Julie McLaren began working at the Art Gallery of Ballarat in 2009. But this Western District native had travelled some ground before returning to regional Victoria. She studied at Deakin University in Geelong, where she was a member of the student council promoting the arts, and later at Australian National University in Canberra, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours).
After volunteering at several events including Canberra Fringe Festival, Julie headed overseas. Landing back in Australia, she felt her career was at a bit of a stalling point – living in Parkes, NSW, she was overqualified for the jobs on offer, even missing out on a gig at the local pub.
‘How do I get a job?’ she racked her brain, before deciding a good first step would be to walk into an employment agency. This paid off. Julie secured a short-term project at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, which then lead to a job at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.
Cataloging everything from 2,000 jars of ‘wet specimens’ (animal and human and body parts), to a Jungle Gym, designer furniture, and indigenous art was how she spent her days at the National Museum. This role provided Julie with oodles of experience, ultimately supporting her progression from a volunteer guide at Art Gallery of Ballarat to her full-time role as curator today.
But how did these hires happen, and is the highly-coveted role of ‘art curator’ really all it’s cracked up to be? Julie has the answers.
The most important verb in the get-your-dream-job lexicon is…
You’re not going to get ahead in the arts by working on projects on your own. Being a successful curator involves an openness to working collaboratively with artists, curators, designers, gallery staff, volunteers and all sorts of people.
In my experience, the more you open up to working collaboratively, the more exciting opportunities will present themselves.
I landed this job by…
I moved to Ballarat with my then husband in 2008 and said, ‘I give this town two years’. I really wasn’t keen to be here, and I planned on commuting to Melbourne to study Masters of Information Management, so I could fulfil my childhood dream of becoming a librarian.
The funny thing was that, within a couple of months of living in Ballarat, I felt right at home. The other thing that happened was that I absolutely hated what I was studying and realised that I was not destined to be a librarian after all. My childhood dreams were dashed and I needed to figure out a new plan!
While studying, I was also working in a vintage shop, working with the Ballarat International Foto Biennale, and training at the Art Gallery of Ballarat to become a Voluntary Guide. That year of getting to know the Gallery’s expansive collection as a volunteer served me well, because at the end of the year a job came up as a Registration Assistant. Because of my previous work cataloging and archiving at the National Museum of Australia and the National Film and Sound Archives, I landed the role at Art Gallery of Ballarat. I was walking my dog through Victoria Park when Gallery Registrar Anne called me to tell me, I spent a few minutes jumping up and down in excitement.
In the first month of working I was asked if I wanted to curate an exhibition, and from then on I was hooked on the process. I curated a number of exhibitions at the Gallery before I was officially given the title of Curator in 2016.
The Art Gallery of Ballarat is a place where I’ve finally met ‘my people’ and have been involved in so many great projects, exhibitions, and events.
There is always something happening in this town and I love that Ballarat is currently attracting more and more creative types who can see the benefits of living in a regional city – it’s affordable, a little bit quieter but still very connected, and people have a real openness to collaboration. I’m pretty much a walking tourism advert these days!
A typical day for me involves…
No matter how much I plan, I never know what my day is going to bring.
I usually start my day in Kittelty’s Café at the Gallery (Earl Grey tea, every time) where I respond to emails, write to-do lists, trawl the Internet for inspiration and conduct research. From there, my day can involve taking visitors on tours of the Gallery, providing access to our collection for researchers and other curators, visiting artist studios, going to exhibition openings and artist talks, reading exhibition proposals, talking on the radio or to journalists about exhibitions, and writing catalogue essays.
Although the role of Curator can appear very glamorous, it is often far from it. Working towards a big exhibition can be dirty, sweaty, exhausting work. It’s important to be willing to turn your hand to pretty much anything to get the job done because our team is so small. Putting together a huge exhibition can involve a lot of standing around and waiting for crates to be opened and spaces to be ready, so I pass the time by vacuuming, sitting on the floor of the gallery sending emails, updating spreadsheets, assisting our art installers moving works around the space, and rehearsing what I am going to say to the media about the exhibition.
There is also always a spanner thrown in the works during the installation of an exhibition, whether it be a work that was measured incorrectly and won’t fit where you want to put it, or two paintings you thought would sing together are locked in a battle of overpowering one another. Being a curator involves following your instincts and remaining flexible so you’re able to change the plan at the drop of a hat.
The most rewarding part of my job is…
… working with artists to realise their visions. This is also one of the more challenging aspects of my role as it involves an ongoing back-and-forth with the artist to work within the constraints of what we can realistically achieve. Some highlights have been Capturing Flora (2012), Romancing the skull (2017), and Into Light: French Masterworks from the Musée de la Chartreuse (2018), as well as smaller-scale exhibitions with local artists, like Wow – Look at that! with Anne Chibnall and Tim Sedgwick.
