A Conversation with Jenepher Duncan

Excerpt of an interview between Jenepher Duncan, ACCA’s fourth Artistic Director (1991-2001) and Hannah Mathews

Conducted via email throughout November 2013.

Hannah Mathews: Jenepher could you explain your role/ involvement with ACCA and the timeframe of this?

Jenepher Duncan: I took over the ACCA directorship in February 1991 when Grazia Gunn resigned from that position. This sudden development resulted from an Affiliation Agreement brokered between Monash University and the ACCA Board, with Arts Victoria’s endorsement through its then director Tim Jacobs, which, in effect, provided for the University’s staffing of ACCA. The organisational arrangement was that I would continue to be the director of the Monash University Gallery (MUG) (now Monash University Museum of Art, MUMA) and also take on the role of ACCA’s directorship. Monash funded staffing for two other shared positions, namely the Curator and Administrator. The front of house position was the only one funded from ACCA’s operating budget component that derived from State and Federal governments. The balance of the government funding was to be directed to the delivery of its programs. I resigned from the ACCA directorship in December 2001 with the completion of the new ACCA Southbank building and a year after the conclusion of the Affiliation agreement between the two organisations.

HM: What did you understand ACCA's purpose to be? And how did it go about fulfilling this?

JD: I continued the overarching principle of the organisation’s purpose which was supporting a range of innovative art practices and ideas through exhibitions, catalogues and public programs: essentially to reframe and expand upon the concept of ACCA as a ‘laboratory of ideas’ that Grazia Gunn had nicely articulated. ACCA’s role was that of a kunsthalle, an exhibiting space that could provide innovative responses to developments in contemporary art practice and provide a platform for the creative development of artists’ practice, at least in the Australian context.  We were also committed to providing access to and understanding of contemporary art and related ideas to the broad community as well as the art community. Program planning tended to provide only a short turnaround time between exhibitions and a steady turnover of artists, exhibitions and public program events. By 1992, we were presenting some ten or twelve exhibitions a year and up to 20 public events.

In that first year 1991, we delivered largely the exhibition program that had been put in place by the outgoing director, Grazia Gunn who had planned the program around a tripartite structure of ACCA Experiments, ACCA Wallpapers and ACCA Rooms. Solo exhibitions of such artists as Stephen Bush’s Claiming show, guest curated by Naomi Cass, Aleks Danko’s What are you doing boy? and other exhibitions by Jenny Watson, Janet Burchill, Robert MacPherson, Terri Bird and Fiona MacDonald were presented during that first year, which also included the Monash/ACCA partnership survey exhibition, Off the Wall/In the Air:  A Seventies Selection, with guest curator Jennifer Phipps, the first such survey of that decade commissioned by Monash before the partnership arrangement was even thought of.                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

My own understanding of ACCA’s role within the broad arts community and the general public was shaped by the experience of living in London and picking my way through its prodigious cultural life for two years as a postgraduate student at the Courtauld Institute in the early 1980s. The broad programming reach of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, with its vigorous mix of frontline exhibitions, performances and events, its engagement also with ideas and issues beyond art, informed our approach to comprehensive programming during my time at ACCA. The importance of our public events program, with performance and sound art events, screenings, lectures, forums, talks by artists and curators, reflected our view that it was a key component of the programming package and, together with the exhibition program, shared the role of promoting and expanding ACCA’s profile and contemporary cultural relevance. We made the most of the physical context of the distinctive three-room cottage, variously using the spaces for three separate exhibitions under a compatible theme, or counterpointing the two rooms with the larger gallery extension (the Loti Smorgon Gallery) at the back of the original house or just as one exhibition across the three spaces, even expanding into the garden as we did for some events (like Domenico de Clario’s summer and winter solstice events) and a few exhibitions. But the need to get out of the constraints of those spaces and expand our frame of reference was an obvious and constant driver.

HM: Could you go into some detail as to how the relationship between ACCA and Monash was developed and how the two worked side by side with regards to funding, staffing, etc. Also provide a timeframe for this?

JD: The initiative of Monash University’s sponsorship of ACCA (which is what it really was) was influenced by the then Vice Chancellor’s belief in the fundamental role of the arts in the cultural life of Melbourne. Professor Mal Logan had been the Chairman of the Monash University Gallery Committee since 1987 and he had provided the funding support for an expanded purchasing program for the Monash University Collection. So he had form in supporting contemporary art and his expansive vision profoundly influenced the course of events. The actual idea of inviting Monash to underwrite ACCA to save it from future operational compromise was Grazia Gunn’s who read the funding tea leaves correctly. ACCA’s funding status with the Australia Council who contributed around $50,000 to its annual operation was looking uncertain and Arts Victoria’s grant was around $70,000 per annum, as I recall. In any case, such a funding level could not support a viable program and a staffing structure, even in those threadbare days of operation.

