After achieving significant success as the director of two major New Zealand galleries, Rhana Devenport brings her ambitious vision to the Art Gallery of South Australia. Here, she talks about building relationships with artists and creating a safe space for audiences to explore challenging ideas. “I think that it is our role, working in a cultural organisation, to love our audience, to be as absolutely in love with our audience, to be thinking in multiple ways about how to be as expansive and open as humanly possible.” By Bri Lee.

AGSA director Rhana Devenport

Art curator Rhana Devenport.
Art curator Rhana Devenport.
Credit: Saul Steed

When I speak with Rhana Devenport, ONZM, she has just returned to her office at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) after lunch with the judges of the Ramsay Art Prize.

One of the richest art prizes in Australia, the Ramsay was this year awarded to painter Vincent Namatjira for Close Contact, a double-sided portrait critiquing colonisation and the concept of heroic portraiture.

Known for his ability to be at once scathing, humorous and mournful of Australia’s history, Namatjira depicts himself giving a thumbs-up on one side of his winning artwork. On the reverse is a portrait of Captain Cook – arm outstretched, palm down – “a persistent shadow of the artist”, in the words of judge Russell Storer.

“I was a judge last time,” Devenport tells me. “It’s a really tough job and you take it really seriously because $100,000 is a lot of money, and the investment of the artist is very sincere … There is a lot of materiality, textiles and ceramics – these art forms that are not taught much now at university level. There are many strong statements about the environment and the natural world, and a lot of very poetic moments and very intimate moments.”

Much has changed in Devenport’s life since she judged the inaugural Ramsay Prize in 2017. She was then director of the Auckland Art Gallery, and was invited to Adelaide by AGSA’s former director, Nick Mitzevich. In October last year, she succeeded Mitzevich – who has since moved on to the National Gallery of Australia – and in doing so became the first female director of AGSA.

Her excitement for the job, and the gallery, is palpable.

“The dynamism across this show is really incredible,” she says of the AGSA exhibition of the Ramsay finalists’ work. “I love the fact [the prize] is democratic and anybody can apply … It’s very interesting – the public seem to love these competitions and the artists find it problematic. I think it draws attention, it draws focus, it really brings people together. The whole idea is about fostering debate, and I think that’s absolutely crucially important.”

Devenport’s life has long revolved around art. She has taken “maybe two art-free holidays” in her entire life. One was in the brief time between finishing up in Auckland and moving to Adelaide, when she and her husband, the multimedia artist Tim Gruchy, got a little beach hut on the south coast of New South Wales. “On the first afternoon there was a gorgeous whale and her baby swimming past,” she says, describing the time in nature as soul-cleansing.

Devenport, who grew up in Queensland, started out as an art teacher and practising artist before spending a decade, from 1994 to 2004, at the Queensland Art Gallery working on the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Her roles grew in power and prestige after that, moving from Sydney Festival to the Sydney Biennale to the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand, where she took up the directorship in 2006. She was there for seven years before joining the Auckland Art Gallery in 2013 and then taking over at AGSA last year.

“I always believe I have the best job in the country,” she says.

Devenport’s father was an architect and a painter. “I grew up in this beautiful house that he designed, and I thought everybody lived in houses that had 18-foot ceilings and paintings everywhere and Japanese curtains and copper walls.” She says she feels “very fortunate” to have had such a creative upbringing.

“I think there’s nothing else that really exists, other than people and art,” she says. “What did Coco Chanel say? ‘There’s time for work and there’s time for love, and there’s no other time.’ If you translate work as art, then that’s it.”

In Devenport’s vision, galleries must serve a dual function, offering a “feeling of safety” while also being “places where there is the potential to have a zone for those more challenging ideas”.

“At this time when so many societies are closing down borders and closing down the conversation, cultural organisations and art museums in particular can be places where, rather than divided by politics, there is this sense of public space,” she says, explaining how she decides what to program. “So, there could be a lot of exhibitions that might be popular, but which are the projects that are both going to contribute to new research and also going to foster the kind of conversations that haven’t been had or that need to happen?”

Devenport doesn’t shy away from the tough dialogues facing cultural institutions in 2019 – the tensions between art and commerce and questions of who gets a platform, things she describes as “criticality”. She says: “Galleries as a platform for national debate is really important.”

She recounts the arrival of artist Richard Bell at this year’s Venice Biennale with his huge installation We Don’t Really Need This/Bell Invites, later renamed as No Tin Shack – an unofficial replica of the Australian Pavilion wrapped in chains, sitting on a barge, which sailed through the Venetian Lagoon. The installation is part of Bell’s ongoing Embassy project, which started in 2013, referencing the Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside Canberra’s Old Parliament House. He described this latest iteration as a reflection on Australia’s pavilion at the Biennale being “the black box for white art”.

Devenport says Bell’s installation is “audacious and provocative and again very powerful”, noting it gathered large crowds at the Biennale and enlivened conversation. People found it “hilarious” how wonderful the work was, and how Bell had managed to crowdfund more than $30,000 to bring it to Venice after he was rejected in the formal application process, which led to other Australian government agencies assisting in funding too.

