Serendipity delivered Sydney Biennale artistic director Juliana Engberg to arts curatorship. By Martin Edmond.

Juliana Engberg’s rise to Biennale director

Image for article: Juliana Engberg’s rise to Biennale director
Credit: Emma Sullivan

I am meeting Juliana Engberg, artistic director of this year’s Sydney Biennale, on a hot Tuesday afternoon in Woolloomooloo. I am early, and sit outside the Tilbury Hotel in the sun while a group of 20-somethings drink cider two tables down. One of them, an Irish girl, calls out to me: am I the father of the girl that Sean O’Brien married? I am, aren’t I? “I fecking love that Sean O’Brien,” she says. Whether she means the poet or rugby player is not clear. Just then, right on time, Juliana comes walking down from the Biennale office on the corner and rescues me. We go out the back where it’s cool and quiet and sit on bentwood chairs at a small round table. Neither of us orders a drink. We just start talking and keep on talking for 45 minutes straight.

She has two wide wings of curly grey hair, warm brown eyes and wears, as I do, black. “You’re background’s Danish, isn’t it?” I ask.

She begins with her father, the eldest of six children, sent away from the family home when he was 10 years old and put to work on a farm in East Jutland. He was unhappy because the farmer was cruel to him, though the form this cruelty took is uncertain. When he was 14, he ran away to the nearby port of Fredericia, where he stowed away on a ship – a small freighter. Somewhere off the coast of Sweden, a crew member found him. Either you have a ticket, he was told, or you work. He signed on and spent the next 20 years sailing the world in the merchant navy.

Those two decades at sea ended when, at a dance at the Trocadero on Melbourne’s St Kilda Road one night in the 1950s, he saw a pair of shapely ankles across a crowded room. Juliana’s mother, of Irish-Welsh extraction, was from Geelong and working in an office in the city. She was glamorous; he was, in Juliana’s telling, exceptionally handsome. They married and went to live in South Yarra but moved later to the outskirts of the city, to Forest Hill, where Juliana grew up. She is an only child, not by choice but by circumstance: her parents lost three other children, all boys. She, the survivor, came along in the midst of these three deaths. “It made me want to live the biggest life I could,” she says.

There wasn’t a lot of money. Her father preferred to be near the sea so took a job on the wharves and worked as a stevedore. He was still there in 1969, when Patrick introduced containerised shipping to the port. Like so many sailors, he was a silent man. Her mother remains something of a mystery. Juliana thinks there might have been a shadowy connection with ASIO; she associates this intuition with her parents’ habit of socialising at the Danish Club, the Dannebrog, in Little Bourke Street.

1 . Curatorship

Espionage, or suspicions thereof, have some place in her choice of vocation. She remembers, at 14, the same age at which her father ran away to sea, deciding she wanted to become a curator. She had seen a television program, an English drama, which featured a character who was both a curator and a spy. “Anthony Blunt?” I suggest. “Yes, perhaps,” she replies, and does a very funny imitation of Elizabeth Windsor defending the credentials of the sometime Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures.

She didn’t really know what a curator was but the show meant she associated the profession with a drive to even out inequalities and to right wrongs. When she was young she was a maverick who hankered after a holster and a gun, which her mother would not permit. Instead, she was allowed a Robin Hood suit. Her parents lived long enough to witness their daughter’s successful assumption to the role of brilliant international curator.

They were proud of her, she thinks, without knowing exactly what she did. How, for example, would her father have explained to his bowling buddies the intricacies of contemporary art? Her mother seems to have withheld approval because she didn’t want her daughter to get above herself. “Self-praise is no recommendation,” Juliana says, and laughs. Later in the conversation she says it again; I assume she is quoting her mother.

“Did you leave home at 18? Like the rest of our generation?”

“Seventeen,” she says, crisply. “We didn’t do that thing of having quasi-licit sex under the parental roof – you had to get a room in a smelly share house somewhere if you wanted to have sex. Mind you, I mostly lived alone, not in share houses.”

She went to university to study classics and fine arts but found the variety of courses on offer too enticing to specialise early or to progress quickly through her degree. She read Russian literature, completed units of English and history, and explored an abiding interest in philosophy and anything else that piqued her curiosity. It took her quite a while to achieve the generic BA of the time. “I always worked. All the way through. Mostly as a barmaid. The things I saw …”

Extracurricular activities included acting in the theatre. Magda Szubanski and Steve Vizard were members of her cohort. She remembers humiliating herself once in an audition opposite Santo Cilauro – who also studied classics. She was serious about acting, however, and was asked to audition for the TV show Prisoner (1979-86). She didn’t go, but has no regrets. “I could already see that as an actor I would end up typecast. As a Jewish mother, for instance.” Despite the incongruity in that role of a Melburnian of Danish-Irish-Welsh background, I can see what she means.

“There were actually three paths that interested me,” she says. There was the theatre, there was the art world, and, perhaps surprisingly, there was advertising. She spent a year studying in an industry school that taught the techniques of advertising: a high-pressure course that selected 10 people, nationwide, from a large number of applicants. Among the attractions of advertising were: “the wordcraft, its absolute precision; the sideways thinking that efficient marketing requires; the study of how persuasion works.”

