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Shepparton Art Museum director talks lockdown, creativity, and maintaining connection with community

Words by Della Vreeland
Images Supplied

For over six years, Rebecca Coates has been harnessing her love for art and curatorship and channelling it for the benefit of the Shepparton community and beyond.

As director and CEO of the Shepparton Art Museum (SAM), Rebecca says her goal has always been for SAM’s exhibitions and programs to not only be locally relevant but to engage with global contemporary ideas. But once the health pandemic hit in 2020, Rebecca and her team were forced to reconsider how these aims would continue to be recognised and implemented.

‘It was all about how we would continue to work with our community and connect with them – because this was all new to everyone,’ she says. ‘We took our programs digital, and early on they were all so hilariously amateur, but we’ve learnt what works and what doesn’t work, so that has been invaluable.

‘We documented and photographed our collection so we could make that available to the public thanks to some Work for Victoria funding, and were able to support local people and keep them employed.’

We continued to remember and, if we could, celebrate what we loved about the arts and cultural space.

As if the advent of COVID wasn’t enough of a challenge for the SAM team, the museum was also transitioning from working under council to operating as a not-for-profit independent model.

At the same time, the museum was in the midst of moving into its newly-constructed contemporary building nestled upon the banks of Victoria Park Lake. While the new building was set to open early this year, the extended lockdowns really threw a few spanners in the works.

‘It’s been very challenging this year,’ Rebecca says. ‘We were meant to open in March, but that was delayed because of COVID so we had to again rethink how we engage and what we do.’

‘We’ve increased our online programming and digital collection online, and have continued to work where we can installing programs so we can open as soon as we can. (But) we have freight coming from interstate so there are considerable parts of our install that have been affected. We like to think we are totally an essential service, but we’re not.’

The state government recently announced that regional Victoria would ease out of lockdown restrictions – with the exception of Shepparton which is still exhibiting relatively high case numbers. Rebecca says as soon as restrictions do lift, they will be able to focus on restarting their installations safely and appropriately.

‘It’s much better to be sensible about it,’ Rebecca explains. ‘It’s meant we’ve had to reschedule, rethink, and look at timelines. But all-in-all, given what’s happening in other sectors, it could be so much worse.’

One of Australia’s leading art museums, SAM is renowned for its significant connection to ceramics as well as with indigenous artists and works. Located in a regional town with a rich multicultural landscape, Rebecca says the museum serves to further the town’s flourishing community.

‘(The museum) needs to be something you can bring your own experience to, part of a larger whole. And that’s what I call the wider contemporary art world,’ she says. ‘I think that will continue and it reinforces Shepparton’s rich multicultural community.’

While it’s hard to know when exactly Shepparton will open up, Rebecca says she’s extremely proud of how her colleagues have been managing the crisis.

The museum recently launched its Sketch program, a five-week series that celebrates artists in the region, while providing art-lovers and dabblers with the chance to participate in workshops aimed at inspiring creativity in lockdown.

‘We want to showcase artists and creators doing good things, engage with a community who values art and culture and wants to have fun, and do that in a way that is part of a larger whole,’ Rebecca says.

‘We just need to be really clear about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and how we’re doing it. We have to be a bit more flexible, but we will find a way to do it with our friends and colleagues in the arts and culture space.’


THE DETAILS

WHAT: Shepparton Art Museum
FIND OUT MORE: sheppartonartmuseum.com.au

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