While that position affords her some great anecdotes, it also demonstrates the importance of capturing an organisation’s history when it comes to succession. And, perhaps more so, gives a nod to the need to celebrate those ‘scaffold roles’ that are the armature of an organisation, holding it up – and holding it together.
Having spent half of her working life working at the one-state gallery, Brookes said that most people have no idea of the intricacies of a gallery’s operation – from the top level down.
‘They walk in and just see pictures on the wall; they don’t know or understand what happens behind the scenes,’ she explained. ‘They don’t realise that most shows are two years planning.’
Brookes started her tenure at AGSA under the directorship Daniel Thomas (1984), followed by Ron Radford (1990), Christopher Menz (2005), Nick Mitzevich (2010), and most recently, Rhana Devenport (2018) – the first female director in the gallery’s 139-year history.
It is a slice of organisational history that has significantly shaped Australia’s lens on art, education and engagement by our museum sector.
‘I haven’t worked for a lot of women in my time. That was a change. Back in late 60s there were very few women in these high positions. Today two-thirds of the staff at the gallery are women,’ said Brookes.
When Brookes started at the gallery Thomas had stepped in for another Thomas – David Thomas. ‘When he left there was a bit of an uproar – a lot of factions within the institution. Daniel was sort of brought in as a moderator, a figurehead because he did have a very good reputation interstate at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Art Gallery of Australia,’ she told City Mag.
While Brookes was not Daniel’s PA she worked with Deputy Director at the time Radford on the day-to-day, who was carrying a lot of the top-level load.
What did those directors of a state gallery have in common?
Brookes said that while obvious was their love of art, there was a simple commonality – fundraising.
‘You know what they need, as much as anything else these days, is a way of getting funds into the gallery, so all these directors are really diplomats at work, whether it is government, private donors, companies, to be able to massage that side of things well,’ she explained.
‘They see so little of the inside; so much of their time is taken up by meetings outside trying to raise money. Nick used to say, and Rhana too, “at last I am doing something with art!”. The higher you go the less you seem to have to do with it,’ Brookes told ArtsHub.
She said that a lot of staff don’t see this side of the job, and that it is a key part of the directorship at this level and that you have to be ‘prepared to deal with it’.
Brookes added that the other thing in common is the paper trail. ‘They just love it; they need a minute for everything!’
When she started her career there were no computers, no fax machines. ‘I had to arrange a telex to the Premier’s office!’
Another commonality is that each played a part in how the gallery looked. Radford ‘ripped up the shag pile carpet and laid parquetry and changed the wall colours through the Elder Wing from white to red.’ Mitzevich refurbished the Elder Wing of Australian Art a year after arriving, and two years later in 2013 tackled the Melrose Wing with a radical non-chronological rehang.
Then Devenport in her first year (2018), refreshed the Elder Wing of Australian Art with what was described as another ‘radical rehang’, and five years on.
What’s the helicopter view of good leadership?
‘While all five directors were very different in their style of leadership, drive of course was what they shared,’ Brookes told ArtsHub.
She continued: ‘The ability to lead people to make a decision, and to stick with that decision they have made – even if it may be the wrong one – and make it work, that is a strong leader.’
‘Especially in a place like an art gallery – whatever decision you make someone will be upset by it – but you have to make that end decision. What I have seen over [those] directors is the ability to see that through – determination in those pathways forward,’ added Brookes.
‘They call it an efficiency dividend; deficiency is inefficiency.’ Lindsay Brookes
She said that while Radford was the most chaotic, ‘and often made a wrong decision, he was an amazing person to work’.
Brookes said it was Mitzevich however, that was the ‘real leader’ among the group of five. He was also the longest serving director of the five who Brookes worked with.
She added that while she did not have to deal with artists on a day-to-day basis, sometimes it was part of her role. While most were fantastic to deal with, she said others made you ‘feel like taking stress leave’.
She added that her greater contact was with dealers, with artworks coming into the gallery, especially with Ron who had a passion for Old Masters, and so it was a lot of dealing with overseas dealers.
In 2003, under Radford’s tenure, the Gallery purchases the most expensive single painting in its history, The coronation of the Virgin with Saints Luke, Dominic and John the Evangelist by Bartolomeo Passerotti, with funds donated by Mary Overton.
