SAM Achievements and Goals, 2015 – 2021. A letter from the Director.

Dr Rebecca Coates, Shepparton Art Museum, 2021 © Cam Matheson

1 December 2021

Dear SAM supporters, 

Today I announced that I will be stepping down from my position as CEO and Artistic Director of Shepparton Art Museum. I took on the role because it offered some unique opportunities. The goals I set out to achieve have been realised. After more than six years it is time to move on and pursue other opportunities. 

Where I started 

When I started as the Director of SAM, it was a small regional gallery with aspirations. Kay Thomson and Kirsten Paisley had created the business case for a new museum, and Council had endorsed it. But there was no money except for the Council’s commitment to borrow $10 million. Carrillo Gantner had promised to gift his collection, but beyond a letter to the Mayor, there was no list of works and nothing that was legally binding. It had been agreed in principle that SAM should become a stand-alone organisation, but no work had been done on how to complete the transition. The Museum was unloved by its Friends. The relationship with Kaiela Arts was fractured and distrustful. I was advised that staffing at SAM had always been a problem, with Council employment seen as a secure job that encouraged time-serving and uncommitted staff, and as a result SAM struggled to attract or retain high quality staff with arts and culture knowledge and a drive for excellence. There were no discernible systems around the core business of the museum: there was no forward artistic program; a grant with a major philanthropic partner had been banked but the corresponding activity had remained undone for two years; Council had received substantial donations and bequests for acquisitions but this had been misapplied as start-up funding towards the capital campaign for a new building; there was a collections policy but no collection strategy that would differentiate Shepparton from other regional galleries; and there was no obvious plan for community engagement through education or public programs. 

Shepparton’s reputation had been a deficit model, embodied by a tagline as the ice capital of Australia with a high proportion of disaffected and at risk youth. Many thought that the role as Director of SAM was professional suicide, and asked me why I would do it given my expertise. I took on the institution because of its ambitions for substantial growth, the building project had a real chance, and a three-month period as interim director had revealed that it could make a significant cultural difference to Shepparton and to Australia. 

When I began in the role, employed by Greater Shepparton City Council, and working with its Director of Community, Kaye Tomson, we set three goals. First, to build the artistic exhibitions, collection, and engagement so that it earnt the participation of the local community and a national reputation. Second, to build a genuinely world-class new building that would attract visitors, enable a first-class museum operation, and be a symbol of civic pride. And third, to build a better community in Shepparton, with the museum as an agent for social change. It was an exciting opportunity to work with Shepparton’s large indigenous community and its extensive multi-cultural populations to create an inter-cultural dialogue. 

I have now achieved all three of those goals, the culmination of over six years of work.

A vibrant artistic program 

Exhibition program 

SAM’s exhibitions are now nationally recognised. I have articulated a clear artistic vision and mission, widely recognised across Australia and internationally by building SAM’s focus on ceramics and indigenous engagement. Temporary exhibitions have a rationale to collections focus and priorities. 

In the past six years I have curated and co-curated 29 exhibitions, and overseen a total program of 111 exhibitions. Two of the exhibitions curated by SAM, Craftivism: Dissident Objects and Subversive Forms and I hope you get this: Raquel Ormella, have toured to national acclaim. 

I have driven the inaugural program for the new building, presenting 9 new exhibitions, 4 new major commissions, over 200 artists, and over 160 works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. The headline Lin Onus exhibition has been six years in the making, is the first time that the internationally recognised Yorta Yorta artist has been shown on Country, received significant support from the family, secured major loans from around Australia, and was supported by a Custodial Reference Group. The cultural significance for the Yorta Yorta people and wider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander reconciliation was manifest at the opening. 

Over the past six years we have substantially developed and amplified the importance of the Australian Ceramic Award, supported by the Sidney Myer Fund, and the Indigenous Ceramic Awards. We reduced the number of shortlisted artists, supported them to make work and to attend the opening, increased the prize money, and promoted the Awards nationally as part of a contemporary art world. As a result, we changed the agenda around ceramics, which are now seen as the hot thing in contemporary art. The quality of entrants and the work acquired through the Awards lifted significantly, attracting leading contemporary artists working in ceramics. The acquisitive prizes enabled SAM to add to its collection major holdings by many of Australia’s leading indigenous and non-indigenous contemporary artists including Glenn Barkley, Karen Black, Janet Fieldhouse, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran (who was selected by the NGA for a major survey show after he won the award), Jenny Orchard, Yhonnie Scarce, Yasmin Smith, and local Kaiela Arts artists for the first time. 