Devenport was in Venice to facilitate the showing of Living Rocks: A fragment of the universe, a multimedia installation selected as one of only 21 official collateral events at the Biennale. The work, which depicts the passage of three billion years, is a South Australian collaboration between artists James Darling and Lesley Forwood, virtual reality studio Jumpgate, composer Paul Stanhope and the Australian String Quartet. When Devenport left Venice, it was receiving 500 visitors a day, a number she describes as “extraordinary”.

Throughout her career, Devenport has had a preternatural gift for coaxing audiences into galleries. “I can totally understand why people feel alienated and why they feel it’s not a place for them,” she says. “I think that it is our role, working in a cultural organisation, to love our audience, to be as absolutely in love with our audience, to be thinking in multiple ways about how to be as expansive and open as humanly possible.”

Sue Sinclair, her former colleague at Auckland Art Gallery, describes Devenport’s ability to know what audiences want as “uncanny”.

“Working with Rhana was an inspirational, high-energy journey of discovery of possibility in the visual arts,” says Sinclair, who is now head of advancement and sponsorship at the Auckland gallery. Sinclair explains her team was formed under Devenport’s leadership with a remit “to grow the philanthropic support and fundraising capability of the gallery, which was in challenging financial times”.

While most leaders have visions for what they hope their legacy may be, Devenport’s is fantastically pragmatic. She says that securing “significant, multimillion-dollar funding” for the Auckland Art Gallery last year gave her closure to step away from the directorship. Before that, as director of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, she led the fundraising effort for the new Len Lye Centre. “We had a beautiful Māori ceremony to bless the foundations for the Len Lye Centre,” she recalls. “Knowing that the money had all been secured, that was the moment I felt that I could move on.” Nothing less than a similarly “significant sense of achievement” will do for her time in Adelaide.

Since joining AGSA, Devenport has continued apace. She has steered the institution through a complete rebrand, including an “exciting and necessary” new visual identity and website with “about a quarter of our 45,000-strong collection online”.

She has also overseen a complete rehanging of the Elder Wing and the writing of a new strategic plan, which has just been ratified by the board. She has also made it a priority to “sit down with every single member of staff and really understand what people were proud of, what the potential was, and where the museum might be able to move towards”.

She says the gallery’s collection is extraordinary.
“I mean, I knew it was pretty good, but it’s really been such a joy to get to know it and to be able to explore it.”

Devenport speaks highly of Mitzevich, noting the gallery was in strong shape when she inherited it. According to reports, Mitzevich nearly quadrupled private giving during his eight years at AGSA, from $3.38 million in 2010 to almost $13 million in 2017. He also almost doubled average attendances and lowered the average visitor age by more than 10 years. The exhibition Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay in 2018 broke all previous AGSA attendance records.

In the past year, AGSA has had more than a million visitors; Adelaide’s population is currently just 1.3 million people. “So, you know,” says Devenport, “we have our strengths.”

The SA state government, currently led by Premier Steven Marshall, has signalled its commitment to a new gallery building for AGSA, most likely dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, though this is yet to be confirmed. With these plans in the advanced stages of consultancy, Devenport’s time at the helm will likely see her guide the gallery – and the city of Adelaide – through this expansion.

“There is much to do in Adelaide, particularly as our historically beautiful facilities don’t match the tenor and importance of our energetic and ambitious program,” she says. “We are very clear about our need to expand our physical spaces.” She adds that AGSA “has the smallest footprint of any state art museum in Australia; however, it’s also arguably the most beloved”, citing its visitor numbers as the highest per capita for any gallery in the country.

Beyond such tangible measures though, it is clear that Devenport has deeply considered what success might mean for a significant cultural institution.

She speaks of “thought leadership” and asks, “How can we support the intellectual life of the whole country?” She points to the Tarnanthi project as a strong example of supporting new works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. The program focuses on the creation and showing of diverse new work by Indigenous artists, and includes a yearly art fair, artist talks, performances and events. The name Tarnanthi comes from the language of the Kaurna people, the traditional owners of the Adelaide Plains, and means “to come forth or appear – like the sun and the first emergence of light”.

“The way we work with artist communities across the whole country, then work across the whole city in presenting that project, even to the radical aspects of actually supporting an art fair, these are new models that I’ve not seen anywhere,” says Devenport.

Continuing to be artist-led seems a significant part of her vision for Adelaide. She cites AGSA’s “intimate and generative relationships with artists across the country” as its distinct strength. The Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, the Ramsay Prize and the Tarnanthi festival make up half of AGSA’s program. “That’s a strong statement about creating platforms and supporting Australian artists of today and tomorrow,” she says.

“Vincent Namatjira concluded his [Ramsay Prize] acceptance speech with these three sentences: ‘Art is a weapon. Art changed my life. Art has the power to change the world.’ Wise words,” says Devenport. “There is nothing unachievable when these relationships with artists exist.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 8, 2019 as "Heading south".

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Bri Lee is a legal academic and the author of Who Gets to Be Smart.

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