For the past 18 months, I have been working with artist Louiseann King to put together her exhibition solis, which is on until April 2019. This exhibition is being shown in spaces that have traditionally exhibited Colonial and Federation Era artworks and this is the first time a contemporary artist has been invited to show in the upstairs gallery. Featuring works from Art Gallery of Ballarat’s collection and new sculptures by Louiseann, it explores themes such as the impacts of white settlement on the landscape, the depiction of women in interior spaces and in the landscape, the passing of time, and the fleeting nature of memory.
This was a nerve-wracking experience because we have visitors that expect to see certain works displayed in certain places, and we were ultimately going in and turning that idea on its head. Louiseann and I spent a long time selecting works in the gallery’s collection, which respond to themes of her incredible sculptural installations. This is a project which has reinforced the importance of trust, honesty, and respect between artist and curator – Louiseiann and I are so proud to present it to the public.
One of the most rewarding parts of my role is interacting with visitors to the gallery. Over the past couple of years, I have enjoyed getting to know students from the Ballarat Specialist School who regularly visit the gallery. Some of the most interesting and insightful conversations I’ve had about art have been with these students. I love the way they use our exhibitions as inspiration to create their own artworks in response.
On the other hand, the most challenging aspect is…
… having a break. Like so many other people in the industry, I live and breathe the arts because I’m so passionate about it. I work with art all day, and so much of my socialising after hours involves going to exhibition openings and events, and hanging out with artists and creative people.
Of course, that’s part of what I love that about my life and my job, but living in a relatively small town can mean you never get a break from work – I can’t sneak to the supermarket without ending up having a conversation with somebody about the Gallery.
Burn-out is so common in the arts and I’m really aware that I need to change some of my habits and practice more self-care (I listen to meditation app DeStress – Andrew Johnson has an incredible Scottish accent!) in order to continue my career in this field, because I want it to be a long career!
The culture of my workplace is…
… changing. We recently had a change of director from Gordon Morrison, who had been the director for 13 years, to having Louise Tegart at the helm.
I get excited about change and I’m enjoying those taking place at the Gallery, including the way we interpret the collection, the kinds of exhibitions we show and even the little things like new wall colours. I’m thrilled that Louise and I are in-sync in terms of how we want to display the collection and the kinds of exhibitions we want to show.
Another positive thing is that I laugh every day. I feel really lucky to work with an incredible team of people who joke and also patiently listen to my terrible stories… every day. Even during periods of stress and pressure in the lead up to big exhibitions, our team stops work without fail every morning to have a cup of tea and do the newspaper quiz. We always read our horoscopes predictions on Mondays – which involves a lot of cynicism and laughter. I can’t imagine enjoying working in a team that didn’t have the incredible sense of community that we have built here.
… playing dress ups. It was my favourite pastime as a child, and remains so as an adult. I’m a pro op-shopper, vintage clothing fan, and love a good clothes swap. Some days I feel like channelling a 1960s flight hostess, and other days I’m in the mood for 1990s power dressing.
One of the joys of working in a creative environment is that I can take risks with fashion that I wouldn’t be able to in a more corporate workplace.
On Job Day at school, I dressed up as…
… a librarian. I had my own date stamp and created library cards with my sister for our ‘library’ at home for fun on weekends. But it just wasn’t my destiny to become a librarian.
As a child I absolutely loved…
… reading. I was the kind of kid who hid under the sheets with a torch to get in more reading time. In fact, I’m still that kid!
I come from a family of book lovers. My Grandfather Ian McLaren was a historian and book collector whose collection of over 34,000 books and other items is now housed at the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne. I inherited his collecting tendencies and his love of history. One day I would love to work on a project with the McLaren Collection to honour the influence he has had on my life.
The best piece of advice I’ve received is…
… we’re not saving lives.
When I get caught up in the stress of large projects it can be hard to maintain perspective. It’s important to take a step back and remind myself that while I’m doing important work, nobody is going to die if something doesn’t happen on time or to the standard I would like.
Over the years, my workplace has…
… given me huge opportunities for growth. I started at the Art Gallery of Ballarat as one of the most junior staff members and now I am involved in decisions relating to how the collection is displayed, the artists we exhibit, and the works we acquire for the collection.
There is nothing quite like the buzz of acquiring a major artwork by an artist I have admired for years, knowing that I have made a contribution to the gallery that will far outlast my time here.
In the next five years, I’d like to…
… work overseas. I can’t see myself leaving the Art Gallery of Ballarat anytime soon, but I want to arrange work placements overseas to gain experience in different cultural spaces.
To find out more about the creative movement unfolding in Ballarat, and to experience the art and culture for yourself, make sure to visit Madeofballarat.com.au.