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On the road again

by Dr Deborah Hill, 19 December 2017

Installing David Walsh
Installing David Walsh

Since 1999, National Portrait Gallery touring exhibitions have travelled to over 100 venues across Australia. Over 30 individual shows have featured in this number, including such perennial favourites as Australians in Hollywood, Awesome Achievers: Portrait stories from Australian of the Year and the annual National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP). In November 2017, we were thrilled to usher in the one millionth visitor to a travelling exhibition produced and toured by the National Portrait Gallery. Gallery Director Angus Trumble rushed to the Broken Hill Regional Gallery to bestow hearty congratulations on the milestone visitor, who turned out to be Ms Suzie Furness from Queensland. Ms Furness had come to see the first ever Portrait Gallery touring exhibition to visit Broken Hill, Bare: Degrees of Undress.

One million people is a significant milestone for any exhibition program. It is quite the challenge to visualise the figure: it is just over 10 full MCGs; it is apparently the number of people who gathered in London to see Prince Charles and Princess Diana marry in 1984; and it is also very close to the current population of Cyprus. While no doubt there are some repeat visitors making up the statistic, it leads one to consider, what does ‘one million visitors’ really mean? Counting heads is a straightforward enterprise, yet there is so much more to each of those visits – so much the raw figures don’t tell us.

As the Travelling Exhibitions Coordinator for the National Portrait Gallery, I find myself somewhat preoccupied with transport logistics, wall graphics, layouts, contracts, grant applications and any number of details related to each venue we visit. And yet, the challenges we face are easily outweighed by the satisfaction derived from successfully planning and delivering exhibitions around the country. What makes the role a joy is the combination of experiencing art, people and place in a myriad of different spaces. Walking down Argent Street in Broken Hill and seeing the Regional Art Gallery there for the first time; meeting the team in Toowoomba to prepare to de-install an exhibition; or talking to the installer from Murray Bridge about the NPPP winners – these are moments unplanned, moments of real engagement and delight with the venues and local people.

Recently, as I installed Bare in Broken Hill, I chuckled as I watched installers Darren and Rod contemplate Andres Serrano’s stark (starkers) photographic portrait of David Walsh. The two men stood back from the work, still in its travel tray, to take it all in. In situ, Walsh’s posture in the work conveyed the sense he might be about to stand up and step out of the tray at any moment, and his deliciously awkward gaze stared out at me, almost past Darren and Rod, as I snapped the photo. This image captures just one of many moments observing the first impressions of gallery staff, volunteers and visitors as I unpack a show with them, or watch as people experience an exhibition for the first time in their lives. They are gratifying snippets of experience which draw a smile whenever they come to mind.

‘Can I take your picture Janice?’  At the Glasshouse Regional Gallery, Port Macquarie, the volunteer chose to stand beside Robin Sellick’s bare-chested portrait of Harry Kewell for a quick pre-install shot. While condition-checking the exhibition with Janice, this strong woman let me question her on her life’s adventures – time lived all over the world, children she’d raised and how she came to be in Port Macquarie. With a sharp wit and ever an art lover, Janice explained that she would attend talks rather than the opening function: ‘The curator’s talks are where you can really learn something.’ Janice is certainly both one of and one in a million.

Sitting among that grand statistic of one million visitors are people like Janice, Rod and Darren. We can illustrate some experiences, and even recall our own, but there are endless responses and small moments of engagement happening every day that we will never know about. Thankfully, the National Portrait Gallery’s touring program remains robust, and we continue to cast our minds towards the possibility of more venues across the country, to extend the reach of this institution’s unique mix of art, history and biography. You can keep apprised of our touring program online, and explore our past with the interactive map on the website.