Bringing the contemporary into the historic, an interview with Dr Joanne Baitz – Director of Bunbury Regional Art Gallery

Bunbury Regional Art Gallery (BRAG) has a long history of presenting a dynamic and ever changing roster of exhibitions by local artists, as well as cutting edge touring exhibitions from around Australia and internationally. The gallery is housed inside one of Bunbury’s oldest historic buildings. The pink, former convent has many traces of its past lives which can still be seen as you wander through the spaces.

Artfacts editor, Renae Shadler, had the pleasure of speaking with the new director Dr Joanne Baitz about her vision for BRAG and its role in the regional community.

Can you tell me about your background and how you came to the director position at Bunbury Regional Art Gallery?

JB: I came from academia. I had recently finished my PhD on the topic of time and space with a focus on modernist mid-20th century Australian artists. I looked specifically at artists who referenced the Early European and pre-Renaissance Italian artists like Piero della Francesca, who was right at the start of the renaissance, and then going backwards from there.

I was really interested in when historical references pop up in a new contemporary artworks, and how that changes the meaning both for the new artwork and the historical artwork. Because, when you look back at the old again the meaning has changed completely since it was originally created.

Coming out of that environment, I was looking for what was next and attracted to the position at BRAG because it allowed me to use so many of my skills. I have done a lot of different things throughout my life, but never run a gallery before so it was a great challenge.

When I came to visit the space I fell in love with it. I put in the application with on the off chance they wanted someone left-of-field and they did.

Can you tell us about this history of gallery?

JB: The building was bought in 1982 by the city. Before that it had been functioning as a convent and school. Once the city bought the building they redeveloped it and opened it as a gallery in 1987. The collection however has been going since the 1940’s.

How do you curate work within the buildings’ strong historic resonance?

JB: Again we are taking something from the past and reimagining it and giving it a new life in the present, so we are constantly changing the meaning of the building.

I think when you hang work in a place like this it impacts on the work. Earlier this year we had a Shane Pickett exhibition, Dusk Infusion and Kaanarn. Shane is an incredible Noongar artist who was from the region and has family in the region. Here you have a Noongar artist whose work is all about Noongar culture and Noongar country while at the same time being very contemporary. I loved seeing it hung in this building that has crosses on the roof and filled with all those resonances. I don’t believe you can look at one without the other.

Coming into the history of the building, the history of the town and history of previous directors, how do you see your role within that linage?

JB: Coming from the outside has it advantages and its disadvantages. I would like to see the gallery embracing its history. It has weird little corners and voids and we need to find a way around that and make it work.

I want to find a way to bring the contemporary into the historic and work together with that because it is quite a unique feature to have.

I am mindful that we are a regional gallery and our purpose is to support the artists in our region. That does not mean looking inward and focusing only on the region but exploring our position in a global context. A lot of the problems we experience here are echoed throughout the globe.

At BRAG we are dealing with cultural conflict and exploration, and environmental issues. We are a big mining town and how do we balance that with environmental concerns. What is our commitment to a town that is dependent on industry and the environment that suffers because of that industry?

The gallery is dealing with a lot of contradictions. It is balancing sponsorship from various mining companies while also having an environmental focus and, working towards an in-depth Noonagar Arts Strategy and presenting the work in a convent. It seems like a delicate territory. What are strategies for dealing with that?

JB: I think contradiction is part of life. We don’t travel through life without contradiction and learning to accept those contractions and understand and navigate them is the challenge we all face in various ways.

The most important thing for me is moving forward with a great deal of respect. We don’t dictate, we consult. We don’t make decisions or speak on behalf of anybody. We reflect what people are saying and doing. We make the gallery a space for difficult conversations to be had as a way of engaging and bringing people together to talk about the inherent contradictions and sensitivities in the community.

Because you need to have a forum to discuss these things in a safe way and I think art is so wonderful for that. It is a great vehicle for discussing and raising difficult topics and airing them. Also for celebrating this great history, whether it is the history of the Noongar people, who have been here for forty thousand years or a convent which has existed for a hundred years. It all feeds into the fabric of who we are and to deny one part is to cut off something that is essential to our identity. I think if you suppress part of who you are it comes back to bite you in strange and sometimes alarming ways.

There have always been layers of history. When you peel back the layers you reveal so much about the culture and the people. If you don’t let those layers exist then you cut off the life-blood of the people.

With six different gallery spaces, Bunbury Regional Art Gallery presents a diverse range of exhibitions. Current shows in the gallery include,

AUSTRALIA WIDE SIX Location Fourth Gallery, Open now until Sunday, 20 October 2019

OVALS FOR DREAMS Location City Gallery, Open now until Sunday, 03 November 2019

PHILIP BERRY: ROMANCE AND LANDSCAPE 1981 – 2019 Location Lower Gallery, Open now until Sunday, 17 November 2019