As she talks about a plan she has been hatching for a new exhibition, Bendigo Art Gallery director Karen Quinlan adds a footnote. "When I do it – and I will."
Don't doubt it: Quinlan, always ruminating on a new idea, has a reputation for action. Visitors to the city are pleased about that, because she has put the regional gallery on the national map, turning it into a huge drawcard, financially and culturally. Residents and businesses are thrilled at her being such a dependable character.
Along with the phenomenal impact of David Walsh's MONA in Hobart, Quinlan has proved that art and culture can be very big-ticket items – something her local councillors are on to, but an opportunity politicians elsewhere might capitalise on rather than making arts cuts.
If only they could have a lightbulb moment looking at the effects of what the Quinlan powerhouse has brought into the country: most recently, the big-selling Marilyn Monroe show, preceded by lucrative and popular exhibitions such as Grace Kelly: Style Icon (2012), The White Wedding Dress (2011), The Golden Age of Couture (2009) and, in one year alone (2014) big shows from LA's Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, London's Royal Academy and the British Museum.
Quinlan didn't deliberately set out to re-write the term "blockbuster" – a word she avoids as being too presumptuous. Yet she has graced such events with elegance and style, such is her dedication to seeing fashion, in particular, as an important part of the visual arts world. It's brought in new and broader audiences.
"Galleries have to think outside their inherited remit from the 19th century," Quinlan says. "You have to have a strong education program and public programming; you have to have cafes and a retail outlet." And exhibitions, of course, that excite a cross-section of people – her big shows have attracted a broad demographic from across the country.
You can see the effects just strolling around Bendigo, where businesses large and small have done their bit for Marilyn. Whether they are directly connected to the exhibition or not, they've worked the international icon into their businesses in window displays, menus and paraphernalia for sale.
But the big hit has been the giant Marilyn statue with her skirt blowing up over Pall Mall near the city's fountain, just down from the gallery and Rosalind Park, and a stone's throw from the mall, post office and town hall. Like a magnet, it pulls in the hordes for a photo opp and a gaze upwards.
Such is Quinlan's influence since she became director in 2000, she is now widely referred to as having masterminded "the Bendigo effect", the envy of other big regional cities in Australia, whose cultural leaders find themselves under pressure to "do a Bendigo" – not always welcome when they are trying, first and foremost, to get their local audiences engaged.
Quinlan, though, says she has never had a particular strategy – "the Bendigo effect" is simply a handle people use to describe the results of her following her instincts about what would be a good show. It's worked, possibly because she is a direct and affable person who asks the right questions – such as (to directors of eminent museums) "How about sending your best work to Bendigo?"
One of the flow-on effects has been a boon to hospitality, and Bendigo's Dispensary, operating since 2009, is both a drawcard in its own right, and a beneficiary of Quinlan's vision. So it is appropriate that the large suite of small dishes we order to share are artfully designed: the deep pink of yellowfin tuna with soy, mirin and avocado; the golden crunch of southern-style fried quail and pickled bean shoots; the luscious simplicity of scallops with ginger and spring onions, and the abiding warmth of a zingy chargrilled beef with daikon, saltbush and gochujang (a fermented Korean chilli paste). They are gorgeous to look at and even better to eat.
Given her busyness, it is good to see Quinlan relax for lunch, this woman who says her most active time of day is in the morning. That, she says, is when all the good ideas come to her. "That is when my brain is really alive; that is when it happens." This might happen before a run, if she can fit it in; before getting her two children to school; before getting to work and meeting with her small but talented team of curators.
Then there are the boards she enthusiastically serves on – the Melbourne Fashion Festival, the Public Galleries Association and the State Library of Victoria. As well as her day job as Bendigo Art Gallery director, there is her new big role as director and professor of practice for the La Trobe University Art Institute. This job – which includes overseeing all art-related activities across the university's multiple campuses and two galleries in Bendigo and Bundoora – brings with it that task of developing an arts strategy for the university. It includes, too, curating an exhibition and national tour of work drawn from the La Trobe art collection to mark the university's coming 50th anniversary of students commencing at the Bundoora campus.
"My work at La Trobe is a logical move for me, professionally and personally," she says. "It is all about strengthening relationships in the region and being an advocate for the arts."
Part of her brief is to assess the impact of the arts in communities, and she says while it is relatively straightforward to examine economic impacts, it gets tricky with the social and cultural effects. "That is very hard to monitor and articulate." The giant Marilyn sculpture, for example, has clearly had a big impact, with huddles of visitors and locals regularly gathered around it and taking selfies with Marilyn in the background.
"In really simple terms, you drive past a piece of public art that is making people happy and when people are in front of the sculpture their first impulse is to take the phone out and take a photo – and then take a photo of someone else in front of it," Quinlan says. "They are having a happy experience. That is important and has created a great new public space but it is a moment we need to really think about. What do we do with it? We've got something. But what we don't want [with other work] is public art that has no impact."
With all her roles, Quinlan is wise about conserving energy: she usually does not work in the evenings, prioritises family time, and loves to enter a zone of quiet contemplation when she can (such as when she needs to drive to Melbourne). She walks or gardens, too, to ease the active brain.
And, today, she savours some haute cuisine, just as she enjoys haute couture. Quinlan's interest in fashion was always there – she started her working life as a dressmaker, then moved to the National Gallery of Victoria's fashion and textiles department, and eventually to Bendigo as a curator, then director – and it has manifested strongly in her inspirations for exhibitions. "But we ensure we have a good cross section of exhibitions and not be known just as a 'dress' gallery. That said, fashion seems to attract the most attention… it is numbers through the door."
Surrounding those glitzier shows, though, are quieter exhibitions that speak to different aspirations. One was a 1997 show that introduced visitors to Agnes Goodsir, a painter from the 1920s, who was largely forgotten after she died in 1939 in Paris, where she made her brilliant career.
Goodsir's Girl with Cigarette (1925) is Quinlan's favourite painting in the gallery's collection and she has spent much time sleuthing around to find out more about Goodsir, but little remains to be found.
"If I ever leave this job, I am going to be very sad to say goodbye to it. Whenever we put it out on exhibition, I get excited. But there is hardly any information around her. She is a curator's dream."