What a strange and perilous and testing time we find ourselves in. Like art communities and institutions right across the world, QAGOMA has acclimatised to uncertainty as we grapple together with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Being unanchored from our usual workplaces, schedules and habits of a lifetime is disquieting, but it has also been a moment in which responsive initiatives and new ways of reaching out to support our communities have flourished. Yes, it is a strange spell of stillness and sometimes darkness for so many here in Australia and around the globe, but the wonderful reply of art and of artists of all kinds has surely been one of our greatest sources of human connection, comfort and hope.
QAGOMA’s initial priority, as the scale of the challenge became apparent, was to ensure our immediate community, the Gallery’s staff, its volunteers and its visitors, were safe and well. In the weirdly quiet weeks preceding our closure it was the task we were most focused on. When our doors closed to the public, at midday on 23 March, we were already working behind the scenes to facilitate working from home for as many staff as possible, and ensuring the strictest on site safety measures for those still within our two buildings performing essential tasks, including the deinstallation of ‘Water’ and the preparations required for what comes next. Despite the odds, it has been a hugely productive period.
With most staff now working from home, we are focusing on how to re-establish our calendar of exhibitions so they will eventually occur as intended, though many will be rescheduled or rethought in some way. While we have withdrawn ‘Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles’ from the current schedule – it was due to open in June – we are committed to presenting the Mori Art Museum exhibition if its international tour can be reconstructed. I’m hopeful, because Shiota’s interests and ideas seem even more germane to a post-pandemic world. Major exhibitions by Gordon Bennett and William Yang will move too, among others, but we intend to re-open with the stunning survey of late North Queensland artist Mavis Ngallametta that opened only days before our closure.
Looking at opportunities as much as challenges, we are crystallising and fast-tracking projects across our digital platforms. While work had already begun on an institution-wide Digital Transformation project it will soon accelerate, not least in the Collection online space, well beyond where we imagined we would be today. In coming weeks and months, we will roll out a wealth of new and re-purposed digital content that focuses on our large archive of talks and interviews with artists, celebrates a new work each week, encourages kids to get hands-on, and explores the ‘Water’, ‘Mavis Ngallametta’ and ‘I, Object’ exhibitions. We’ve even developed a new Learn at Home module for students from Prep to Year 12, which will be a resources windfall for remote learners, teachers and parents alike.
In all of this, we are relentlessly focusing on our core mission, even when it’s not capable of being activated through the direct, social experience of art. Our commitment to bridging the connection between art, artists and audiences is not remotely undimmed – indeed it’s never been more vital. By sharing the ideas and meanings of art, in all its forms, we are continuing to serve our community. Art of course does more than inspire and engage us in gallery settings, it draws people together in ways that can have a deep effect on their sense of wellbeing and cultural and social connectedness. While knowing that many thousands of people around the world are confronted with almost inconceivable anxiety, fear and trauma, the truly transformative power of art is standing upright and in plain sight.
This is a singular time in all living memory: when almost every community in the world is being touched to some degree, greater or lesser, by one momentous all-consuming event. The media coverage alone isn’t just saturating, it’s also narrowing of everything else still occurring in the world. This is the very time we should embrace the unbroken capacity of the arts, and not least the visual arts, to lift our gaze, evoke empathy and to make visible the power of what a community can achieve when it comes together – through the song that rang out from the balconies of Italy, to grateful applause from the doorways and windows of England on Thursday nights. This is humanity acknowledging what it is to be human when we need each other most.
Those of us privileged to work at QAGOMA, or at any public art institution, must never forget how fortunate we are to be able to move among living artists and to live surrounded by the enduring and often profound stories of art. While that dimension of our working lives has changed profoundly in recent months, our role still is to hold, care for and communicate those stories in the best way we potentially can. While that might mean sharing them solely online, for the time being, we know that in doing so we are supporting artists and our audiences who are, in the end, the ones who give meaning to all our work.
On behalf of the entire QAGOMA team and our Board, I hope you’ll stay safe and go well into everything that lies ahead of us, while supporting each other and remaining optimistic. We look forward to welcoming you back to the Gallery when the time is right. For now, we hope you’ll spend a little time at home with QAGOMA.
Stay inspired through our many social and digital channels or simply visit the QAGOMA website for the latest #homewithQAGOMA highlights
Chris Saines CNZM is Director, QAGOMA
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Feature image: Chris Saines