A Day in the Life of an Art Centre Manager - Art Collector

Will Stubbs has been manager at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka centre at Yirrkala for 15 years, before which he was a criminal lawyer. He is married to Dhalulu Ganambarr, a noted Yolngu scholar. They have an 8-year-old child. He talks to Amanda Woodard about his life as an art centre manager.

“I open the centre at 7.30am and the Yolngu staff start to arrive before 8am and the heat of the day. Today, when I came in, there was graffiti on the front steps. I alerted the children that no one would be coming into the centre until the offender(s) were presented. Later in the day, he voluntarily handed himself in and cleaned off his tag and I’ve banned him until next Monday.
“One of our artists is doing a screenprint of Essendon playing Collingwood and it needs to be ready in time for this game. We would normally print it ourselves but one of the staff had to take it to Nhulunbuy the nearby mining town to be posted in Darwin as the timeline is too tight. While she’s there, I asked her to get some acetone to clean the graffiti.

“We helped to organise a film crew who visited and provided them with the subtitles for a film called Sisters they are making linking Chinese and Aboriginal women. It’s being launched in the Australian Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo. One of our artists, Gulumbu [Yunupingu], is there as a representative of Australian women with my colleague Andrew Blake. I received an email from them saying that Gulumbu is worried about her family. So I rang them to ensure that they were being fed so I could reassure her. Then, unexpectedly, I got a visit from her daughter who five years ago had been run over and had brain damage and wasn’t expected to live. Today she brought in her first bark painting since the accident and I spent a good deal of time with her to acknowledge the personal importance to her and us of that moment. When I emailed back to Shanghai, I showed her mother the photo of the new bark painting with the caption: While the cat’s away, the mice will play.

“My work is a mixture of high-status, elite diplomacy and at the bottom level it’s about family, care and love, persistence in the face of obstacles, humdrum life and neither one is more important than the other.

“It’s wet season now so it’s time to cut the barks that we need to supply to people who are either too old or infirm to cut it themselves or for those with heavy exhibition schedules. Three of the guys on the staff indicated they wanted to go on a long trip – 120 km away where the good bark is – so they sharpened their axes and I have to provide them with money to buy lunch. They came back at 2.30pm with around 10 barks – that is a huge result – two and a half metres tall by one metre wide. It’s incredibly hot here now so in recognition of their efforts, I told them to knock off.

“Meanwhile two old ladies came in (they come in every day including Saturdays). Nyapanyapa and Barrupu Yunupingu are sisters. Nyapanyapa is a winner of the three-dimensional Telstra [National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award] prize. Barrupu just had three major works acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Today they needed bark but we’ve run out. We had some small barks that were not quite ready. So I sat them in direct sunlight for two hours and then they were ready to go. They used broken glass to scratch the top layer off before sanding them. They painted the backgrounds and then left them for me to put away. The exhibitions that we have here are for everyone to see but the reality is that this is not a limited liability society. People come here and they can ask for things and our job is to try not to say no.

“Then the police came in this afternoon, looking for one of my staff – who was out cutting bark – because he was one of the last people to have contact with a beautiful man who committed suicide on Saturday.

“At around 3.30pm, there are 35 kids here after school playing video games online, another 20 or so are watching archival movies in the 50 person theatrette. Another five are playing didgeridoo. It’s a seething tide of humanity.

“We have some visitors arriving tomorrow – gallery owners from Sydney coming to buy work, so another staff member is rehanging gallery one and vacuuming. Also we are expecting a large table to arrive for the museum so that we can better display archival photos taken. We had to move 60 memorial poles that weight 20 kg or more to accommodate the table.

“Most art centre coordinators only cope with this life for about two to three years, so it gives some idea of the level of care we get from this community that Andrew and I have been here 15 years each. We live among a lot of grief and dysfunction but the joy and kindness that I’ve been shown here I’d never experienced before and the wisdom is irreplaceable. My role is to be humble and helpful. There is a mutual responsibility, what we do can’t be done without mutual help.

“At 4.30pm I’ll say ‘log out now’ to the children and ‘see you tomorrow’. Then I go off and walk around in the water, spear some crayfish and eat them with chilli and lime. It’s wonderful.”

Published in the Guide to Indigenous Art Centres, April 2010