Swimming against the current of this year’s surprises, Arts Project Australia hasn’t stalled with audiences enjoying a refreshed program of weekly online exhibitions, articles and videos. But what about the artists who are the bedrock of Arts Project Australia? It should come as no surprise that they haven’t been caught in limbo either, and have continued creating behind the scenes.
The studio is usually a hive of activity with over 150 artists attending over a six-day schedule, from those who have joined in recent years to some whose career at the studio spans decades. For studio manager James McDonald, it was imperative to maintain Arts Project Australia studio’s energy despite the permeating uncertainty.
In this interview, McDonald speaks on how he ensured the artists had the support to continue their practices by transitioning to a remote online studio program. Reflecting on the whirlwind of 2020, he celebrates the seamless character and strong values of Arts Project Australia.
When the first lockdown rolled out across Victoria in March, Arts Project Australia had to respond quickly in the best interests of the studio artists. From your position as studio manager at Arts Project Australia, what was this period like for you?
When the decision was made to close the studio my initial reaction was disbelief. Up until that point, COVID-19 was something we’d been watching on the news from a safe distance.
We had been putting posters up in the studio with good hygiene protocols and putting other plans in place but not thinking that it would affect us any time soon. And then, whack! There it was, right in front of us.
I was fortunate to be part of a team whose first response centred around the artists’ wellbeing. We strategically thought about the effect the close down would have on them, even though early on there was uncertainty throughout the organisation about our immediate future.
Instead of sheltering in place and bidding farewell until a sunnier day, the studio almost immediately launched the Satellite Arts program. Over the last six months, many artists have continued their regular studio practice over Zoom in the company of other studio artists and staff artists. What have been the logistics and reception to this remote program?
The Satellite Arts program has been such a fantastic way to keep everyone connected, both socially and creatively, while in lockdown. The numbers of participants have steadily grown to over 90 artists. This growth is a testament not only to a commitment to practice by the artists but also their support of Arts Project as a place that’s important to them, and in many cases is the most enjoyable and rewarding part of their week.
The studio sessions are conducted on Zoom with all our programs are available to the artists, including ceramics, digital and printmaking. The staff artists have worked hard to engage the artists in creative activity that is pertinent to their interests, while also encouraging the artists to bring their own ideas and themes to the sessions, utilising the interactive capabilities of the Zoom platform.
Once we got the Satellite Arts program up and running, it was important the artists had access to art materials. Some staff artists and I have delivered these materials to artists, which has been vital to the success of the program. This service has helped the artists get the high-quality materials and equipment they need to create their work. This quality and support upholds Arts Project Australia’s values. Using Arts Project art materials also means there’s a familiarity with the media, which has been helpful to the artists at a time when so many things are different.
There have been some lovely moments, especially when we were delivering to the artists doorsteps very early on. On several occasions, the supplies would arrive while the artist was on a Zoom session which meant a lot of laughter and merriment as they unwrapped their supplies in front of their friends and colleagues.
Moments like these of human contact and shared experiences seem so vital in this COVID world. Although they’re only small connections they can help us get through these tough times.
What have been some challenges, surprises and joys over the last six months?
As hard as it has been for everybody over that last few months, we’ve also shown our resilience and adaptability across the whole of Arts Project Australia. As always, the staff artists have risen to the challenge and are doing an excellent job keeping the artists connected and engaged. For some of our artists, the remote program has offered fresh perspectives and a more comfortable way to connect. For others, due to the parameters dictated by the remote program, it’s been an opportunity to try something different creatively. I’ve particularly enjoyed seeing artists who I would never have dreamed would be interested in engaging on a remote platform, getting online and actively participating.
After so many years of involvement with Arts Project, the artists continue to surprise and delight.
What are your hopes for the remainder of 2020?
My main hope is we all come out of this safely. As much as remote working has involved some extraordinary moments, I hope we can all be together onsite again. There’s something very special about the Arts Project studio, and I know that the staff and artists are missing it.