young people and everyone in between to create new opportunities for the New England community. So we invite you to get involved in NERAM and enjoy the benefits.