With the SAM curatorial team, I have mapped out all of the artistic programs for the next two years. 

Partnerships 

We have set up a number of exhibition partnerships. We presented Resolution: New Indigenous Photomedia (2016) with the National Gallery of Australia; the NGA loaned the major Lin Onus painting, Barmah Forest, 1994, which had previously been on regular display; and in 2022 SAM will be the only Victorian venue to present the NGA’s Fourth National Indigenous Art Triennial, Ceremony curated by Hetti Perkins, an Arrente and Kalkadoon woman. 

SAM has toured SAM curated exhibitions Raquel Ormella and Craftivism nationally with NETS Victoria, supported by federal funding. 3 

In 2019 we collaborated for the first time with Bundanon Trust to present a major exhibition of landscape painting by Arthur Boyd curated by Barry Pearce, contextualised with a bespoke exhibition curated by SAM of Boyd family ceramics. 

Under a new partnership with the Australian War Memorial the new building’s second major exhibition will be Art and conflict, a major exhibition of works by some of Australia’s best known contemporary artists, including Tony Albert, Khadim Ali, Rushdi Anwar, Paddy Bedford, Karen Black, Lyndell Brown and Charles Green, Jon Cattapan, Michael Cook, Dacchi Dang, eX de Medici, Shaun Gladwell, Denise Green, Kapua Gutchen, Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro, Richard Lewer, Angelica Mesiti, Susan Norrie, Tom Nicholson, Megan Cope and Ben Quilty, underpinned by research by scholars internationally through an ARC Linkage Project including Manchester University. Organised by the Australian War Memorial, the exhibition will premiere in Shepparton, its sole Victorian venue, at the beginning of a national tour. 

These partnerships are only happening because the quality of SAM’s exhibitions over the past six years have put it on the map. 

Artist in residency programs 

Over the past six years we have instituted a series of artist in residency programs. In conjunction with M Pavilion we set up an artist in residency for Keg de Souza who created an alternative guide to Shepparton. We worked with the University of Melbourne’s School of Geography and the Potter Museum of Art to present an AiR opportunity with Museum Incognita, Fayen d’Evie and Katie West. For new SAM, we have obtained funding to present a five-year AiR opportunity, the Theodor Urbach Landscape Painting Prize and Scholarship, inviting leading contemporary artists to spend time in the residency without specific artistic or exhibition outcomes required. We are currently working with UOM COVA (Centre of Visual Art) to partner in the Art and Ecology Dookie Residency; while we are also working with Agency to present a First Nations AiR program at SAM for emerging to mid-career Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander artists from diverse creative practices. 

Research projects 

SAM has participated in a number of research projects, ARC Grants and Linkage partnerships. Jenna Grace recently undertook an internship at SAM as part of her Masters of Curatorship at the University of Melbourne, where her minor thesis Private gift for public gain: impact philanthropy and the Shepparton Art Museum examines how the major philanthropic donation of the Carrillo and Ziyin Gantner collection of Indigenous art can benefit a regional art museum. A proud descendent of the Yorta Yorta Dhulunyagen family, Moorina Bonini’s PhD with the Wominjeka Djeembana Research Lab at Monash University, Realigning Western Structures through centering Indigenous Epistemology showcases SAM’s exhibitions and initiatives as a key case-study in Moorina’s research, drawn from extensive interviews and research. La Trobe University’s Professor Katie Holmes, Parched: cultures of drought in regional Victoria, will generate new knowledge about the cultures of drought; the changing ways Victorians have lived with, imagined, understood and represented drought, along with Bendigo Art Gallery, MAMA, Albury, and other regional art galleries and museums. 4 

Collection 

Over the past six years SAM has progressed from an acquisition policy to an acquisition strategy. Acquisitions now deliberately focus on ceramics and indigenous works, particularly the work of contemporary artists, aiming to grow the strengths of the collection that distinguish it from other regional galleries. 

The gift of the Carrillo and Ziyin Gantner Collection of Indigenous Art was converted from a generous offer to a properly documented legal gift over the past three years, detailing all of the works to be gifted. It is an important collection of largely remote community Indigenous art that enables SAM to contextualise the work of south-east Australian indigenous artists within a national and First-Nations context. The Collection is valued at between $4.5 and $6 million and is accessioned at around 20 works per year. In addition to the Collection, over the last six years I have worked closely with Carrillo Gantner, identifying major museum quality artworks with a significance to SAM’s collection and focus, which also extend the Gantner Gift. Examples include the Tiwi Poles, Ian Abdulla’s significant series of paintings (currently in SAM’s collection exhibition FLOW), and the most recent acquisition Freddie Timms, Ned Kelly 2002, acquired by SAM through Carrillo Gantner’s generous donation, and now part of the SAM Ltd Collection. By 2020/21, 121 artworks had been donated to SAM as part of the Gantner Collection with a value of around $850,000. 

