How do you build a $50M art museum in a global pandemic? And why does it matter?
In February 2020, I flew back from the States. While away we had received a phone call from my father-in-law, a professor of statistics with expertise in epidemics. COVID-19 was ‘the one’. Even at that stage the math modelling said that things would get ugly.
Shepparton Art Museum (SAM) was in the middle of a once in a lifetime building project: a $50M new art museum that local Council, philanthropists, state and federal governments were supporting with the ambition of creating an arts and cultural space in regional Victoria that would be ‘more than an art museum’. It would bring people together and foster pride. It would reflect both our rich Indigenous culture and people (Shepparton has the largest Aboriginal community in Victoria outside Melbourne) and the wide variety of cultures that now call the Goulburn Valley home (Shepparton has the most diverse ethnic population in regional Victoria). Those around Australia were keenly watching this signature project for Victoria’s fourth largest city in north central regional Victoria. The project was nationally significant: the expert jury for an architectural competition endorsed by the Institute of Architects had selected a design by internationally recognised architect Denton Corker Marshall.
Promising great things, we originally planned to move into the building in October 2020, and to share the purpose-built new arts and cultural space with co-tenants Kaiela Arts, Shepparton’s local Aboriginal arts centre and gallery space, and Greater Shepparton’s Visitor Centre. The building design was bold and ambitious, and would change the face and perception of Shepparton within the community and beyond. Art, artists and culture were changing the game in a way that other infrastructure projects, however worthy, just couldn’t do.
That was the theory, but on the plane back from the US that February, I wrote the first draft of the Shepparton Art Museum’s pandemic plan. Senior colleagues said we were over-reacting. But on return, I found that my colleague’s Paris based sister had contracted the virus while on holiday in Venice. This was my first personal contact with the virus that had locked down China’s city of Wuhan and changed our world irredeemably.
SAM’s COVID plan was embedded into Council’s pandemic plan, which hadn’t been touched since the SARS scare in 2002. The new plan asked the new SAM building and art museum to play an essential role in connecting with community. Arts and culture were seen as key to renewal, although we didn’t then know that the arts and culture sectors would be profoundly affected for a prolonged period, notwithstanding a record level of federal government funding for the arts.
In Shepparton, our library and the art museum stayed open longer than in many other areas of Victoria. But the Melbourne hotel quarantine fiasco changed the landscape: Shepparton’s arts cultural venues closed to the public, and like so many others in the country we began what became a 20 month period of Zoom, team meetings and remote working.
Galleries and art museums had limited access to their own buildings: collections staff were the only ‘essential’ staff allowed on site, to care for collections, check shrouded exhibitions and artworks, and make a sweep for bugs and other unwanted visitors. Removed from both our galleries, collection and arts community, I realised how often I got up from the desk between meetings and slipped off to the collection store and galleries to ‘chat’ with artworks and artists (in absentia), and to welcome our visitors and community in the galleries as I passed through. I missed my tribe. Like all our other colleagues, SAM ‘pivoted’ to maintain a connection with our communities, ‘went digital’ with our exhibitions and artist commissions (with little or no resources and less expertise at that stage), all with a small staff of around 14 who were also working on the biggest capital works project in SAM’s—and Council’s—history.
Supporting artists and our community became our priority: as many artists lost work but were not eligible for Jobkeeper because they were contractors. Exhibitions went online, with mixed success, until we all got desperate and online was better than nothing. SAM EDULAB, our major educational initiative, with artist Nadia Hernandez leading immersive workshops and activities, went online and became a sanity-saving resource for home schooling families and many others. Sarah CrowEST’s Art Wall commission became a digital project, with artwork available for all to download and use as a virtual Zoom backdrop. A series of podcasts went viral in the US, while workshops and practical art classes had followers in Europe and Japan.
Nevertheless, building continued as one of the few industries permitted in person in Victoria. For the remainder of 2020, I was allowed to make four on-site visits to check key milestones in the art museum’s construction. One highlight was arriving on site to see two huge flags hanging from the scaffolding: the Builders’ Union flag, and Australia’s Indigenous yellow, red and black—the first time this flag had hung so visibly from such a significant construction site in Shepparton.