The Affiliation came about quite simply:  Professor Mal Logan walked into my office one day and proposed the idea, supported by Monash’s General Manager, Peter Wade to whom I then reported. Almost overnight, from February 1991, we found ourselves running two galleries. The compelling context of this University outreach initiative was its existing involvement at Board level in the Playbox Theatre Company, again through University’s senior management, namely the Vice Chancellor and the General Manager. From 1991, Mal Logan was the Chairman of the ACCA Board (until 1996) and Peter Wade was appointed as the Board’s Treasurer. Without the active support of these two senior University personnel, with their appreciation of the inherent value of cultural sponsorship, the whole partnership arrangement would not have happened.  Nor would it have been able to be sustained for as long as it was–much longer I think than anyone expected at the time.

Across the decade of the affiliated operation, the two teams of dedicated professional staff at ACCA and Monash, particularly the ACCA curators, Clare Williamson, Stuart Koop and Juliana Engberg, along with Monash’s Zara Stanhope, all made invaluable contributions to ACCA’s various successes culminating in the relocation to its current venue.

HM: What was ACCA's relationship and role within the local, national and international arts communities?     

ACCA always had an international component in its programming but it expanded substantially during the decade 1991 to 2001. We increasingly set up or participated in various important international partnerships with artists, curators and galleries in Glasgow, London, Birmingham, Osaka, Belgium, Indonesia, New York, Paris, Caracas and Rome.

By 1999, the ACCA International program included Close Quarters –Contemporary Art from Australia and New Zealand a collaborative exhibition by the then ACCA curator, Clare Williamson and the MUMA curator, Zara Stanhope, which from 1998 toured nationally and to New Zealand; Morning Star Evening Star, a series of art projects between ACCA, CCP, 200 Gertrude Street and Heide Museum of Modern Art in 1998 that showed eight Australian artists in Scotland called the Melbourne, Glasgow, Edinburgh Cultural Exchange; and Stuart Koop’s Facsimile show for LAC Gallery, Caracas, Venezuela was part of this program.

There were periodically some national tours of ACCA shows, such as Juliana Engberg’s Location which toured under the auspices of Asialink in 1993 and The New Republics curated by Clare Williamson with Edward Ward and Sunil Gupta, which toured nationally in 2000. Amongst her various contributions, Clare brought a multicultural perspective to the programming, for instance organising a mini-symposium of Asia Pacific Triennial artists in 1993 and curating Above and Beyond:  The Asian Connection in 1996. Stuart Koop then brought in his experience of Indonesian contemporary art through an Asialink residency with AWAS! Recent art from Indonesia, one of a number of international artists’ exhibitions and events he organised with various overseas venues that broadened ACCA’s frame of reference in its programs.

We included numerous distinguished international speakers in our public events program from

Thomas Sokolowski, Thomas Crow, Paul Groot, Nicholas Baume, Ihab Hassan, Fumio Nanjo and Andrew Renton to John Giorno and Bernard Heidsieck. Contemporary film showing and discussion were included in our program and included Adrian Martin, Peter Watkins, John Flaus, Harold Boihem, John Hughes, Johan Grimonprez, Philip Brophy and the experimental Chilean filmmaker, Raul Ruiz, due to Juan Davila’s good offices. We made the most of opportunities offered by international visitors to the Sydney Biennales and the Asia Pacific Triennials, such as Border Art Workshop, Louise Dompiere, Lynne Cooke, Rene Block, Susan Hillier, the Guerilla Girls and Glenn Ligon or touring academics like Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Geoffrey Batchen, David Joselit, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Laleen Jaymanne, Geert Lovink and Paul Wood.

We worked with various festivals including the Melbourne and Sydney International Arts Festivals, the Melbourne International Biennial 1999, the Next Wave, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, as well as with the Australian Sculpture Triennial, Asialink, Experimenta, d’lux media arts, and memorably with Budinski’s Theatre of Exile in 1996 for its performance about one woman’s war camp experience during the Bosnian war (1992-1995) organised with its co-founder Tahir Cambis who had returned from that war zone. This moving event was presented in conjunction with Dennis Del Favero’s photographic installation, Motel Vilinia Vlas.

