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After a decade overseeing the construction and opening of Bundanon’s groundbreaking new art museum, Deborah Ely is moving on to the next big thing. By Brooke Boland.

Arts dynamo Deborah Ely

Deborah Ely at Bundanon.
Credit: Zan Wimberley

In Deborah Ely’s neat, well-ordered office a small piece of paper is taped to the wall. In sloping handwriting – messier than I expected – is a list: (1) Lighten up; (2) Let go; (3) Loosen up. Another item is scrawled hastily across the bottom, unnumbered and likely added later, after the initial composition. Learn not to be distracted.

This list tells us something of its author. It suggests that Ely, who is known for always having her eye firmly fixed on the future, also cares deeply about the present. Which is why she’s leaving Bundanon after 15 years as chief executive. Her office is half-packed and she’s finalising the details. By the time you read this, the new chief, Rachel Kent, will be installed.

Formerly the home of the artist Arthur Boyd, Bundanon is located on the south coast of New South Wales. In 1993 the estate – comprising three properties, Bundanon, Riversdale, and Eearie and Beeweeree Park, as well as an extensive collection of artworks – was donated to the nation by Arthur and Yvonne Boyd. As a trust, it continues to inspire new generations of artists and students through education programs and artist residencies.

“I don’t think you should sit on things forever,” Ely says, reflecting on her decision to leave. “It’s just the right time ... Bundanon can just do so much more than we’ve done so far. We’ve just put our toe in the water.” The “right time” means the opening of Bundanon’s new art museum and creative learning centre, the resolution of a project Ely planned, lobbied for and led for more than 10 years, cementing the organisation’s potential to become an international cultural destination.

In a clipped, faintly English accent – the result of regular travel to Europe as a child and years studying in Britain – Ely reveals how, like many people who work in the arts, she first wanted to be an artist. “I drew from the minute I could hold a pencil,” she says.

She went to art school in London and later in the 1970s attended Reading University, where she completed a degree in art history and trained for five years as a painter, majoring in abstract painting. Ely was interested in the time-based and performative aspects of contemporary art but also found herself enjoying curating exhibitions and putting on events. She was renowned on campus for making a deal with Malcolm McLaren to book the Sex Pistols just as the band was making headlines.

“I was always collaborating with other people, always interested in other people’s ideas and trying to think up ways we could put something on,” she says. After graduation, she had no interest in working alone in her studio as a painter. “I wanted to be out there making things happen. It suited me much better to develop a professional curatorial practice.”

In the ’80s, new media technologies and feminist practice opened up access to women in the British art scene and Ely found herself working at the newly established Watershed media centre in Bristol – the first multi-arts centre outside London. “[Photography] had been a bit more marginal before and suddenly it was kind of bursting into contemporary art, as much as anything because artists could access these large-scale printing techniques,” she explains. “Feminism was very engaged with photography. It was a medium that women could tell their own stories through very easily, women who were not necessarily trained as artists.”

Ely witnessed this powerful movement firsthand. She organised the first exhibition of Cindy Sherman’s work in England and collaborated with the Institute of Contemporary Arts on Barbara Kruger’s major solo show in 1983. Eight years later, Ely was Watershed’s director, leading a team of about 100 staff to present exhibitions across photography, film and contemporary art But she felt the pull back to Australia and in 1988 returned to the country where she had been born.

Almost immediately Ely was immersed in the Melbourne art scene, swept up in another new initiative, this time the inaugural Experimenta festival, presented by what was then known as the Modern Image Makers Association. “They said, ‘Quickly, can you rescue this festival?’ ” Ely remembers. “People in Melbourne did know of my work in the UK and so they approached me. They knew of my background in setting something up and they knew of the breadth of my interests.”

She took it on, convening what was billed as Australia’s first national exhibition of film and video, across nine venues with 69 artists from all over the world. Simultaneously, while still organising Experimenta, Ely was approached to set up the Centre for Contemporary Photography. She stayed for the next three years, settling the organisation into an old swimwear factory, before she moved to Sydney to become director of the Australian Centre for Photography.

“I’m not somebody who likes maintenance really,” says Ely. “I like change. I like making things. I like the front end of thinking. I’m interested in what’s happening next.” This characterises her career, where change and renewal track as twin themes as she establishes new arts initiatives or leads them through periods of redevelopment.

In a surprise twist, Ely accepted a position as program manager with Arts NSW in 1997. “I was a bit reluctant,” she admits. “When you’re working in contemporary curatorial practice, with a lot of international colleagues and networks, a lot of international travel of course, you’re right at the front end of new ideas that are happening all over the world across a range of disciplines. That’s a wonderful place to be, but it is quite exhausting. I thought maybe I should do something a bit quieter.”

She laughs, hinting at the demanding reality of the large arts portfolio she was handed. Her husband, artist Mike Leggett, quipped at the time: “You’ll go from mother of one organisation to mother of them all.”

