Interview – Chris Saines – QAGOMA Director

Chris Saines QAGOMA director

By Louise Martin-Chew Posted in | Close Encounters

Chris Saines (born 1954) returns to Brisbane and Australia after directing Auckland Art Gallery for 17 years. Before he departed for New Zealand, he worked in education and collection management roles at the (then) Queensland Art Gallery (1984-1995). He was much loved in Auckland, and representatives from Auckland Art Gallery’s Māori advisory group flew to Brisbane to facilitate his ‘handover’. TUL had coffee with Saines to assess how he had changed, to compare shades of grey (hair) and to find out what he planned as new director of Brisbane’s highly successful QAGOMA.

TUL: What did you find compelling about a return to QAGOMA and Brisbane? 
CS: The city changed dramatically during the course of the time I worked here last and in recent years, GOMA has had a similar transformational effect on the city. The growth of inbound tourism that’s occurred is attributed, in part, to the stimulus that culture has provided. This really is a new world city and the role that the major cultural institutions, in particular, have played in delivering to that brand is all but universally recognised here, and is only enhanced by this amazing climate. 
TUL: Australia’s a much wealthier place now than it was in the 1990. Private collections of contemporary art used to be rare – yet now there are a dozen or more with national prominence. And contemporary culture has ridden the crest of that wave to become popular, accessible and much more mainstream.
CS: Yes it’s evident whenever you go into the QAGOMA galleries at almost any time there is a major show. There’s a feeling that contemporary art is for everyone. It’s an open-armed embrace that GOMA has extended to the city, inviting people to experience art of a kind and on a scale which was previously unavailable. It has been a complete game changer. I come to the city and the gallery at a perfect time. 
TUL: Is that what attracted you back to Brisbane? You were much loved in Auckland and as director for 17 years you may have felt as though you could have stayed there forever.
CS: It was difficult to unanchor from New Zealand, from Auckland, even from our neighbourhood because we had developed such good friendships there. Auckland is where I met my wife Amanda and it’s where we’ve raised our children, Poppy (8) and Georgia (5). Yet in recent weeks we have been wondering why none of us has felt homesick. The reason is that we are all together and we are making a new home for ourselves with tremendous excitement. We’ve been welcomed to the city in the warmest of ways. 
TUL: Where do you hope to take QAGOMA during your directorship? 
CS: I’ve worked here before, I’ve lived here, and I know this collection more or less. There is 17 years to bridge – but I know the city and many of the personalities in the art community. What were young and emerging artists I once knew are now mid-career artists…
TUL: In a heartbeat!
CS: I’ve skipped a generation of artists, a collecting generation, and an artist generation. But if the hill is Everest, I’m at base camp already, even within a week. I’m reengaging and reconnecting with the city and the gallery and a community of supporters, sponsors and benefactors. I come to the role with an advantage. I don’t yet know exactly what this institution is and what it needs next. Right now I’m listening hard. I am making my way around the gallery, to better understand where each department is at, what projects they’re engaged with and in what phase of development. I’m getting my hands on the levers quickly and I’m learning that there is an extraordinarily committed and talented staff who work here.
TUL: What continues to fuel your interest in directing an art museum? 
CS: My leadership style is very much about working with others, collaborating, not only within but outside the gallery, reaching across to QPAC, to the other arts organisations and arts companies within the city, just as we reach out to our benefactors, donors and sponsors to work in vertically and horizontally integrated ways.  We also need to listen carefully to our community. If we pay attention in that way we will present the projects and shows that the public will want come to, whether they know the artist – the Warhol or Picasso exhibitions – or the artist is someone they may not have heard of like Cai Guo-Qiang, whose solo exhibition opens here in November.
TUL: That is the area that QAGOMA has achieved great audiences. The Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art for example is an international program that draws on the often never-seen-before new art of this region and yet people come in their droves. How different is that to your programs in Auckland?
CS: Auckland was different because we hadn’t yet developed the blockbuster culture. Auckland went through a major development cycle from 2001 to 2011. For the last three years of that period we had no more than a 1000 metre footprint in the New Gallery building, which was our contemporary art satellite. There was a real hunger for major inbound shows by the time we opened the new building in September 2011.  
TUL: It is the collection at QAGOMA that you’ve targeted for particular development under your watch. Yet the culture of philanthropy in Australia is not well developed. What strategies do you think you can bring to bear on that?
CS: Well, first is the appeal launch for the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. We’re trying to acquire five woodcut prints to complete The Apocalypse suite by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) published in 1511. I’m looking forward to fostering the purchase of works that build on the shoulders of past philanthropy from Godfrey and Selina Rivers (in 1949), and more recent assistance from the Airey family. 
Developing philanthropy has been a focus of my working life for the last eight years. I established the Auckland Art Gallery Foundation in 2004 and they raised NZ$53.5 million toward a NZ$125 million building.  Private individuals and trusts contributed NZ$21 million of that. In Australia the architecture of giving is not dissimilar to that which exists in America (with tax deductible status) but in many ways what was special about New Zealand was the culture of giving was to give despite not receiving a tax benefit.
 
TUL: You’ve returned to Australia and Qld during a time of fiscal restraint and belt-tightening that clearly impacts on budgets. What are the challenges within this environment?
CS: In terms of direct government support, I take an optimistic outlook toward the future. It’s simply another challenge and I think that it behoves us to work smarter and to think differently about the exhibition-making model. The other thing I’d say is that money is drawn to great ideas.  If we have great and compelling enough ideas, I believe the money will be there to help us to develop and implement them.
TUL: What have you experienced of Brisbane lifestyle to date – the ambience, cafes, parks?
CS: Well, the weather has been extraordinarily good. And I love the houses here. We’re living in a Queenslander at the moment. I’ve only been to a couple of restaurants since I’ve been here – one of them was Gerard’s Bistro in James Street, with absolutely spectacular tapas. 
TUL: Do you have interests outside work?  
CS: I love film, reading – although at the moment it’s largely work-based. Apart from that, I don’t have a model train fetish, I don’t collect vintage cars, and I do pretty ordinary things. I wish I did more walking! Brisbane is great for outdoor activity. In Auckland it rained often – weekends were often rained out – I suspect that happens less here. We have some bikes – but every time we go near them the tyres tend to be flat which shows you how long it is since the last time we rode them. We are committed to cycling, as a family now. So that’s our resolution for Brisbane if you like.
Image Credit: QAGOMA
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