ACCA set up or participated in many partnerships with other Australian contemporary galleries, both in Melbourne and interstate to deliver exhibitions and events. In addition, the ACCA program drew on both Australian and international guest curators to expand the critical interpretative range, including Carolyn Barnes, Naomi Cass, Natalie King, Judy Annear, Robert Owen, John Meade, Jennifer Phipps, Charles Merewether, Claire Doherty, Ben Curnow, Kevin Murray, Damon Moon, Dooley Le Cappellaine, Edward Ward, Sunil Gupta, Lisa Young and Nicholas Zurbrugg. 

The Gordon Darling Foundation Seminars 1995 organised by independent curator Denise Robinson considered Critical media:  Perspectives on New Technologies, part of our engagement with new media then including computer intervention art in 1994 with three installations. International authorities speaking on performance, sound and video art, as well as computer animation art and digital art and an exhibition of interactive computer art Technophobia were included in our programs during the 1990s, as well as the British sound artist then using phone hacking, Scanner (AKA Robin Rimbaud), in our 2000 program. The 2001 Red:01 publication (a collection of images, texts and sounds), edited by Stuart Koop and Vikki McInnes, provided a comprehensive account of new ideas and new art in Melbourne and again extended ACCA’s advocacy leadership role in the art community.

HM: What were the most pressing challenges ACCA faced in your time?

JD: The principal challenge, at least for me, was working in collaboration with the Playbox Theatre directorship, Jill Smith and Aubrey Mellor, to plan and achieve the development of the site adjacent to the Malthouse Playbox Southbank building from 1996 onwards. Without the Playbox Theatre’s involvement, it may not have been possible to realise ACCA’s development project. In 1997, the Victorian Government adopted a modified version of the Southbank precinct concept (new premises for ACCA, a storage/rehearsal space for Playbox) with the addition of a rehearsal space for Chunky Move, the renowned contemporary dance company, to be included in the development of the site. Chunky Move’s specific requirements, like a sprung floor, impacted on the subsequent funding available for the ACCA building, but its presence enhanced the new cultural precinct’s contemporary arts status and in 1999 we collaborated to present a project involving artist and performers at Revolver.

A limited design competition was held to select an architect for the project and in 1998, Melbourne architects Wood Marsh with PINK were appointed for the development of the site. The State Government funded the three part project with $6.4, plus $1.6 million for site remediation and the Sidney Myer Centenary Foundation, Monash University and the Besen Foundation also contributed to the project taking available funds to $9.025 million. The planning process, from initial design to realisation, took four years from 1998 until 2001 with much grinding down of the building to the budget realities which Wood Marsh took with endless good grace, still producing a classic modernist sculptural form true to its original kunsthalle conceptual model and aspirations.

HM: What were its greatest successes?

JD: For me, it was the relocation of ACCA from a cottage in South Yarra to an appropriate purpose-built building in Southbank as part of the city’s contemporary arts precinct. This was my overarching purpose in working between two galleries for eleven years in order 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. As a measure of the growing confidence in the organisation, both federal and state government funding increased substantially along with our subscriber base during the decade.

ACCA had being trying to upgrade its building or relocate to another site from 1992. We started looking for an extended space on its South Yarra premises with a compelling concept design by Allan Powell which ran into the restrictions around the Melbourne City Council’s historically registered gardeners sheds. We then looked at other sites including the Flinders Street ballroom site, a historical Spencer Street railways building and a Docklands shed, amongst other possibilities, all without success.  Professor Leon Van Schaik, then Dean, Faculty of Architecture and Design at RMIT University was brought on to the Board in 1992 to assist with these building aspirations and both he and Allan Powell, a Board member from 1996, provided architectural advice throughout the process of finding an alternative location.

The other notable success was the decade-long partnership between Monash University and ACCA.  Monash, through its provision of the majority of ACCA staffing positions, provided the platform from which ACCA could consolidate and develop a viable future. It then donated $500,000 towards ACCA’s  new building development–not widely known. There were other beneficial features to the partnership.  Monash academics appointed to the ACCA Board included Dr John Welchman from Monash’s Visual Arts department, Professors Elizabeth Grosz and Andrew Milner, renowned cultural theorists, and Professor Fazal Rizvi, an international relations expert from the Faculty of Education, who all contributed to the public program through their academic affiliations.  John Welchman from the University of California, was particularly instrumental in attracting international artists and academics to the ACCA public programs. International speakers such as Orshi Drozdik, Sara Diamond and Dominique Blain, Celeste Olalquiaga amongst others, participated in ACCA’s public program in those first few years thanks to John Welchman’s international network. Although not an ACCA Board member, Dr Anne Marsh also from Monash’s Visual Arts department, contributed to a number of public events in forums and lectures over the years. In the spirit of non-partisanship, the ACCA Board, while chaired by a member of the Monash executive, appointed other academic institutional representatives including artists from the Universities of Melbourne, Victoria, RMIT and Swinburne and the Victorian College of the Arts.

