What is Rhana Devenport up to now?
After just five days in the job as the first female Director to lead the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) in its 137 year history, Rhana Devenport is unphased by noise around her gender coup. She told ArtsHub: ‘I was also the first female Director at Auckland Art Gallery in its 125 years, so I don’t think about it so much.’
Devenport made the point that there is a lot of cultural and political leadership in New Zealand, where she has spent the past 12 years – five years as Director of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki (2013-2018) and seven at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth (NZ) where she oversaw the building of the Len Lye Centre, which sets her in good stead with the plan to build a new cultural venue for Adelaide.
‘[Leading as a woman] wasn’t identified as something rare in New Zealand, but I did become aware of the role that mentorship plays when you step into such positions, so I took more responsibility in that. It’s about visibility, and obviously I hope to continue that in Adelaide,’ said Devenport.
"[Leading as a woman] wasn’t identified as something rare in New Zealand, but I did become aware of the role of mentorship. It’s about visibility, and obviously I hope to continue that in Adelaide."
Devenport was formally appointed in July this year, just two months before incoming South Australian Premier Steven Marshall took office and handed down his budget, which delivered significant cuts to the arts. As a result, the arts sector faces a $4.9 million reduction in funds in 2018-2019, increasing annually in forward estimates to $31.9 million over four years through to 2022.
‘It is at one level precarious, but it is evident to me that the Premier believes in the importance of culture and understands those arguments are not only economical, but benefit the cohesion and growth of any city,’ Devenport said. ‘Obviously there was a lot of contraction and rationalisation that went down with the last budget here, but what is good is that I have met with the Premier and I am convinced he is sincere and committed to the arts.'
‘And the Gallery staying in the Premier’s Department is a sign of the respect he has afforded us. In the wider sense, his understanding of the necessity for a new cultural space – a new gallery – is genuine, and we expect to be part of the conversations surrounding that,’ she said.
Regarding Adelaide Contemporary – a proposed expansion of the AGSA championed by her predecessor, Nick Mitzevich – Devenport said that the site, the architectural concept, and plan to move forward with a secondary space will remain on track – and that the $2.4 million spent on the project to date had not gone to waste. She did, however, confirm that the new cultural space would not be called Adelaide Contemporary.
‘It was a concept to create a possibility. Now it is about understanding the spirit of the project and how the key players can work together, rather than holding onto Adelaide Contemporary or nothing. This building [Adelaide Contemporary] is a tremendous asset and that is key,’ she said. ‘I do believe that we can do something quite unique.’
As Adelaide celebrates the third edition of the Tarnanthi: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Art Festival this weekend (Friday 26 October to Sunday 28 October) it is timely to ponder the Premiere’s alternative suggestion of a National Aboriginal Art and Culture Gallery.
‘The way forward is carefully and respectfully, and to be thinking what the city needs and to look at the strengths of the city,’ said Devenport. ‘I don’t see these ideas at odds against each other. What was very clear was the Premier wants to make a difference and to create a new cultural project.’
She added that one of the attractions for her to taking up the position at the AGSA’s was the Gallery's Indigenous program and the bold initiatives it had made in this area.
‘I brought Nici Cumpston – Artistic Director of TARNANTHI and Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at AGSA – over to Auckland to help us at the Gallery to analyse our Aboriginal Collection and to work with our curators. Thinking about Indigeneity beyond Australia is also pretty fundamental.’
Devenport said the design team who won the Adelaide Contemporary international competition – Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) in partnership with Adelaide practice Woods Bagot – had created a sensational design, ‘not from purely external aesthetics but in terms of the machine inside – it is a sensitive and intelligent design that considers the way artists think and new art forms can be embraced.’
Describing Adelaide as a 'city state', Devenport said: ‘With 80% of South Australians living in the city, what is offered here is of prime importance to the state. I am used to Auckland, with huge levels of international tourism. Here it is a little more locally focused, but with that comes ambition. The Tarnanthi Festival, the Adelaide Biennial, the Ramsay Prize, the new building are all also associated with building tourism in the wider sense, and that drive is well on track.’
One of the big things that attracted Devenport to the AGSA was its strong governance, and a Board dedicated to the Gallery, she explained. ‘I did not have that in New Zealand in both my Directorships. It is fundamental in realising the ambit of an organisation and it is also about taking people on a journey with you.’
"(Strong governance) is fundamental in realising the ambit of an organisation and it is also about taking people on a journey with you."
Devenport has a strong history of success with philanthropy and procuring giving. ‘I have done a lot of research in this area – people want to make a difference. It is no longer so much about wanting your name on a building, but things such as “ethical investing” that will be more desired in the future.’
Devenport told ArtsHub that she was impressed with the portfolio of giving at the AGSA – from the Gallery’s Neo program to its Start program and publishing program. ‘A lot of [staff] positions are also funded here – more so than I have experienced in an organisation before. So much philanthropy goes beyond collection building today.’
She added that she was also impressed with how the AGSA has grown its relationships across curators and donors, adding that she was delighted to be joining a very young, high energy and collaborative team.
‘The whole staff can fit in a room and have a conversation, and that allows for great flexibility and agility. I am excited by what that proposes,’ she told ArtsHub.
Coming from an art education and curatorial background, Devenport has always placed a strong emphasis on scholarship and research across her professional career. She also saluted the output of the gallery’s publishing history, and hoped to grow that with greater digital engagement in future years.
‘There is a lot of work in the digital space that is required here. A lot of planning and thinking is already underway. Success in the gallery’s attendance numbers is testament to that, but now the online of the gallery needs to catch up with that success.’
One of her signature moves at Auckland Art Gallery was to employ former Metropolitan Museum of Art’s (New York), Program Manager for Content Partnerships – Neal Stimler - as the Gallery’s inaugural Head of Public Engagement. She hopes to replicate those bold creative and digital strategies in Adelaide.
‘The visitation is very analogue – people through the doors – the gallery is very palpable in terms of where it sits across the city and state, but with digital engagement you can really expand the strength of the gallery and its collection,’ she said. ‘I am looking forward now to ... really rolling that strategy out.’
Many people have asked her, “Why move back to Australia?”, Devenport said.
‘It is not about moving back; it is about moving forward,’ she explained. ‘It is about where the next set of challenges and potentials may be, and this gallery does that for me.
"I’m taking everything I learnt in those 12 years and bringing New Zealand with me."
‘I have a great sense of momentum - I’m taking everything I learnt in those 12 years and bringing New Zealand with me.
‘The cycle in New Zealand was complete for me. Receiving the commitment of the $20 million [funding] for Auckland was formally announced around the time that I was seriously under consideration for the AGSA Directorship. It didn’t feel like an ending … it was about realising how one [posting] folds into the other, and what you have learnt from those contexts, and challenges, and conditions.’
Rhana Devenport started in the role of Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia on 22 October 2018.
This story was first published on 26 October by our friends at Artshub, where author Gina Fairley covers the national Visual Arts news.
Image credit: Saul Steed, courtesy the Art Gallery of South Australia.