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Career confessions from NGV director Tony Ellwood

National Gallery of Victoria director, Tony Ellwood, is an accomplished individual. He’s transformed Bendigo Art Gallery, Queensland Art Gallery and Queensland Gallery of Modern Art into cultural destinations. After accepting the NGV directorship in 2012, the 47-year-old ambitiously reset the gallery’s programs and diversified its offering to include contemporary blockbusters such as Melbourne Now in 2013. He’s a celebrated member of Australia’s arts industry, but even people at the top of their game must stumble on their path to success. Here, Ellwood shares some of the difficulties he’s faced in his career and how he overcame them.

1. He didn’t back himself.

I could have had more confidence. Even though I was determined, I was quite reticent. I didn’t sell myself and my achievements. Sometimes when you’re starting out you want to be liked. You don’t make the decisions that you should because you’re trying to win friends. Later you realise that you don’t need to do that. You have to do the right thing for the role at the time.

2. He was rejected. Constantly.

I remember writing about 50 letters, trying to meet people in creative industries, and getting about three replies. It’s a learning experience. You just have to believe in yourself. As other people are dropping off you can’t allow yourself to. I was a barman for years. You’ve got to do other things to help you get through. Particularly in your 20s when you can still take some risks and you don’t have other financial responsibilities. If you want it that badly, just do it.

3. No one thought he’d get a job.

Anyone that’s gone through a museum studies course has already had that indoctrination you get when you’re studying an arts degree or been told that it’s going to be tough to find a career. I felt just as determined knowing that it was going to be difficult, but within the realm of possibility. I did a couple of internships overseas, which I initiated and funded through grants that I secured. When I came back I just wanted to start working in the field. I’ve often said it would have been easier for me if I’d stayed at university a bit longer and done another degree or a PhD, but then I look back and think I wouldn’t have gone the way I went.

 

'You don’t make the decisions that you should because you’re trying to win friends. Later you realise that you don’t need to do that. You have to do the right thing for the role at the time.'

Tony Ellwood,
Director, NGV

4. He applied for jobs no one wanted.

I’d always had an interest in indigenous art and I applied for a job working as an Aboriginal art coordinator in Kununurra, east Kimberley. Candidates were being observed for three days by the indigenous board, which was unusual. They were watching us engage in the town. There was one person from every state and that made me very competitive, which you’ve got to be in our sector. I got to the point where I thought; I’m doing it for my state. Everyone was shocked that I got the job. It was so far removed from anything I’d ever experienced. People didn’t see it as something that I would be particularly good at. A lot of my friends said they wouldn’t even apply. But if you’re really determined, you’ve got to be open minded enough to go for whatever opportunity falls into your lap. So many people don’t want to leave the city that they’re from. You’ve got to broaden your view if you’ve got nothing else to offer other than what everyone else has got. That was what I did. You learn a lot about yourself in the process.

5. He got in way over his head.

Some things were hard: not knowing anything about how sophisticated indigenous culture is and having to work amongst it, being governed by an indigenous board working for an indigenous cooperative. But after two years I could go into my future career. Since then I’ve had a sense of confidence working in the indigenous field because I’ve been there and I knew who to go to if I needed advice. I’d invested the time to understand it and not be intimidated by it. It meant I wouldn’t make blanket comments because I didn’t know what I was talking about.

6. He was pushed. Hard.

If you’re going to be pushed you have to work hard. I came to the NGV and worked part time as an indigenous art curator and part time as an assistant registrar researching for a Van Gogh exhibition. I had this split personality role. I did that for a couple of years and I started to project manage all of the international blockbusters. I was lucky to have James Mollison, NGV Director at the time, who pushed and believed in staff. The only way to reward someone who does that for you is to have the work ethic and I’ve carried that all through my career. Each job has stretched me beyond what I thought I could do.

7. He had constraints that made him panic.

Bendigo Art Gallery had very small budgets, they wanted a major redevelopment, the ambition wasn’t very high, the gallery didn’t look very appealing and no one was coming to events. The only way to get through that was to think about new ways of running events and having a bigger numbers of artists that attract bigger numbers of people. I had to think strategically in a way that I’d never had to do before. That kind of panic you go through can actually be very good. If people see someone who’s absolutely adamant for an outcome, they’ll come with you.

8. Some of his exhibitions underperformed.

There are heaps of things that I’ve done where I thought, ‘oh, cringe’. There were projects and acquisitions where I thought there would have been a better outcome. Sometimes it’s just an exhibition where you think, ‘That’s not really my kind of show’. I’ve followed it from start to finish and I just imagined a different impact and spend three months just willing it on to finish. Then it does finish, and most people forget and you move on, taking what you’ve learnt in the process.

9. He took big risks.

I tried to do things differently at Queensland Art Gallery. I wanted to do international contemporary. I looked at other regions including Africa, South America and North America. When we did 21st Century: Art In The First Decade at GOMA, Brisbane, people said, ‘As if anyone’s going to take us seriously’. But I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t they? Who else is going to take such a lofty subject and give it a go? Let’s really excite our audience.’ It’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. Valentino was the show where everyone said, ‘Couture in Brisbane?’It was my job to counter the prejudice around the community that I was observing.

Enjoyed reading about Tony Ellwood’s career confession? Read more career confessions from fellow alumni like Channel 10’s newsreader Candice Wyatt or X Factor star Nathaniel Willemse

Art piece

Acknowledgements

Tony Ellwood portraits by Jay Hynes.

Above image: Ai Weiwei Chinese born 1957– Forever bicycles 2011. Installation view at Taipei Fine Arts Museum 2011. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei studio.

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