Of course, the October deadline for completion of construction came and went. Glass from China didn’t get on the boat. Other key building materials were scarce. We pushed back opening to March 2021 by when—the Federal Government assured us—Australians would be vaccinated and things would be ‘normal’.
We moved into the new building and offices in early February 2021 and like most new owners started working through the building defects—life had an unreal feel of architecturally designed comfortable camping. We began to move our collection. Although some in Council had suggested hiring a truck and co-opting volunteers to build community and save some money, we engaged industry experts to work with us, and an Indigenous owned organisation to boot, and began to move over 4000 items, many of them fragile ceramics. Council pressured us to open before installation of artwork had been completed—how hard is it to throw a few pictures on the wall?—so we opened the ground floor of the new building and the SAM shop was up and operational before Easter 2021, in a brief pause between Victorian lockdowns. And with inevitable cost pressures, Council had descoped a number of building features deemed non-essential: museum standard gallery lighting; lights and shelving for numerous ceramics display cabinets; and most of the ceiling hanging points for sculpture. Fortunately, funds were forthcoming from Creative Victoria for an additional scope, which included these essential museum requirements. They also included a commercial kitchen fit-out to make the commercial opportunity more attractive for a severely COVID affected hospitality sector, and an Indigenous Sensory Playspace and Healing Garden in front of Kaiela Arts, and the building started to take shape as a fit-for-purpose art museum and cultural precinct.
SAM’s role in a pandemic was to connect community in a period of intense uncertainty and change and bring a little joy to a world where much seemed to have been taken away, leaving just the grind. Shepparton’s lockdowns highlighted this need for connection, particularly when one outbreak put over half the museum’s staff into 14-day home isolation. A generous philanthropist supported us to send out over 400 art packs to families most at need as Shepparton’s COVID cases and families in isolation skyrocketed.
But a global pandemic couldn’t stop us planning a spectacular opening program for SAM. We designed it to celebrate our strong and proud Indigenous community, the Yorta Yorta people, and all those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who call the Goulburn Valley home. Programs of Indigenous art and artists were either co-led, or supported by a Custodial reference group and extensive consultation. Support through Creative Victoria and a Learning and Engagement Partnership with the University of Melbourne had enabled us to develop this work over five years, contributing to the development of an Aboriginal Engagement Plan. We strengthened Indigenous representation across the organisation by increasing opportunities, representation, and voice: at a governance and Board level; across staffing and operations; through exhibitions, collections and programs; and by setting clear engagement priorities and targets. RISE funding supported a new two-year Indigenous trainee program, increasing SAM’s Aboriginal staff from one to ten. One outcome is the profound Lin Onus exhibition, Lin Onus: The Land Within, the first time that this important south-east Australian artist has shown on country.
Shepparton is also home to a rich and diverse multi-cultural community. Ensuring that the art museum became a place for all required creative thinking, and going out to bring people in. A new Ambassadors and Volunteers Program, supported by the Buckland Foundation, actively partnered with local organisations working with Shepparton’s various communities to ensure that SAM was a place where all people could see themselves reflected. Education resources were written in a range of languages, with strong visual imagery used to ensure that the art museum is a place of diversity and inclusion.
The Urbach Foundation supported an exciting new Artist-in-Residence Program, loosely inspired by the Kellerberrin International Art Space in Western Australia that had such an impact on a generation of contemporary artists. The new building includes an artist’s studio and living space on the ground floor. Our program would bring artists to Shepparton to work and live in the art museum itself, surrounded by a unique culture and landscape.
It had been a rather longer road to opening than anyone imagined, but it was worth it when SAM opened its doors to a patient and understanding public, on 20 November 2021.
COVID had thrown up many challenges that were missing from the original risk register. There are things we never want to have to do again, such as curating collection shows online for a building we had never worked in. There are other things that the pandemic has reminded us are essential to our lives: the value and importance of art and artists to bring us together, share ideas, and feel connected. As the world slowly opens up once again to opportunity and hope, we look forward to welcoming everyone to an amazing new building and inaugural program in a unique space in north-central Victoria.