Donna McColm completed a double major in Art History and Honours at UQ before undertaking a Master of Philosophy (Art History and Theory) with The University of Sydney some years later. She spent almost 14 years at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, where she worked in a range of public programming, education and curatorial roles, including most recently as Head of Public Programs, Children’s Art Centre & Membership. In 2014, she travelled south where she now heads up Audience Engagement at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). We chatted to Donna to find out more about what this kind of role entails, how her career choices led her to this point and to ask what advice she’d give students at the beginning of their arts careers.
Q: As Head of Audience Engagement at the National Gallery of Victoria, what kind of work fills your days and what are the necessary skills to do it well?
A: Conversation fills my days. It’s an important part of my role because audience engagement is about finding ways to connect people with creative ideas and opportunities. At the NGV, we engage visitors with art and design from all eras, and with this very wide remit we try to be as open as possible to new ways of communication.
The conversations I have are various and often shift between detailed planning and being ‘in the moment’. The Audience Engagement department consists of three distinct, but overlapping, areas that are all visitor-facing: Public Programs, Membership and Front of House. On any given day I might be working behind the scenes with colleagues on ideas relating to an exhibition a year or two in the future; analysing the visitation and take-up of programs and services for a current exhibition; sharing or seeking advice from international counterparts; or working on new business models for audience engagement. When a major new exhibition opens, I love being on the floor to see the visitor experience unfold – whether through an academic symposium or a socially-focused event – and how the Audience Engagement team works to achieve the best experience for our visitors. The Gallery’s visitation has soared to over 2.5 million visitors per year, so it’s critical that we offer something for everyone to achieve this.
The ability to collaborate with people from different areas and to see things from multiple perspectives in order to find new opportunities for the audience is critical to my job. Being open to trying things that are new and untested to create unexpected experiences for our visitors is also important, as is the ability to create sustainable funding models for audience engagement in order to create new and ambitious programs.
Q: The nature of audience engagement seems to be constantly evolving – how does this impact on the skills set required to do this kind of work?
A: It’s often been the case that visitors lead museums to new ideas rather than the reverse. Today, our audiences are pushing museums to become more personal and provide experiences that make connections with their own lives, which they can share and remember. Technology now plays a huge role in facilitating the visitor experience and encouraging important word-of-mouth sharing. Most of our audience walks through the front door holding a mobile device. The positioning of technology within the museum setting needs to be delicately balanced with the works on display. Through thoughtful planning, technology can help visitors come away having learnt or experienced something new without impinging on their intimate engagement with the artworks.
People are also looking to fulfil many different needs within the one museum setting, making it necessary to provide a seamless experience that is of consistently high quality – from the way the experience is described in marketing material or on the website, to the welcome received upon arrival, the dining options on offer, a space where their family might enjoy spending time, the retail store for that special memento of a visit, and the goodbye. To achieve all of this you have to be able to switch between thinking with a business head, a creative one and an analytic one.
Q: Many arts professionals take diverse and varied pathways in their careers. Have you always been certain about what you wanted out of your career, or did your ideas evolve over time and with experience and opportunities?
A: I have been very fortunate to work with art – a passion I have held all my life, but I have certainly not had a clear career goal. One thing that crystalised in my early years of work was the realisation that people who didn’t have a deep understanding of art could learn something about it if they were given the opportunity in a format that appealed to them. Those of us lucky enough to work in museums should make this a priority, as art can help us all to understand complex and creative ideas in fresh and new ways.
I have also had the fortune to work with incredible colleagues and mentors. Each relationship has brought something new to my understanding of the projects I have been involved in. An important lesson I have learnt is to take any opportunity that comes your way, and put up your hand to work on projects outside of your area of expertise – it’s a great way to broaden your skills.
Q: How have your studies underpinned the work you’ve done since graduating and when you look back at your time at UQ, are there any particularly memorable moments?
A: For me, it has been important to have a strong grounding in Art History and Theory to understand what we are communicating to our audiences. This has helped me with a ‘mission’ of sorts to break down the stigma that art has carried throughout its long history – art can be for everybody.
Looking back at my studies, I relish the passion that my lecturers brought to their work and shared so generously. An exciting moment was hearing from artist Robert MacPherson, in second year, speaking in front of his work on display at the UQ Art Museum, then housed in the Forgan Smith Building. Much of what Robert said went over my head, but there was something in his pared-back paintings that appealed to me. It was rewarding getting to know Robert a little more when working professionally and talking about our shared passion for the work of particular American abstract artists, which I’d focused on in my postgraduate studies.
Q: What advice would you give current students who are keen to work in similar fields to you such as audience engagement, public programs, children’s programming and membership programs?
A: My advice would be to cast a wide net, looking beyond your area of study to find ways that you can bring something unique to your work. Build a network of like-minded professionals in different fields who you can work with across different projects, even if the potential link isn’t apparent to you at the time. If you need the experience, offer to volunteer at your local museum or gallery, which I personally found critical when starting off, as this can be an invaluable way to find out your strengths and interests.
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