A project engaging regional art museums asks how we transform our museum’s relationship to non-Anglo and culturally and linguistically diverse art communities. 

A collaboration, entitled Parallel, will engage emerging and/or independent curators from diasporic cultures to explore ways to structurally diversify our art institutions. The project embraces the potential of the ‘parallel’ or the ‘para’ as a way of being adjacent to, beyond or distinct from the colonial structures that underpin Australian art institutions. 

Parallel is led by Chilean-Australian art historian Dr Verónica Tello from UNSW’s School of Art & Design in partnership with the Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA) and in collaboration with renowned Chinese-Indonesian-Dutch-Australian cultural theorist Distinguished Professor Ien Ang from the Institute for Culture and Society and Fijian-Australian artist Salote Tawale from SCA.

The project, funded by an ARC Linkage grant, builds on the 2018 Diversity Arts Australia report, Shifting the Balance. The report identified low levels of representation of art workers from culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) backgrounds in Australian cultural institutions, including art galleries and museums.

Parallel moves away from the common method of ‘diversifying’ art museums via audience development and instead turns to a critical role in museums—curatorial practice. It aims to foster understandings of how museums can be reimagined and restructured in collaboration with curators from CaLD, or non-Anglo, backgrounds. 

“While we acknowledge the label CaLD has limitations, and we wish to engage with those limitations via Parallel, the report motivated us to propose new ways to redress this structural underrepresentation,” Dr Tello says. “Curation, with its focus on caring for the museum’s core operations of collecting, exhibiting and public programming, offers new ways to think and feel structural change.”  

Image: Veronica Tello

Parallel curatorial fellows, 2022. Top L-R: Evgenia Anagnostopoulou; Kelly “Lovemonster” Dezart-Smith; Lana Kate Nguyen. Bottom L-R: Ruha Fifita; Tian Zhang; Sebastian Henry-Jones. Image: Supplied.

Parallel Conversations writers, 2022. Top L-R: Yasbelle Kerkow (she/her, based on Woi Wurrung Country); Victoria Pham (she/her, based between Gadigal Country and the United Kingdom); Isobel Morphy-Walsh (she/her, based on the ancestral lands of the Eastern Kulin Nations, between Djarra Djandjak and her own Taun Wurrung Biik); Bottom L-R: Lucia Tuong Vy Nguyen (she/her, based on Dharug Country) Brian Obiri-Asare (he/him, based on Gadigal Country); Bea Rubio-Gabriel (they/them, based on Wurundjeri Woiworung and Boonwurrung Country). Image: Supplied.

Curating new opportunities

Six curatorial fellows, who identify as CaLD, non-Anglo and/or person of colour (POC), have been recruited as part of the project to engage different ways of diversifying our art institutions. Curatorial fellows include:

  • Evgenia Anagnostopoulou,
  • Kelly “Lovemonster” Dezart-Smith,
  • Lana Kate Nguyen,
  • Ruha Fifita,
  • Tian Zhang and
  • Sebastian Henry-Jones.

Fellows will be mentored by leading (non-Anglo/CaLD/POC and First Nations) researchers, curators and museum directors, to develop vocabularies, protocols, knowledge and networks across multiple cultures. Project mentors include:

  • Tina Baum, Gulumirrgin (Larrakia), Wardaman and Karajarri peoples, Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, National Gallery of Australia
  • Ellie Buttrose, Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art
  • Paschal Daantos Berry, Head of Learning and Participation, Art Gallery of New South Wales
  • Rebekah Raymond, Arabana, Limilngan-Wulna, Wuthathi, and Mualgal peoples, Curator of Aboriginal Art and Material Culture, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
  • Talia Smith, Curator, Granville Centre Art Gallery
  • Mikala Tai, Visual Arts Director, Australia Council for the Arts

While 39 per cent of Australians come from a non-Anglo background, they represent only nine per cent of leadership positions in our cultural institutions. Mentorship is a key way to address structural racism, Dr Tello says.

Salote Tawale agrees, “Intergenerational mentorship plays a huge part. Learning from what established diasporic and First Nations curators have experienced will equip participants in Parallel to interrogate current museum structures. Intergenerational dialogue also allows curators to work together with museums to address structural racism.”