Nine years at Arts NSW when Bob Carr was premier meant Ely had a hand in almost every significant arts institution in the state. “It was actually quite fabulous. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but there was quite a lot of money flowing and a lot of support for the arts in that particular government,” she says. “It was a period of real growth in the gallery sector and in the contemporary art sector.”

Ely worked with architects and local governments to plan new facilities across the state in a huge expansion of regional galleries. “Everywhere, from Tweed to Albury, to Wagga, to Maitland, to Lake Macquarie, to Broken Hill. They were all just growing.” In Sydney, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Sydney Biennale were in new phases of development, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre had just been built and Campbelltown Arts Centre was about to undergo major growth.

“It was an exciting period,” she says. “I had a wonderful, expanded field of colleagues – curators and fellow arts workers – and I was in a position to help them if I could by finding resources for them or trying to persuade politicians that they should give them more support.”

When she was headhunted for the chief executive role at Bundanon, Ely was already thinking of leaving Arts NSW. Her husband pressed her to consider the regional organisation more closely. “My husband had been an artist-in-residence here some years before and he has a real, deep love of Bundanon,” she says. “He persuaded me that it would be a great thing to do and that he would support me doing it because it would mean me leaving Sydney, of course. I remember thinking it just needs to be activated. It was waiting to take off.”

Impressed by the property’s natural beauty and architecture – a mix of contemporary and historical buildings, including the Boyd Education Centre designed by architect Glenn Murcutt, and Arthur Boyd’s studio – Ely accepted the position “for better or worse”.

At Bundanon, 91 per cent of the property is natural bushland. When she walks across the paddocks from one cluster of buildings to another, Ely stops to pull a fireweed plant out by the roots and casts it aside. She says she hates the stuff. An occupational risk is falling into a wombat hole, as was dealing with their destructive nocturnal behaviour when these marsupials decided to live beneath the writer’s cottage.

First-time visitors are encouraged to keep driving down dirt roads for longer than they’d expect, watching for lyrebirds or wallabies. While its isolation remains Bundanon’s biggest challenge, it is also its signature advantage. It creates an opportunity for the creative fertility of solitude – the kind that comes from going bush.

The location brought new considerations into Ely’s curatorial practice too; she describes it as a sandpit “where people can come and play and do research”. Bundanon is a site where work can be made, not only presented. It compels consideration of the natural environment and climate, staging important conversations for our time and inviting a generative openness to different disciplines and viewpoints. Almost as if Bundanon itself – the great mythic energy that resonates within the landscape, as Wodi Wodi and Yuin people have always known and which Arthur Boyd channelled so dramatically in his own work – is a collaborator.

In 2009, environmental scientist Tim Cohen knocked on Ely’s door and asked her if he could dig 10 trenches on the property. He wanted to study climate change and rising sea levels with his brother Michael Cohen, a performance artist. Bundanon, with its steep sandstone cliffs and bending river, was the perfect location. Ely’s response was “Why not?”

The science-led investigation developed into a site-based performance installation, Ten Trenches, created in collaboration with First Nations performers. This project began an exploration of Bundanon now known as Siteworks, a recurring project that has run for 12 years and encourages interdisciplinary conversation across the arts and sciences.

“We started to mix up the science and the art things together and created a platform for public discussion,” says Ely. It wasn’t so much about the number of attendees as the depth of conversation. “We were interested in the history of climate change on this part of the Shoalhaven River. We were interested in the archaeology. We were interested in what the wombats were really doing at night.”

When Bundanon was threatened by the Currowan fire during the 2019-20 Black Summer, even the Shoalhaven River couldn’t hold it back. Ely made the call to evacuate the art collection when the fire was visible on the ridge. When she returned weeks later after access roads had been cleared, Bundanon’s buildings were still standing. The organisation had been working with Firesticks Alliance, incorporating Indigenous cultural burning into their fire management plan for years, and local firefighters had fought tirelessly to stop the ember attack.

In the aftermath, the new museum became more vital to the organisation’s future. The subterranean design by Kerstin Thompson Architects – partly submerged into the side of a hill – was chosen for its responsive approach to the landscape, including its ability to protect the $46.4 million collection from bushfire in the future. An expansive bridge, stretching from the museum entrance and forecourt across the floodplain, houses accommodation and learning facilities. “Everywhere I look at the detail in this new building I see the conversations that we’ve had about what we want to achieve, and [Kerstin’s] solution to it,” says Ely.

In her final week as chief executive, she watched as the native plants for the design by the late landscape architect Megan Wraight went in around the new building. They shape a winding path that takes visitors past the historic buildings and through the bunyas. “You can stand up on the top, outside the new art museum and see these wonderful sweeping views of the river,” says Ely. She plans to be back once it opens, this time as a visitor. And she won’t miss the wombats.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 18, 2021 as "Landscapes of art".

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Brooke Boland is a writer from the south coast of NSW.