After 23 years as director the Bendigo Art Gallery, Karen Quinlan finds it hard to narrow down her and the gallery’s biggest achievements.
Whether securing shows from the Royal Academy and the British Museum, to exhibiting collections based around high-profile icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly, Ms Quinlan has played a leading role in bringing a long list of outstanding shows to Bendigo.
Her latest, the restoration of an Allan Ramsay portrait of King George III, was unveiled on Monday ahead of next year’s Tudors to Windsors exhibition.
“It’s a great way to finish 23 years in this gallery,” she said. “To finish with this restoration is a significant achievement for the staff and community.
“It's an important painting. It feels really good to have actually worked through the (gallery’s) collection and conserved so many works.”
Ms Quinlan, who will start at the National Portrait Gallery of Australia in Canberra on December 10, said she felt the Bendigo Art Gallery ticked a lot of boxes in positive ways.
“There's too many things that have happened (over the 23 years) I can't sum it up,” she said.
“Securing Tudors is a massive achievement for the gallery, certainly there's been Marilyn and Grace Kelly and lots of exhibitions that we curated ourselves in house.
“There have also been significant loans from around the country, we have worked with local artists and worked with the Indigenous community.
“The gallery has achieved so much and I feel the legacy is good and strong. There's a lot to build on.”
Bendigo’s reputation for arts and culture grew substantially under Ms Quinlan’s directorship.
“The turning point was when I realised that international exhibitions worked for Bendigo and this community,” she said.
“It was probably in the mid 2000s. I'd say 2008-09 when we brought The Golden Age of Couture exhibition (to Bendigo), that's really when we turned a corner.”
Since then, major exhibitions have visited Bendigo almost every year – drawing significant crowds to the city.
“It's a great economic impact (for the gallery and the community), it's also a great social and cultural impact,” Ms Quinlan said.
Tansy Curtin, who started as a gallery curator in 2006 and is now curatorial manager, said Ms Quinlan would leave behind a wonderful legacy.
“One of the most important things Karen has done is to not shy away from taking risks,” Ms Curtin said.
“She started making international connections and collaborations at a time when other regional galleries were not.
“Beginning with smaller international photography exhibitions from the mid-2000s to, of course, the defining moment of The Golden Age of Couture – our first collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum.
“Despite being a small team here at the gallery, Karen has never questioned our capacity to deliver major international exhibitions.”
Quinlan and her team’s capacity to deliver impressive international exhibitions was something Bernie O’Sullivan was amazed by when he took on the City of Greater Bendigo director of strategy and growth role in 2016.
“I was very across the amazing reputation that the gallery had developed under Karen's leadership,” he said.
“It was exciting to be able to work with Karen. She led from the top and has been bold and thought differently.
“She thinks big and one of her credits is that she has built a strong team underneath her, which has put the gallery in a great position from a state, national and international standing.
“Karen is leaving having developed a strong team of curators who will carry forward her work.”
Mr O’Sullivan said the exclusivity of the exhibitions Bendigo Art Gallery secured under Ms Quinlan was outstanding.
“(Exhibitions) like Grace Kelly or Marilyn didn’t happen anywhere else in Australia,” he said.
“One of Karen’s great abilities was in creating strong networks and being very credible in her sector, both in Australia and overseas.
“Some amazing exhibitions that only occurred in Bendigo also involved significant partnership with institutions that don’t regularly lend out artwork.
“We all have a different perception what great art is or isn’t, but Karen has a great track record of being able to work with a range of (people) to pull off inspired, thought provoking exhibitions that challenged how we think about the world.”
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