Her entry into the art world came, as such things often do, serendipitously. In the same week as the offer of the Prisoner audition, she was told about a job going as assistant director of the George Paton Gallery. The information came via Paul Taylor, founder and editor of Art & Text, who encouraged her to apply. The background to it was her work as an art reviewer for the student newspaper Farrago, radio station Triple R and Art & Text itself. “One day I was doing five part-time jobs, the next I was assistant director of a gallery.”

2 . Paton Gallery

The George Paton Gallery, named after the distinguished lawyer and former vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, was inaugurated in 1975 as a part of the Ewing Gallery, which had existed at the university since 1938. Here, until 1971, the collection donated by Dr Samuel Ewing was on permanent display: works by Chevalier, Streeton, McCubbin, Bunny, Heysen and others. The Paton Gallery was, however, devoted to contemporary art and given as its space the old gown room next door. 

Kiffy Rubbo was from 1971 to 1980 the director of what became the Ewing and Paton Galleries and she used the spaces to expand, indeed redefine, the concept and the execution of what art might be. It was there that Cypriot-Australian artist Stelarc suspended his body using flesh hooks inserted under his naked skin. Juliana is proud of her association with the Paton and of her subsequent work, over three decades, at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, where she is artistic director. She speaks eloquently about the invention of contemporary art and of the parallel invention of spaces in which it can be viewed and performed. 

It is always interesting, where art is concerned, to follow the money trail. How was the Paton funded? There was, from 1973, a small yearly grant from the Australia Council, augmented, often reluctantly, by money from the University of Melbourne Student Union. “I learned a huge amount about practical politics from dealing with that body,” Juliana says, rather grimly, and goes on to discuss in more general terms the ways in which contemporary art is now funded. Seventy per cent of the money to run ACCA is private, by donation or from sponsors. “We crawl, every year, inch by inch, up to the bottom line.”

Nevertheless, private funding allows for a more robust independence than public funding might. And she is passionate about the existential space contemporary art has opened up. It has become a vast and active intermediate zone between the old institutional collections, on the one hand, and the dealer galleries, on the other. “They’re both now looking in at what we do for the next trends.”

We’ve segued seamlessly from those epochal beginnings in the late 1970s and early 1980s into our conflicted present. “The new normal is less money,” she observes. There’s more competition for funding now. The millionaire producers, who curate their own exhibitions, sometimes using their own homes as spaces, restrict funding opportunities for art that shows in public spaces. That’s a kind of fourth wheel in contemporary exhibition practice. But it does not seem to faze her. “We will find a way,” she says. “There is always a way.”

It is clear she is a consummate politician, a formidable fundraiser, an adept advocate, a fierce intellect. As well as a woman of considerable charm. But what of her ethos? Her philosophical orientation? One of the things she wants to do at this Biennale is find a way of attracting children to the exhibits. She talks about The Village, which is out on Cockatoo Island. Copenhagen-based artist duo Randi & Katrine have built an anthropomorphised wonderland in the style of a typical Danish hamlet. It is surrounded by a city wall, with a forest at one end and buildings designed to have human features – rooftops as hair, windows as eyes, doors for mouths.

3 . Transfield controversy

She sketches a rough plan of The Village on my notepad and suggests it will amount to something more than what the publicity calls “a magical environment for visitors of all ages”. Visitors may be provoked into thinking about who is allowed in The Village and who is kept out. What borders are, what they mean, how they operate. There’s no explicit reference to the controversy over the Biennale’s major sponsor’s link with detention centres, nor of the current talk of artists’ boycotts – but the connection is, I think, clear. A few days after we meet, Transfield has withdrawn its money from the event and under pressure Luca Belgiorno-Nettis has resigned as chairman of the Biennale board, reluctantly ending a 40-year relationship between his family and the event.

Juliana loves the anarchic space of Cockatoo Island. She loves attracting children to art exhibits. “Kids are haptic,” she says. In some respects, she thinks, with the current crop of adolescents, the ones born after the mid-1990s, we are seeing a return of the 1970s ethos. “They’re natural anarchists. They’re wild, like we were. They want to explore and to question. They want to go to places they have never been before. No chance, for them, means every chance. The internet is their playground and they are wonderfully astute at negotiating cyberspace to find those places where revolt, as much as magic, may happen.”

As she expands upon this theme I suddenly see her in a maternal role, the nurturer of several generations of artists. I’m reminded of her prediction that, as an actor, she would be typecast as a Jewish mother. I’m reminded further that the root of the word curator is “cure”, with a relationship to the word “care”. A curator is one who looks after, who takes care – not simply of business, or of art, but of souls. In Juliana’s case, she describes her primary responsibility as what she calls the three As: artists, art and audiences.

Before I can venture further into these thoughts, a minder comes to summon her back to the office. Our time is up. I look at my prompt to see what other questions I might have missed and see a term I’d read about in preparation for our meeting. “Curator-General?” I ask. “Is that a military metaphor?” She laughs her effervescent laugh, then stops. “Well, you certainly need the logistical skills of a general to do something like this Biennale.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 19, 2014 as "Curator General".

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Martin Edmond is an author and screenwriter. His books include Dark Night: Walking with McCahon.

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