Over the past six years, many more artists have donated significant bodies of their work to SAM, supporting the acquisition of works by these artists, and considerably strengthening the collection. In the 2015/16 financial year, one artist donated two works valued at $15,000; in 2016/17, four works were donated valued at $7,170; in 2017/18, 8 works were donated valued at $77, 250, with four major ceramics works donated by Ben Quilty; in 2018/19 44 works were donated by artists including Danie Mellor, Stephen Benwell and Debris Facility valued at $247,245; in 2019/20 35 works were donated at a value of $50,570, including works by Douglas Green donated by Charles Green, Isadora Vaughan and Stephen Bird; in 2020/21 29 work were donated valued at $281,090 including works donated by Glenn Barkley, Karen Black, Damon Moon and Milton Moon, Richard Lewer and Felicity Lwa and Tony Albert. In total, 122 artworks were donated by artists as cultural gifts over a six year period with an overall value of $678,533. In total, 588 artworks have been gifted over a six year period, with a total value of $3 million. 

Artists have donated works to Shepparton Art Museum because they want their work to be part of what is increasingly recognised as a nationally significant collection with a particular collection strength, and a museum that has become an important force in Australian contemporary art. Tax deductibility is a secondary consideration for artists. Future donations are in progress, which will be in line with the significance and value of work donated most recently, including major donations by Brook Andrew, Michael Cook, and a major indigenous commission through Agency and Melbourne Art Fair commission. A similar trend can be seen in general donations and 256 cultural gifts, over the past two years. 

There are now over 4000 artworks in the SAM Collection, with a total value over $20,000,000. In 2020-21 we completed the first ever full audit of the Council and SAM collections. This included cleaning and photographing the collection, in order to make it accessible online. At this stage, around 32% of the collection has been digitised, and around 300 works are online, increasing SAM’s digital footprint and resources. 

SAM has a number of long-term loans, including the Victorian State Ceramics Collection. These have been fully audited and reviewed with the intention that they become part of the SAM Collection. 5 

In 2021 we moved over 4,000 items to a purpose-built store in the new SAM building, with no damage, consolidating the collection for the first time. The quality of the storage was severely tested by the biggest earthquake on record in Victoria in September 2021, with only minor damage to two works in a large inherently fragile ceramics collection. 

A new building 

Over six years I have converted an approved business case for a new museum to an outstanding building that has now welcomed its first visitors. 

I was instrumental in securing $27.5 million in funding from the Commonwealth and Victorian governments towards the project. GSCC has contributed $15 million towards the completed project. I presented to numerous potential donors, successfully secured philanthropic grants, and undertook much of the spade-work with the Foundation to obtain around $7.5 million for the capital campaign. 

I was the driving force to use a rigorous process endorsed by the Australian Institute of Architects to run an architectural competition, identifying an architect and design for the new museum so that Shepparton got a design much better than the run of the mill local council building project. I developed the competition brief with Justine Clark from Parlour, a research-based advocacy organisation working to improve gender equity in architecture and recommended the jurors. The result is already heralded as one of the best buildings of John Denton, and Denton Corker Marshall, one of Australia’s finest architects. I worked closely with the architects on the detailed brief and designs to ensure that the result was a world class museum, not just another big infrastructure project. The museum is state of the art, conforming to world-class museum standards, and is genuinely fit for purpose. The design embeds one of the museum’s particular strengths, so that part of the ceramics collection is on permanent display. I worked with the architects to identify two locations in the building that permanently incorporate the work of local Aboriginal artists through Kaiela Arts. And I was actively involved in the design development processes that resulted in an outstanding commission of Spacecraft and Kaiela Arts designs that graces the furniture throughout the building. 

Social and cultural change 

I have always aimed to use arts and culture through the museum’s engagement to drive social and cultural change. 

