The Art Gallery of Ballarat is the oldest and largest regional art gallery in Australia. Established in 1884 by James Oddie, the idea behind it was for art to inspire and lift people out of their everyday lives. This is something that resonated deeply with the current director Louise Tegart who has been at the helm of this historical gallery since June 2018. Louise has a long and extensive career in art and regional galleries, and when the position at the Art Gallery of Ballarat became available she jumped at the chance to revive the gallery's original purpose and also show its large collection in new and different ways. We spoke to Louise about the gallery, her vision for the future and what brings her joy in these challenging times.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Melbourne but grew up in Canberra. I have an older brother and two older half-siblings.
Where does your love of art come from?
My dad is a scientist, so not from him. But his father was an amateur actor so was very interested in drama and performing. My grandmother was an amateur painter and was very passionate about art. My parents always took us to museums and galleries when we were young. It was part of our childhood. I remember being about 5 or 6 and going to an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria called ‘The Great Chinese Exhibition’. I have this very vivid memory of going into this darkened room and there was this Chinese princess jade burial suit. It’s such a clear memory for me, being struck by the power of that object.
Did you always know what kind of career you wanted to follow?
I wanted to be a journalist when I was younger. I always loved writing and was curious about the world and people.
I started an arts degree at ANU (Australian National University) when a lot of my friends took a gap year. After about 18 months I decided I needed a break and I went overseas and I lived there for nearly 3 years. It was the exposure to the museums and galleries there that gave me a spark and I thought that could be a cool job. It also aligned with a lot of my interests and so I came back and finished my arts degree and then did a graduate diploma in curatorship at ANU while also working in a couple of galleries in Canberra.
Why did you jump at the chance to become director of The Art Gallery of Ballarat?
It’s a position that doesn’t become available very often. The last two directors, Margaret Rich and Gordon Morrison, were here for 25 years and 15 years respectively so I know it was a role that wasn’t going to come up again any time soon. I also saw that there was potential to do something different with the collection and James Oddie’s idea that art is 'not for self but for all’ really resonated with me.
What has been one of the major things you’ve changed since becoming the director?
The entrance with the grand staircase. It was one of the first things we changed as it was the first thing people saw when they came in. There are now vibrant pieces with colour, which we hope will spark joy when people arrive.
What has been the importance of the Art Gallery of Ballarat to the region?
What people don’t realize is the importance the gallery has on a national level. We are one of the top five Australian art collections in the country. We have a collection of national significance and it is in a regional town! The arts are a bit politically under siege at the moment with the Department of Arts being squished into another department. Funding has been cut, but on the other hand, what have people been doing during COVID? Reading, writing, making artworks, cooking... That’s what people are doing and enjoying. A recent survey taken by the Australian Council of Arts found that 98% of Australians have engaged in the Arts in the past 12 months. But there is this national push around sport, it seems like there is some sort of disconnect. People need to attend and participate in the arts because it makes a big difference on a local and state Government level.
The gallery has around 11,500 pieces of art in its collection. Can you talk a little about the selection criteria for an acquisition and some of your collection highlights?
We collect Australian art in all mediums. Our foundation collection consists of 19th-century European paintings as the trend when the gallery was established was to look towards Europe rather than acquire Australian art, so the gallery missed out on acquiring works by the Heidelberg School artists in those early days. We have significant collections in the areas of the Eureka story, political posters and prints, early explorer images, Australian printmaking and ceramics and Australian Impressionist paintings. The collection is strong across the history of Australian art but we are looking to build our contemporary collection and our collection strategy for the next few years is tied to upcoming exhibitions. We are keen to build our Indigenous collection and continue to acquire work by regional artists.
A recent survey taken by the Australian Council of Arts found that 98% of Australians have engaged in the Arts in the past 12 months. But there is this national push around sport, it seems like there is some sort of disconnect.
How do you make the gallery relevant to a younger audience? Is there more of a focus on contemporary art styles and mediums?
I think having a balanced program of contemporary and historical art is important and one of the strategies we are using is the combination of showing old and new art together. We have done this successfully in the rehang of the permanent collection which is now hung thematically and we will continue to rotate the works on display. This is not only honouring the artists and donors who have built the collection but also ensures that there is something new to see. We can only have about 2% of the collection on display at any time. While we attract over 10,000 schoolchildren each year we do have work to do to attract younger audiences and change perceptions that the gallery is old and stuffy. Our beautiful but imposing historical building with a concealed entrance is a challenge! Our digital engagement while we have been closed due to COVID has brought new audiences to the gallery.
