Rewind: Jenepher Duncan – a directorship of partnership, vision and growth

publication cover, Red: Techno Culture Sonic Occupancy, 2001. Edited by Stuart Koop Gallery and Vikki McInnes. Courtesy the ACCA Archive

In January 1991 Jenepher Duncan, then director of the Monash University Gallery in Melbourne, took up the position as ACCA’s fourth director. Simultaneously directing two galleries, Duncan’s position reflected an unusual but significant agreement brokered between the ACCA Board and Monash University to ensure the ongoing staffing of ACCA during difficult financial times.

Duncan’s decade long leadership of ACCA was characterized by her interest in art’s shifting relationship to the contemporary world. Her programs encompassed a broad section of platforms and participants, and consolidated ACCA’s position as a major player in the cultural conversations of Melbourne and Australia. Most significantly Duncan played a key role in ACCA’s relocation from its humble beginnings in The Domain gardener’s cottage to its award-winning, current Southbank location. The gallery officially opened in its new premises in 2003.

As director of ACCA, Duncan consciously reframed and expanded upon Grazia Gunn’s concept of ACCA as a ‘laboratory of ideas’ to devise a wide reaching program that reflected contemporary artistic practice and engaged with ideas and issues beyond art. In a recent interview Duncan cites London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, “with its vigorous mix of frontline exhibitions, performances and events”, as a key influence on her approach to programming decisions.

During the 1990s ACCA worked in partnership with other Australian contemporary galleries and festivals (both in Melbourne and interstate) to deliver exhibitions and events. It also invited both Australian and international guest curators to present exhibitions that expanded the program’s critical interpretative range. As part of her vision for promoting and expanding ACCA’s profile and contemporary cultural relevance, Duncan grew the organisation’s public events program with regular performance and sound art events, screenings, lectures, forums, and talks by artists and curators.

Bill Viola, The Messenger (still) 1996. Exhibited in Melbourne in 1998. Courtesy the artist and The ACCA Archive

In 1992 the process of upsizing and relocating ACCA began. Along with various individuals from the ACCA Board, Monash University, Playbox Theatre (and others), Duncan navigated a long path through various location and architectural possibilities for the gallery. In 1997 the Victorian government adopted a plan for a contemporary arts precinct in Southbank comprising ACCA, along with the Malthouse Theatre and Chunky Move dance company. The planning process took place from 1998-2001 culminating with Melbourne architects Wood Marsh realizing an award-winning, purpose-built building at 111 Sturt Street in Southbank. According to Duncan: “This was my prime purpose in working between two galleries for eleven years … to maintain ACCA’s stable funding base from Monash, without which the development of ACCA, in my opinion, may have been out of our reach”.

In addition to the important role she has played in ACCA’s history, Duncan has curated some 50 exhibitions and is recognized as having shaped the contemporary art collections of Monash University and the Art Gallery of Western Australia, where she has held the role of Curator of Contemporary Australian Art since 2004. In this role she has curated a number of notable exhibitions, including Wall power (2005), Ricky Swallow: THE PAST SURE IS TENSE (2006), Remix: WA contemporary art (2011) and IMPACT: new contemporary works from the State Art Collection (2014). Duncan is a graduate of Monash University and the University of London and has contributed to many catalogue publications. In 2003 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Museums Australia (Victoria) and in 2006 an Honorary Doctorate from Monash University.