SAM’s engagement program, incorporating education and public program activities, has expanded from being almost invisible to become a substantial presence in Shepparton education over six years. We have done this by forming partnerships with like-minded organisations and going out to bring people in. Our partnership with La Trobe University for 3 years supported SAM Edulab, an artist-led intensive four-week program that brought in over 600 students per year (total around 1200) from around 8 – 10 regional primary and secondary schools each year. Due to the pandemic, 2020’s program was taken completely online to support local families, teachers and students with 370 views of the two online workshops. This year La Trobe University Shepparton Campus continued its support of SAM’s programs, as an exhibition partner of FRESH, SAM’s new VCE Top Art & Design exhibition in the new Williamson Community Gallery, supporting the exhibition with a range of new prizes for student artwork. 6 

Over six years SAM has developed the SAM Scholars Program which supports around 25 VCE art and design students per year with an artist and educator-led mentoring program. In all, the program has supported around 100 students. Many of them have gone on to tertiary study, and some are now inaugural SAM Ambassadors. 

SAM has supported kids and families in Shepparton through a range of other focussed initiatives. In the pandemic, a generous donation allowed us to develop Art packs we sent out to families, with a particular focus on supporting Aboriginal and multi-cultural families. This year I obtained funding from the Yulgilbar Foundation to present SAM’s inaugural SAM Camp, engaging local kids through artist-led practical workshops and school holiday programs. 

In the past year we have created substantial programs to engage young people and volunteers through SAM’s Ambassadors and Volunteer programs supported by the William Buckland Foundation, an arts traineeship for young people aged 18 – 25 which will run over five years. The Ambassadors program pays participants a basic wage, and will host six ‘Ambassadors’ over a four-month period to work with the SAM team to deliver a project of their design. 60 young people will be engaged through SAM’s Ambassadors program. The program also supports training sessions for volunteers of all ages, and has recently engaged 44 new volunteers. SAM has worked with Mohammed and Sarmed Yassin, Culture and Co, with strong links with Shepparton’s multi-cultural communities and to share this opportunity to engage with SAM, advertising in the six most spoken languages in the region. 

These volunteer programs are part of much wider community outreach and audience engagement plan. Through our exhibitions, artists and programs, we have worked with the U3A and a local bird-watchers’ group; the Goulburn Valley Chinese community, culminating in a major Chinese community hot-pot event; M Pavilion to discuss the role of architecture in the creation of cultural buildings through panel discussions in Melbourne, and reciprocal invitation to Rem Koolhaas and architects to visit Shepparton and share understandings around ‘countryside’; and much more. 

I have brought the Friends of SAM back into the fold, strengthening an important relationship. The Friends are now major contributors to acquisitions, advocates for SAM, and champions of the value of arts and culture in a regional context. More importantly, they are increasingly connected to the museum. The membership is slowly including diverse ages and ethnic backgrounds, as the organisation grows to reflect the community of greater Shepparton. 

I have aimed for SAM to be a significant contributor to indigenous reconciliation both locally and nationally. Our region has a strong and proud Yorta Yorta people, and many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now call Shepparton home. We have developed our first Aboriginal Engagement Plan through a $100,000 grant from Creative Victoria and embedded Aboriginal opportunity and change across the organisation at a board and policy level, through pathways and employment opportunities, and through Indigenous focussed and inter-cultural programs and activities. 

The plan is backed by actions. We are increasing the skills of indigenous people in Shepparton. We are listening deeply and learning. I created the museum’s first indigenous curatorial position through a one-year residency funded by Creative Victoria, and secured ongoing funding for the position through a learning and engagement partnership with the University of Melbourne. I drove a successful RISE funding application to fund an indigenous traineeship program with 9 new Indigenous opportunities over a two-year period. SAM’s artist residency programs with ASHE (Academy of Sport, Health and Education) students have resulted in the students’ ceramics pieces being included in our FRESH student exhibition for the first time. 7 

The success of this indigenous engagement is demonstrated by a number of invitations for SAM staff to present ceramics workshops at Dharnya Day, Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation’s Family Day celebrating culture. 

The recent Lin Onus exhibition is perhaps the culmination of this indigenous engagement, with local indigenous communities closely engaged and strongly supportive of the exhibition, actively participating in the exhibition’s opening, and the first time that a collection of Lin Onus’ work has been shown on Country. 

Opening weekend engagement 

Part of SAM’s success was to be gauged by numbers through the door. In the first year of SAM Ltd as a stand-alone entity, the COVID pandemic significantly disrupted these plans, with quotas restricting numbers, and the public generally fearful of a return to ‘normal’ and public spaces. However, SAM’s opening weekend reflected the community’s support for and interest in the project and their desire to be a part of the event. In just two days, 1,888 people came through the doors, and 122 participated in tours and floor-talks. Building floortalks continue and are well attended with visitors coming specifically from Sydney, Melbourne and intrastate. The first week of operation saw 3000 people visit SAM, with the weekend the busiest period. Countdown videos on were each watched by more than 1,000 people on Instagram and almost 1,000 more on LinkedIn. 

