For our forth and final instalment of Gallery Girls we talk to Melinda Martin, Gallery Director of the public art institution Linden Centre for Contemporary Art. Martin’s experience across the arts features among many others, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Creative Partnerships Australia and the Monash Art Gallery, her insight reflects both the private and public realms of the industry. This has highlighted for her the need for fostering the next generation of women in the arts.
GGG: How do you see the art landscape at this time? Are there defining perspectives that you observe from your position?
As an organisation, we’re going through some really big changes; we’re moving from being a gallery that works predominantly with emerging artists to now really wanting to define a space and work with more established artists. There isn’t as much opportunity for artists who’ve been practicing for 10-15 years, so we find that’s a really strong niche for us to explore. In terms of gallery spaces, the world’s changing, so formal, white-walled gallery spaces need to adapt.
People also have a lot more competition with their leisure time, so we’re looking at how we can engage people more, and give people an opportunity to engage with art. They’re not just coming to see an exhibition, they might come to hear an artist talk and get a chance to speak to them about their work or they might bring their kids to a school holiday art activity.
Sounds like you’re expanding the functions of the gallery space. How do you see yourself positioned as a facilitator in this context?
Working in a small gallery, in a small team, I do lots of things in my role. One day I might be up a ladder changing a light globe, the next I might be talking to a sponsor. It’s a diversity of experience that is exciting, often roles in a larger organisations are much more specific. In a small team you get a chance to do an array of things and all our team are women, which is not something we didn’t set out to do, it was just that the best candidates for the roles were women. This is exciting for me because we’re building a leadership team. Even on our board, the chair and the deputy chair are both women. It’s interesting to see women in these roles, in a not-for-profit organisation, sharing their strong business backgrounds knowledge, and networks with us to help us grow.
It seems to me that women have a strong presence in the art world up until a particular level of power, for instance the director roles of major public galleries, but also there are less female artists, certainly that are represented. One explanation for this might be that women are often more cautious, and avoid roles with inherent risk, would you agree?
Well I think we are about to see a generation change. There’s lots of women like me, who did post-graduate study, who have done a lot of support roles but get to a point where they realise they would like to do a director’s job. It is often hard to put your hand up as the girl in charge. I’ve worked for male and female leaders, and I often think that male leaders are more encouraging because females in positions of power in the arts have had to really fight to get to where they are. There’s a sense that you have to do your time, instead of just encouraging the talent in the next generation. For my body of staff, I want to foster and encourage those individual skills and abilities. I don’t want to be overly protective of my role in the organisation, I always try to be someone who encourages ideas with colleagues.
What are some of the formalities you observe in your role and the gallery space? Is it a formal environment?
There are formal rituals involved in running a gallery, for instance celebrating an exhibition in an opening. This is about paying homage to the artists and their work. Putting yourself in the public space in that way is brave and it’s exposing. Before we get to opening night, we’ve had lot’s of conversations with artists, so it feels like you’re part of there process in working with them to display their work. Our assistance might be a really practical thing like, where do you get gold paint from, something we resolved for our current artist Kay Abude. There are a lot of these logistical aspects, but then my role also involves meeting the arts minister and introducing them to the artist, or working with sponsors to make a show happen. Today I got up and answered my first email at 6am, and I’ll finish at 10pm tonight, and I’ll have spoken to a range of people from art collectors to donors to the minister, to board members, to other artists. It’s not like other workplaces, it changes all the time as each show changes, as does our audience. It’s a very dynamic environment.
How does your feeling towards the objects in the space, change over the course of an exhibition?
It’s interesting because sometime you see work and you react immediately, but sometimes you need to spend time with a work. Some work takes time to absorb and there’s other work that you instantly respond to even in a proposal. It can work both ways. One of the traditions we have in terms of exhibitions, is the postcard show, where we fill the gallery with works and the walls are covered, it’s this crazy chaotic thing, and each day you walk in, you see something you haven’t seen before and you discover new works throughout the show. It’s like if you have a dress that you bought, and you take it home and see it in a different light.
Well, that leads quite nicely on to my next question! I’m curious as to how you look the part for your job? The reason I ask this is because I think a lot of women in positions of power in the arts, for instance curators, editors or artists, often have a uniform-like way of dressing, do you?
When I first got this job my friends told me I would have to get a short, asymmetrical haircut and wear lots of chunky jewellery! But I don’t think I have a really conscious look, some days I’ll be in jeans and Converse runners because I’ll need to be up and down a ladder or be painting a wall, and on other days I might need to dress up. But to give my style a description I would probably be, slightly classical, with a quirky twist.
What sort of power or presence do women have in Australia’s art world?
When I completed my honours degree, the predominance of students was women. Then I went on to postgraduate, and the majority of students were male. Perhaps this was because I went straight on to study, whereas other women might have chosen different paths then come back to study. Most gallery and administration staff in the arts are women, while the directors of major state galleries are men. But I think this will change, it’s a generational thing. In regional galleries across the country there are a lot of women directors and there will be more opportunities for women to take on senior roles. There are lot of women out there with the knowledge, expertise and skills who are more than capable of filling these roles, but perhaps don’t make the choice to do so, whether that’s a question of family commitments or other reasons I am not sure. It’s important that we make those opportunities available to all so more women with the necessary skills and knowledge start to take on those roles to better reflect Australian society.
Words by Laura Gardner
Image by Kate Sala