Features/Visual Art

Gallery revamp more than bricks and mortar

4 November 2021

The long-awaited renovation of the Art Gallery of WA will be revealed this weekend. Director Colin Walker shares his vision for the new-look gallery.

The Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) will reopen on Saturday with a relaunch exhibition titled “The View From Here” and access to the much-anticipated rooftop bar.

“The View From Here” is the largest-ever display of West Australian art, featuring over 361 artworks including 111 new commissions.

Director Colin Walker announces the re-opening of the renovated Art Gallery of WA. Photo: Jessica Wyld

AGWA Director Colin Walker says the relaunch represents a significant commitment to supporting local artists and making the Gallery more accessible and approachable.

“It is a gigantic celebration, over 400 works in total. We’ve got this moment where there will be a lot of attention on the gallery. Because of the rooftop bar there will be a section of the community that will be drawn to the gallery who probably haven’t really experienced the gallery before. We wanted to give them a real sense of the depth and range of talent we’ve got in the state. It is a moment in time of a range of really different, interesting perspectives from a range of artists.”

The opening has been clouded by delays, with the original renovation intended for the beginning of the year.

“We are nine months behind,” Walker admits. “There were so many difficult building conditions we couldn’t have been aware of when we started, and supply chains impacted by COVID. For example we ended up needing to replace the entirety of the screed on the roofing which we weren’t expecting… the Styrofoam we needed had to be imported and we couldn’t get the supplies during COVID. But we’re open now, and it’s been worth the wait!”

A bold new look

Visitors to the gallery will discover a new work foyer mural foyer mural by an emerging Noongar and Torres Strait Islander artist Tyrown Waigana, a revamped giftshop, and redesigned gallery spaces with a focus on interactive, multi-sensory experiences.

The $10 million transformation of the rooftop area represents the completion of the original architectural intention for the 1979 brutalist building, which was imagined by architect Charles Sierakowski as a vantage point for looking out. The new rooftop area includes an interior gallery, an outdoor sculpture walk, a bar and a 34 metre contemporary Aboriginal art piece by Christopher Pease.

Christopher Pease stands in front of ‘Targets’ 2020. Ink and polymer coating on aluminium and LED lighting, fifty-six panels: 483 x 3,471cm (overall). State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through The Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation: TomorrowFund, 2021. Photo: Jessica Wyld

Pease’s illuminated work pays homage to the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River) and wraps around the top of the building. Titled Targets, it is the largest public commission from a Noongar artist in Western Australian history and Walker says it will prompt people to contemplate our society and our relationship with the Aboriginal community.

“The Chris Pease work is extraordinarily beautiful and subversive. It demands attention about what public art can be and what it can mean, and it demands attention for its wonderfulness – I can’t think of a better adjective, it is just an experience. Of an evening with the Chris Pease work lit, with the cityscape in the background and with the events we will be having on the rood, it is a very different cultural experience both of Perth as well as the Cultural Centre itself.”

Aboriginal artwork at the centre

The centrepiece of “The View From Here” a special exhibition called “Collective Ground”, curated by Yamaji/Noongar Tui Raven and drawing together 60 works from First Nations artists across Western Australia. The works were acquired through AGWA’s COVID-19 stimulus package.

“When COVID hit and we knew the sector was starting to struggle, we felt that we had a responsibility to do something significant to help. We committed to purchasing works from every Aboriginal art centre in the state and where there was no centre, from individual artists. Putting the artists at the centre of what the gallery is about was really important.”

The focus on WA artists gives AGWA a point of difference as a state gallery.

“I think the expectation of people that come here is that they want to know and understand and learn and connect with the art of this place. We have to put more emphasis on that type of story telling and experience. Why else are we in WA? We still have to have strongly curated blockbuster type exhibitions and good touring shows, all that’s a given, but it is really important for me in this next period to make sure that we forefront what we’ve got here, what’s really interesting from here and where we can help the artists grow from here. It’s pretty fundamental to what being an art gallery in Western Australia is.”

A mandate to halt decline

Originally from Liverpool, Walker took over the directorship of AGWA in 2019, initially in an acting capacity and then officially in 2022. He came from a position in the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries rather than a background in visual art, which generated controversy at the time. The gallery was suffering from falling visitor numbers and declining donations and his mandate was to turn that around.

A quietly proud Walker says that everything he envisaged for the gallery has “come to pass”.

Listen to “Your guide to the new Art Gallery of WA”, a podcast with Colin Walker.

The financial issues are no longer a problem, thanks to some refinancing. A decision to free up capital from the AGWA Foundation and invest it in the market has resulted in higher interest yields which will be directed towards subsidising ongoing acquisitions and programs. He also plans to use the Gallery’s full range of assets to help with sustainability, including having a strong music and performing arts program, and creating unique merchandise in collaboration with the artists that will drive a different type of retail.

“It’s about how do you take the potential of a range of assets and monetise them in ways that help your sustainability. So I’m starting from a real point of potential. It’s not been easy, I’ve been closed for nine months so had literally no income for the gallery from venue hire, commercial, retail or anything, so we’ve taken a hit. But if I project long term I think we will be absolutely fine.”

Art for all of us

Bruno Booth’s 34 cat statues will feature in “The View From Here” exhibition at AGWA. Photo: Duncan Wright

Walker hopes the new-look gallery and artwork will send a strong message about who the visual arts are for.

“I’ve got to kill those unconscious cultural barriers that stop people from diverse backgrounds coming into the gallery in large numbers. Our job is to humanise a little. You don’t have to dumb quality down, you don’t have to change it, you’ve just got change the way in which the message of ‘this is for all of us’ is understood.”

Works like Fremantle artist Bruno Booth’s 34 Adidas-wearing cat statues scattered around the gallery explore the politics of inclusiveness in a playful way.

“Bruno’s works bring in elements of street culture, they bring in elements of playfulness and they also speak directly to how institutions are not as welcoming as they should be for people with different types of needs. It’s like a really well constructed protest song, it works at every level from the melody to the punchiness, the urgency… that’s what a lot of these works try to do. Bruno’s works are a really strong example of how you can do something really melodic but also so important about what it says about who these institutions are for, and why.”

Walker hopes the Gallery will complement its shiny new neighbour, the WA Museum Boola Bardip which opened last year, and provide evidence of the worth of investing in culture.

“Psychologically the success of the new museum is really important to give the security for government that you can invest in cultural institutions, in culture generally, and the dividends will be massive. It’s a such a lot of pressure, but if the museum works, if I work, it gives that degree of confidence that if you invest there is something that kicks in.”

The Art Gallery of Western Australia will reopen on 10am Saturday 6 November with a series of meet-the-artist talks and events. The rooftop bar will open from 12pm on Saturday and Sunday.

The Collective Ground exhibition will only be open for 11 days but will return again in 2022.

Pictured top: The rooftop bar at the Art Gallery of WA. Photo: Jessica Wyld

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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