The projects developed by the fellows will form a crucial part of the broader curatorial research project that is Parallel, advancing knowledge on structural change through analysis of processes, contracts, cultural and bureaucratic norms, institutional habits, museological displays, and much more. The project engages with expanded concepts of curating to analyse the often invisible or silent forms that maintain structural inequities. 

Dr Tello says that the fellows will help shape MAMA’s approach to diversity and its protocols for working with diasporic communities.

Reframing regional museums

While art has gradually opened up to a more diverse range of experiences and relationships art museums still struggle to prove their relevance for an ever-greater range of culturally diverse constituencies. However, engaging with the ‘predicament’ of cultural diversity is a task and a responsibility as crucial as much as it is irresolvable for museums, states Prof. Ang. 

Regional communities, in particular, are becoming more culturally and linguistically diverse through humanitarian resettlement programs. As such, Dr Tello says that regional art museums, such as MAMA, are committed to remaining accountable to their communities. 

“[Regional art museums] are not marginal or peripheral but central to advancing diversity,” Dr Tello says.

Parallel considers that regional art museums, committed to their local and increasingly diverse communities as a result of humanitarian resettlement programs, can be at the forefront of this kind of structural change.

The project will work closely with MAMA including Bree Pickering (Director), Nanette Orly (Assistant Curator), Sophie Holvast (Public Programs Officer) and Michael Moran (Curator).

MAMA Director, Bree Pickering, says, “MAMA is excited to be a research partner on this important project. There is a need for structural change within museums across regional and metropolitan art institutions. Parallel will bring new understandings on meaningful ways to diversify museums with, by and for diasporic communities, which we are committed to, given our location.”

MAMA is located on Wiradjuri country and is part of the Albury-Wodonga border community situated along the Murray River. Since the end of World War II, Albury-Wodonga has been a site for the resettlement of refugees and migrants, most recently resettling people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Philippines, Nepal and India. During the 1960s and ‘70s, the region was also a designated resettlement area for displaced First Nations people. Since its re-opening in 2015, MAMA has been grappling with the complex ways in which displacement and dispossession have shaped its community—a region that is home to people from many distinct nations, languages and cultures.

Dr Tello says, MAMA and Parallel are committed to better understanding the relationship between museums and experiences of migration, dispossession and colonisation. With Parallel, MAMA will play host to museological and curatorial experiments. MAMA will offer resources and support our six fellows to produce new projects, which will be central to envisaging how MAMA, and other Australian regional art museums more broadly, may reimagine its structures and support diverse art workers.

Parallel fellows and researchers at the Bhutanese Community Farm, Albury-Wodonga. Image: Supplied.

Conversations on change

Parallel is also partnering with Runway Journal on a new initiative - Parralell Conversations - to support twelve writers who identify as non-Anglo/culturally diverse, to advance critical, bold and experimental thinking on ways of enacting structural change in Australian art institutions.

Through Parralell Conversations Parallel and Runway Journal aim to foster a new generation of writers to grapple with and critique the limits of Australian art institutions, generating new ideas and speculative propositions as to what such institutions can become.

Tello says, “We are committed to non-normative writing, as well as critical, astute analysis — both are necessary to understand what structural change is, and how it might better appear in our institutions.”

Through Parallel Conversations, writers will undertake an extended period of knowledge-sharing and receive support from Parallel, Runway Journal and invited industry experts, Nicholas Croggon (founding editor of Discipline and Sydney editor of MeMO) and Amelia Winata (founding editor of MeMO and editor of Index Journal). The Runway Journal Board Members working on Parallel Conversations in 2022 are: Mariam Arcilla, Johanna Bear, Julie Ha, Rebecca Hall, Sarah Hibbs, Ellen Formby, Yuna Lee, Janey Li, June Miskell and Siân Scott-Clash.

Lead image: Group portrait of Parallel Curatoiral Fellows at MAMA. L-R: Tian Zhang; Kelly “Lovemonster” Dezart-Smith; Lana Kate Nguyen; Ruha Fifita and Evgenia Anagnostopoulou (Absent: Sebastian Henry-Jones). Image: Supplied.

This article was originally published in 2022.

Written by Kay Harrison
Histories of Art and Visual Culture Verónica Tello
Histories of Art and Visual Culture