Later under Mitzevich (2013), the Gallery undertakes its largest benefaction campaign, to secure an Impressionist masterwork, Prairie à Éragny by Camille Pissarro.
While Radford is best known for his love of the traditional, it has to be remembered that he started the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art in 1990, as part of the Adelaide Festival of Arts, and the Contemporary Collectors group of benefactors is formed to raise funds to buy contemporary art in 2003.
‘Ron and Daniel were all collection driven, public programs and other activities just flowed on [as a secondary consideration]. Christopher the same. But with Nick the focus changed. It was about education and engagement, and we saw a lot more younger people in the gallery, and Tarnanthi * made a big difference. And Rhana has continued that, just getting more people with diverse backgrounds in and disadvantaged schools.’
‘Ron was so funny, he’d walk through the gallery and not say hello to anybody. People thought he was arrogant, but he didn’t want them to stop him – he didn’t have to chat,’ said Brookes.
‘The gallery was seen as a bit elitist [in those days], but it is not an elitist organisation at all,’ she added.
The moments that cause the shift in the gallery’s history
Over the three decades at AGSA, Brookes had no hesitation in saying that the greatest impact on the organisation was a funding one.
‘The biggest impact was probably when the extension [to the gallery] finally happened 1996 and, all of a sudden, we had room. The government finally funded the extensions of new offices and the temporary exhibition space.’
The size of the gallery doubled with the opening of the West Wing, and in that same year the gallery purchases the largest collection of Auguste Rodin sculptures in the Southern Hemisphere.
The gallery is again facing the pressure of restricted space for growth, and despite plans to build an annexed contemporary space (which even made it to the drawing board in 2018), the gallery seemingly faces a similar stalemate of the early 1990s.
Brookes continued that while that was a funding highpoint, ‘it’s mainly been defunding and the increasing need to go and get private funding. That has been the biggest shift. When I started the government gave the gallery a grant each year to buy works of art. That’s disappeared.’
‘They call it an efficiency dividend; deficiency is inefficiency,’ she said.
Her advice for facing the challenges was: ‘If something is difficult you just work it out until it is right,’ adding that the greatest challenge for her in the role was not workload, but rather ‘getting to understand how different people work.’
When she worked as a PA in the engineering water supply department, before taking a temping position at AGSA, Brookes said, ‘of the 30-40 men in the office they were all similar; at the gallery 30-40 people are so different. That is one of the jobs of working in the arts.’
What makes a good Executive Assistant in a creative organisation?
‘Patience,’ said Brookes, ‘and do not panic. That is what Nick always said. He liked me around because I never panicked.’
‘Like Ron losing a check for $1 million – but it was found – and another time losing his passport the day he was flying out of country. He’d been out and just said, “I got such-and-such done and by the way I lost passport”, then walked into his office and closed door. It was up to me to make it happen to get him on that plane,’ she said.
So being part travel agent, part detective and part diplomat are also woven into the job description.
‘You also have to be a good organiser – not just PA skills but you have to be able to organise a director and keep track of them. They like to go wandering’
She added with a laugh: ‘But I have to admit, I got a bit bossy towards the end, and I would just tell them how it’s done. I was there so long they just understood that must be the case.’
What’s your advice to your younger self steeping into this role?
‘Just be yourself, that is how I always survived,’ said Brookes. ‘And enjoy the job and enjoy people you work with – they keep you in a place – you can work anywhere with these skills.’
Brookes own story is advice for starting out. She found it difficult getting a job after moving from Darwin to Adelaide so started ‘temping’ for six months. ‘I was working on the Great Australian Art Exhibition, a touring bicentenary exhibition … and then that was extended by six months. I had made myself indispensable – they had to keep me.’
She said the best part – and the privilege – of the job was access to the art
‘When I started exhibition there was this exhibition from the Philips collection in Washington DC, Old Masters: New Visions, that included Renoir’s painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party. Everyone came in to see the Renoir and they’d be 12-deep just looking at it. But when the gallery was closed, and I found myself standing in front of it all alone, I thought “this is where I want to stay”’.
Brookes continued: ‘Being in the gallery you see behind the scenes and can wander through by yourself – it is a huge privilege.’
* The first TARNANTHI: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art was held in 2015 made possible by a partnership with BHP.