‘BITTERSWEET’ was the word Bendigo Art Gallery director Karen Quinlan used as news of her departure started to filter through the community she had called home for more than 20 years.
She might have been in Canberra for the announcement of her appointment as director of the National Portrait Gallery of Australia, but her phone was running hot with calls and messages of support from people in central Victoria.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Ms Quinlan said.
If anything, she said the change in leadership at Bendigo Art Gallery was probably overdue.
“I came to Bendigo for one year,” Ms Quinlan said.
Her work at the City of Greater Bendigo was extended for three years after joining the organisation in 1996.
In 2000, Ms Quinlan became the Bendigo Art Gallery’s first female director.
After 18 years in the role, she believed she was also its longest serving director.
“It’s been a big part of my life,” Ms Quinlan said of Bendigo and its gallery.
“When you decide to leave an organisation you love it’s difficult.”
But she said it was time for a change.
“A change of director is healthy,” Ms Quinlan said.
She was comforted by the knowledge she was leaving the organisation in a good place, and was confident of the gallery’s future.
“We are all replaceable,” she said.
Ms Quinlan said there was a wealth of talent in the sector for the city to draw upon during recruitment for a new director.
“It will be competitive and highly sought after and I’m sure Bendigo knows what it wants,” she said.
She said the city was looking for a visionary person to lead the gallery through the next stage of its life.
Visionary is certainly a word that’s been used to describe Ms Quinlan.
Fairfax Media dubbed the Bendigo Art Gallery director the mastermind of ‘the Bendigo Effect’, an acknowledgement of the gallery’s influence in drawing people – and business – to the regional city.
The gallery has earned itself a reputation for blockbuster exhibitions, particularly with shows such as Grace Kelly: Style Icon and and Bendigo Art Gallery and Twentieth Century Fox present Marilyn Monroe.
However, Ms Quinlan said only about five or six of the more than 350 exhibitions that had occurred during her time at the gallery were focused on the fashion realm.
“They happen to be the exhibitions that attract big audiences,” she said.
“It’s important to experiment.”
She said she had been curious to learn what would happen if the gallery explored mediums not traditionally explored in a space like the one it had.
The blockbuster exhibitions made the gallery more accessible and appealing to a broader audience and encouraged repeat visitation.
By offering a diverse program year after year, Ms Quinlan said people were motivated to come back to the gallery.
Developing the city’s art collection was also one of her responsibilities during her time at the gallery, and part of what she said would be her legacy.
The Bendigo Art Gallery prides itself on being one of regional Australia’s oldest and largest galleries.
Its collection spans from 19th century European and Australian art to the contemporary.
Ms Quinlan has been the director of both the Bendigo Art Gallery and the La Trobe Art Institute since January 2016 – a role she had hoped would strengthen the relationship between the gallery and the tertiary sector.
“It’s been an incredible experience for me,” she said.
But it’s a role she won’t be able to maintain when she moves to Canberra.
“Letting go of that is bittersweet,” Ms Quinlan said.
La Trobe Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar said the enduring partnerships Ms Quinlan had forged with leading arts institutions nationally and internationally would continue to benefit La Trobe students and communities in years to come.
“I am delighted that Karen Quinlan’s extraordinary leadership in the arts has been recognised with this appointment to lead one of Australia’s most important art institutions,” Professor Dewar said.
In addition to her roles in Bendigo, Ms Quinlan sits on the boards of the Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, the National Gallery of Victoria, and the State Library of Victoria.
She is a former chair of the Public Galleries Association of Victoria and previously sat on the board of the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival.
Ms Quinlan was the curatorial assistant at the National Gallery of Victoria in the earlier stages of her career.
“There’s enormous potential in a career in the arts,” she said.
She was hopeful people learning arts could look around the country and be inspired and be confident about what they did.
Ms Quinlan said her hopes extended to women in leadership, who she said were appointed to more and more senior positions in the sector.
“It’s not about gender in many ways,” she said.
But she said it was important that women’s skills and expertise were demonstrated and recognised, and that women and girls were encouraged to take on leadership opportunities.
Ms Quinlan finishes her role in Bendigo in late November and takes up her new position in Canberra on December 10.
Bendigo is where Ms Quinlan had her children.
“It’s a big move for the whole family,” she said.
She said she would return to the region to visit her friends, and the gallery.
“Bendigo is in a really good place,” Ms Quinlan said.
“It’s so well positioned for the future.”
As for her future: “Life is a journey. It’s a cliche, but it’s true,” Ms Quinlan said.
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