The gallery has been closed due to the Corona pandemic. Has the gallery ever been closed?
We’ve never had this type of closure. The long period of closure has only ever been when there has been building works. It’s a strange time to be in. It’s been productive as we’ve been able to re catalogue a lot of the collection. However, we are not a public institution without the public and it’s been weird without people. We’ve got a fantastic group of volunteers; about 40 volunteer guides who aren’t working and we miss that contact with our volunteers and the public.
How has the lockdown affected your life in general?
I’ve been working a lot but my partner and I have been doing a bit of recording at home we’ve got a little studio set up. (Louise and her partner have a band called ‘Crank Williams and Patsy Decline’). I am doing a lot more gardening and we live in a 1950’s house, which we are restoring, which takes a lot of time. Every waking moment!
What are some of your favourite exhibitions you have at the gallery at the moment?
We have an exhibition by David Noonan who was born in Ballarat and now lives in London. He is one of my favourite artists. His exhibition Stagecraft is still here and the end date has been pushed back to after we reopen so people can still come and see it.
Also, Anne Wallace, her exhibition Strange Ways is really interesting. I love how she captures the familiar with the unfamiliar.
You can curate the exhibition of your dreams. Who would you show?
What a difficult question! I am really lucky that you can think of almost any theme and can curate an exhibition from the Art Gallery of Ballarat collection. I am currently working on an exhibition ‘Beating About The Bush’ which will showcase our Australian Impressionist and the Heidelberg School painters alongside contemporary female photographers.
Perhaps by picking an overarching theme like '7 Deadly Sins' I could pull in a whole lot of my favourite artists across time and place including: Caravaggio, Leonora Carrington, Louise Hearman, Nell, Guy Bourdin, Fiona Hall, Francis Bacon, Tony Oursler, Albrecht Durer, James Ensor, Cindy Sherman, Artemesia Gentileschi, Aubrey Beardsley, Hieronymous Bosch, Robyn Stacey, Louise Weaver, Tony Albert, Ben Cauchi, Goya, David Lynch, Alexander McQueen, Julia deVille, Tamara de Lempicka, Bill Henson, Petrina Hicks, Yvonne Todd, Utamaro, Pierre Huyghe, Yoshihiro Suda, William Blake, Alfred Hitchcock, Man Ray, Rachel Ruysch and John Waters plus lots more!
Where do you see the gallery heading in the future?
We want to be Australia’s leading regional gallery. We are just starting a large audience research project because we know very little about our audience. We know a little about the people who do come but we don’t know anything about the people who don’t come. It’s really important to know this.
The majority of our audience isn’t from Ballarat, about 70% of our audience is outside Ballarat, which is great but one of my aims is to be embraced by the people of Ballarat, to be used and visited and somewhere that is part of the everyday life. We want people to drop in and out and feel comfortable to do that. We want the gallery to be an inclusive place; open and welcoming.
What would you like the readers to know about the gallery?
It’s been here for so long and things didn’t change for quite a while and it’s time for people to have another look. They will see the collection presented differently and hopefully be provoked and engaged.
What are your plans for the near future?
I haven’t planned my career, I’ve just seen opportunities and taken them. Some may have seemed a bit risky but that’s led onto something that is bigger and better. It’s time to put down some roots and there is a lot to do at the gallery with an expansion project in the next 5 – 10 years. That will be really exciting to work on.
What are some of your other passions outside of art?
Travel is one of my passions. I was quite shy through my teens so I think the act of going overseas that first time by myself was me forcing myself to get out of my comfort zone. (With COVID travel restrictions) it’s so frustrating not being able to go anywhere. Even being regional and getting in the car and going to check things out is fantastic.
What would you consider as your ‘must-see’ destinations in Ballarat?
I love the historical streetscapes and Lake Wendouree is gorgeous so just cycling around town is pretty special. The Mechanics Institute is an incredible building as are Trades Hall and Craig’s Hotel.
There are some amazing restaurants and cafes - L’Espresso, Meigas, Pancho, Moon and Mountain, P. Frangos & Sons, Saigon Allee, Lola and Mitchell Harris wines. I can’t wait to see some live music again and I love The Eastern and I am looking forward to a cocktail at the 18th Amendment bar.
I love antiques and op shopping so Rocket and Belle, Vintage 216 and The Mill Markets are regular spots.
Every two years when the Ballarat International Foto Biennale is on is a great time to experience Ballarat with exhibitions in alleys, cafes and galleries. And of course the Art Gallery of Ballarat!