Advocacy 

The success of our artistic program has helped to create opportunities to engage with the wider community and build SAM’s profile. I have regularly represented SAM and our activities as keynote speaker, and award judge, invited to write journal articles and publications. In 2019 I was invited to present the keynote lecture at the Australian Ceramics Triennial. I have also spoken regularly to local Probis and Rotary groups. I have opened and judged the many local awards and prizes in our region. 

We developed an ambitious media and communications campaign in the 6-week lead-up to the opening of new SAM. With exclusives pitched to local and national newspapers and media outlets, there were numerous national campaign highlights: 

  • The Australian Major feature article by Matthew Westood on the new building, its program, and its impact on Shepparton, informed by interviews with John Denton and Rebecca Coates published in Saturday’s edition (Saturday 13 November, 2021) 
  • The Age Architecture feature by Stephen Crafti on SAM informed by interviews with John Denton and Rebecca Coates published in Saturday’s edition, which was syndicated throughout the Fairfax online network. (Saturday 20 November, 2021) 
  • AFR Life & Leisure featured the SAM Opening and exhibition program in the Weekend Dilettante column (Saturday 20 November, 2021) 
  • ABC TV News featured the opening of SAM in a story on the reopening of Victoria on Friday night (Friday 19 November, 2021) 
  • Tiriki Onus was interviewed by David Astle on ABC Radio Melbourne Evenings about the opening of SAM and the Lin Onus exhibition (Thursday 18 November, 2021) 
  • The Saturday Paper published their profile and interview with Amrita Hepi including the opening of SAM. (Saturday 20 November, 2021) 
  • ArtsHub and The Art Guide both published in-depth online features on the opening informed by interviews with Rebecca (Friday 19 November, 2021 & Wednesday 17 November, 2021 respectively) 
  • Belle Magazine (December edition): Profile feature of Rebecca Coates for “The Office” section  

Every major newspaper and media outlet featured a major story around the opening weekend, with some covering it twice from different angles. Local coverage was also excellent: the Shepparton News featured at least one double spread article weekly, with regular front page features on the opening and key behind the scenes stories. The Advertiser, ABC Goulburn Murray, One FM and other local media outlets also covered SAM’s activities. 

Apart from Shepparton’s unfortunate brush with COVID, it is hard to think of any event in Shepparton that has been so widely and comprehensively covered across Australia. The combination of a new museum and an outstanding artistic program has genuinely engaged a broad national public in Shepparton. 

Management 

All of these achievements are the result of effectively managing the growing SAM team. The achievements were only possible because I attracted high quality staff even though SAM is a relatively small institution, is too distant for ready commuting from Melbourne for expert staff, and relatively few people in Shepparton had significant experience in visual arts management. I have attracted people to Shepparton, and have built pathways to increase the skills and expertise of people living in the Shepparton region. Staff have returned to Shepparton to take up this opportunity. Over six years I have created a senior leadership team, with much greater curatorial, public engagement, and collections expertise than when I arrived. The team has grown from 7 to 24 FTE, and now has 44 casuals and an extensive volunteers program to support the wider art museum activities. 9 

The past two years have been particularly challenging. I have (mostly) held the team together through the triple challenges of simultaneously pivoting through a global pandemic, transitioning the governance of the organisation from Council to a stand-alone not-for profit, and opening a new museum with a much larger footprint and all the issues that come with running-in a brand-new building owned and managed by a Local Council working to different timelines and priorities. 

The transition from Council to SAM Ltd has been a significant achievement. We have built standalone IT, HR, data management and Finance systems, separate from Council processes. We have written and gained Board endorsement for around 41 policies. 

Conclusion 

I would also like to acknowledge the staff of SAM whose contributions were vital to SAM’s success over the past six years, as outlined in this letter. I would particularly like to thank Kaye Thomson for her support. She was key to the new building, and without her I would not have lasted the distance. I would like to thank all of SAM’s donors and supporters, particularly Carrillo Gantner, whose interventions invariably brightened my day. I am very grateful for the support of numerous artists and my colleagues in art museums and galleries, the advocacy of the PGAV, who continue make, show and champion work that matters, despite the challenges. 

Regards, 

Rebecca Coates 

1 December 2021