There were also notable projects by established Australian artists, like Peter Kennedy, Ken Unsworth and Peter Tyndall (as part of my Death and the Body series), as well as Julie Rrap and Adam Cullen, all of whom were able to present new work in the context of their ongoing practice. ACCA premiered Tracey Moffat’s Up in the Sky and Heaven works which had first been exhibited at the DIA Center in New York. Younger artists such as Kathy Temin, Constanze Zikos, Mikala Dwyer, Lisa E Young, Sally Mannall, Mark Galea, Janeene Eaton and Carolyn Eskdale had the opportunity to present major new work as part of our program. ACCA’s first curator under the affiliation in 1991, Juliana Engberg, contributed substantially to the 1992/93 program with such artists as Geoff Lowe and Mathew Jones as well as her Esensual Fragments series with Kate Reeves, Neil Emmerson, Jane Trengrove, Pat Hoffie. The first urban Indigenous exhibition Blakness: Blak City Culture was co-curated for ACCA in 1994 by Clare Williamson and Hetti Perkins, then a year later, Clare organised a group exhibition of contemporary Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, Seven Histories of Australia. Stuart Koop, the last ACCA South Yarra curator, set up projects with Australian artists like Derek Kreckler, Pat Brassington, Louise Paramor, Marco Fusinato, David Noonan, James Angus, Philip Samartzis, Philip Brophy, Danius Kesminas and Mike Stevenson and took ACCA offsite with his poster project for hoardings on Federation Square, Bill Posters will not be prosecuted in 1999, which reflected his interest in everyday temporary exchanges, developed with his 2000 group exhibition, Rent.

ACCA worked across that decade through its mutual relationships with artists and curators –local, Australian and international.  Engaging closely with professional artists and other practitioners towards a common purpose to produce creative projects, whether exhibitions, catalogues, performances, lectures, was always a source of inspiration and affirmation for us.

HM: Is there a certain ACCA event, exhibition, personality that stands out in your mind?

JD: For me, it was the planning and delivery of Bill Viola’s The Messenger (1996) in the old Melbourne Gaol Chapel of RMIT University, as part of the 1998 Melbourne International Arts Festival whose Visual Arts Manager was Maudie Palmer. I had seen Bill Viola’s work in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1995 and initially thought of The Greeting for Melbourne. In pursuit of a suitable Viola work, I visited the artist’s residence in San Diego, to prove our bona fides to Kira Perov, Viola’s partner/studio manager, a personal contact made through her professional association with Lyndal Jones, a previous ACCA Board member. As a result, in partnership with the Fruitmarket Gallery in Glasgow, ACCA brought The Messenger to Melbourne, after which it went on to tour to the following Sydney Festival and later the Perth International Arts Festival. This was the first major video installation presentation of Viola’s work in Australia and, true to its original commissioning for Durham Cathedral, the old Gaol Chapel was ideal. Viola came to Melbourne for its launch and delivered an extended lecture about his practice in RMIT’s new Storey Hall auditorium, with a capacity audience of 750. We used this same offsite venue in partnership with RMIT to present The Guerilla Girls (1999).

There were two memorial events organised and held at ACCA that have stayed with me: the first was in 1992 for the contemporary visual arts writer, critic and founding editor of Art + Text, Paul Taylor, and then in 1994 for the distinguished Australian conceptual artist, Ian Burn. Both events, with their various contributors, provided poignant reminders of their untimely loss and marked their respective outstanding contributions to the Australian and international art communities.

HM: What do you hope for the future of ACCA?

JD: The present executive has no doubt the capacity and vision to sustain and advance ACCA’s presence into the future within the changing cultural environment it now faces. It would seem to be a priority to maintain and develop ACCA’s grass roots connections, its creative collaborations and its critical edge in the contemporary art arena with a programming focus that has multiple platforms and responds fluidly to the complex and shifting global context of contemporary cultural discourse and art practice.

HM: How would you sum up ACCA on its 30th birthday?

JD: As a key contributor to the cultural life of Melbourne and beyond, through its commissioning and presentation of a range of contemporary art practices and events, by both Australian and international artists, along with its propagation of current ideas around the art of our time.