In Conversation with Vanessa Gerrans

Vanessa Gerrans has been the CEO of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB Inc) since 2022. With a background in directing museums and institutions, she assembled a new creative team to execute the 10th Anniversary of the Biennale. Simultaneously, Gerrans is spearheading the development of the National Centre, set to transform the former Union Bank building in central Ballarat. Previously, Gerrans served as the Director of the Warrnambool Art Gallery from 2015 to 2022. During her tenure, she revitalised the gallery’s cultural role in the region through innovative public and exhibition programs, contributing to the reimagination of the city centre. Vanessa actively engages with various communities, collaborating with the Robotics Academy to support girls in STEAM learning, advocating for the LGBTIQA+ community, and working with Elders of the Maar Nation to foster opportunities for youth, education, environment, and local economies. Before her role at WAG, she spent over a decade at the RMIT Gallery, curating diverse exhibition programs, including major retrospectives and contemporary shows.

How did you get into Galleries and ultimately the BIFB– was it by accident or design?

I thought about doing a law degree after school in Western Australia but changed my mind at the last moment to a Visual Arts degree at Curtin University followed by a Masters in Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne. Relocating eastward, I found work simultaneously to completing my degree and volunteered for a few months at RMIT Gallery, RMIT University before commencing in administration work there, gradually gaining experience in exhibitions, marketing and curating over ten years in various roles. I discovered an aptitude and love for supporting artists, practitioners and communities to create meaningful relationships and new work which allows me engage with many talented people and to contribute ideas. I find curating and orchestration to be an extremely fulfilling means of creative contribution. 

So far, what’s been the biggest challenge of your career.

On arriving into a new community, building trust is important to me. Listening and demonstrating commitment through communication and action I find leads to great positive outcomes and can seed innovation and future possibilities. Being able to adapt to community desires and trying to be a great ambassador in the amazing regional places I have worked is really rewarding. My roles have been all encompassing and it can be a challenge with a young family and moving away from partnerships and friendships I value has been hard. 

Name one person in the creative industry you’ve truly admired.

Barkandji artist Nici Cumpston OAM is a brilliant photographer and I’m thrilled that she chose to join the BIFB Board last year. I recently visited the last days of the 2023-24 Tarnanthi Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander at the Art Gallery of South Australia where Nici has been the Artistic Director since 2015. Tarnanthi is a long-running festival that has allowed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to tell important stories through a high-calibre platform and introduced us to new artists and expanded opportunities for their practice. Alongside, Nici has been exhibiting her own photographic artwork since 1998 and in that time has been invited to participate in many prestigious awards, residencies, and exhibitions with her work held in major institutions and private collections in Australia and abroad. Dedication to juggling both a personal practice and supporting and mentoring others is a great achievement. The arts industry really benefits from the insights of professional practicing artists. 

Because how could there by just one…? Maudie Palmer AO is a great inspiration for her commitment to working with communities and artists to promote the arts as a vehicle for social transformation. Deborah Hennessy will always remind me of the importance of a clear discernment process. I admire her polish and sharp insights. Deborah curated a fantastic show at WAG in 2023 called ‘Notable, Noteworthy and Known’ encouraging a fresh look at women artists who are usually under-represented in museum collections, averaging just 25% of works held.

Name three essential things someone starting out working in Galleries and running giant festivals should know from day one.

Prioritise artists and their vision. Artists and creative practitioners form the heart and soul of cultural organisations. It’s their research, talent, character, experience and expertise on offer. Listen to artists and try to be true to their vision.  

Step into the shoes of your audience. The more deeply you can get to know your visitors and potential audience — to the point where you have a fundamental understanding of their decision-making process and daily challenges — the better you can directly cater to their needs.

Embrace innovation and experimentation. Try new things and create a point of difference. This will allow you to celebrate the variety and diversity inherent in any cultural offering. Your differentiator may end up becoming the central focus of your marketing strategy and online presence. At BIFB, our partners and audiences appreciate being exposed to unique photographers and new ideas. They also like supporting a regional organisation that significantly contributes to the cultural and economic benefit for Ballarat and surrounds.

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