T Projects Curator Olivia Poloni talks to Madeleine McClelland, who leads the arts & culture team at City of Melton. T Projects have been working Madeleine and the council to deliver a major public artist commission by Jade Oakley. The work will be part of a new initiative seeking artistic responses to rapid change in demographics, social cohesion, and cultural identity of the city.
Olivia: You have a very interesting career background weaving between the arts and the community sector. Can you tell us how you have navigated these two fields? What drew you back into the arts as Team Leader, Arts Engagement and Development with Melton City Council?
Madeleine: Working at Melton City Council has been a wonderful opportunity to integrate diverse skills from across the arts and community sectors. My current role brings together three threads of experience from the nineteen-year span of my career: fundraising and partnership development, arts marketing, and curating programs and exhibitions. This experience has been developed working with organisations like The Song Room, Museum and Gallery Services Queensland, Queensland Arts Council, Expressions Dance Company (now Australasian Dance Collective), Umbrella Studio Contemporary Arts, Berry Street and Cathy Freeman Foundation. I see arts management as a dynamic and complex practice that very much calls on everything I’ve learnt.
Over my career I’ve also had the privilege of working with First Nations, refugee, and migrant communities, and with those who are overcoming geographic or socio-economic barriers to accessing arts, education, and employment opportunities. Through this work I developed a keen understanding of theories of change, and the value of strong program design, community engagement and evaluation. This led me to undertake an Advanced Diploma in Community Development at Deakin University, to complement my studies in Art History and Curatorship from the Australian National University.
In all my experiences and studies to date, I have seen how collaborative and creative arts production can be transformational for artists, participants, and communities. I believe that art has its own vital role to play in providing creative vibrance, and it can also be a catalyst for creating important dialogue around issues impacting communities. I aim to provide safe spaces for artists and communities to explore and express issues that are important to them.
I deliberately moved back into an arts management role as I was excited about the opportunity to use my community development skills while I further developed my curatorial practice through the management of the city’s public art collection, exhibition, and artist development programs. I began as a solo arts officer and now lead a small team who work with local artists and leading contemporary practitioners to produce experiences that connect, resonate, and raise awareness. It’s a joy to facilitate creative expression and community connections for people working and living in such a rapidly changing city.
Olivia: What are the most enjoyable aspects of your current role?
Madeleine: The most enjoyable aspects of my role are working in a city which is so full of potential for the development of contemporary arts and cultural practice. Melton City Council is situated in far outer west metropolitan Melbourne and is one of the top five fastest growing cities in Australia. There is an amazing opportunity for the Arts and Culture team to work across the municipality to showcase and celebrate Melton’s unique and everchanging cultural identities. When you see such rapid development of housing estates, roads, new city centres and community facilities, you become acutely aware that it’s ultimately the people who turn these buildings into places for communities, and it’s the arts which provides the platform for ever-unfolding expression of what our communities are now and what they are becoming. It’s not a static program, it’s changing as fast as the communities around us are. Access to and engagement with the arts makes our city a wonderful place to live.
Olivia: What are the most challenging aspects of the role?
Madeleine: This is my first local government role and one of the most challenging aspects has been learning how to create innovative and bold works of art in a context which can be very risk adverse and process-driven at times. I’m deeply passionate about advocating for artists to be able to develop a concept using the full breadth of their creativity and see one of my key roles in projects as facilitating between artists, our communities and the bureaucracy that is a part of delivering projects in a local government context. There have been lots of learning curves, but one of the wonderful things about local government is the strong sense of service you find amongst your colleagues, and it’s usually this sense of service to the community that is the starting point for creating bolder and more impactful programs and experiences.
Olivia: Before this role had you been involved in the commissioning of public art?
Madeleine: Public Art commissioning was a relatively new area of work for me when I started this role, but five years in, I have overseen over twenty-four public art commissions including murals, textile work, new-media installations, and temporary architectural installations. I’ve been very fortunate to work with highly skilled arts producers as team members over this time, who have all made important contributions to these projects. In my first year in the role, as the only arts officer at that time, I remember feeling slightly sick with nerves on the arrival of the first enormous boom lift at the amphitheatre wall in Melton Town Centre to deliver an inherited mural project ‘Birds of a feather’ by Phibs (2018), and then the total thrill of seeing the work come to life. I was ready for negative feedback from the community, who had not experienced a lot of local street art, but the work had a hugely positive response, and attracted very unexpected supporters, like a local bird watching group who came to the square for a special ‘bird viewing’. While we’ve very much expanded our horizons on the types of public art we commission since that time, this formative experience made me realise just how much an artwork can totally transform public space. Public art requires a lot of vision, tenacity, imagination, and willpower. Thankfully the result is usually worth it!
Olivia: Jade Oakley is the selected artist for the Linear Park commission. What was it about her concept that made the assessment panel select her concept to be commissioned?
Madeleine: Jade Oakley’s work ‘Second Nature’ represents the opportunity to shift our permanent commissioning practices towards a more community-centred approach. Jade’s proposal was highly regarded by the panel because the work is integrated with the site and connects strongly with the curatorial theme of growth both in the sense of changes in the community and changes to the site itself. She responded closely to the artist brief and included community engagement and participation in the development of her artwork. She chose a natural gathering place near the playpark as her site, providing a shaded place for rest and play in a city that is one of the driest in metropolitan Melbourne. This work is a great demonstration of how engaging leading contemporary artists to work closely with communities around the issues they face can result in artworks that can truly become embedded in a site and place for years to come.
Olivia: Have there been any highlights or surprises with the Melton public art commission process so far?
Madeleine: It has been fantastic to have the guidance of T Projects in commissioning a permanent work at a time when we are also planning a new approach to curating and developing the collection. T Projects introduced a very effective selection process that gave everyone on the panel the same opportunity for feedback and ensured we made best use of our collective expertise across Council and externally. Of course, opening up the commission to their huge network of public artists from Australia and overseas has also been a great advantage, a first step in profiling Melton City Council’s intentions to develop a stronger and more cohesive public art collection in the future.
Olivia: Are there any themes that run through the Melton City Public Art collection?
Madeleine: Currently our public art collection is made up of a wide range of works, many of which were commissioned by property developers and handed over to Council for maintenance, so there is not yet an intentional curatorial thread through the collection. I am currently working with senior leaders on the development of a Public Art Masterplan, which will provide a curatorial framework to underpin the development of the City’s Public Art Collection. There are however a few repeated themes that stand out in the current collection, including the idea of growth and change in nature, as in works like ‘Growth’ by Warren Langley (2014), a experiential artwork in Melton Library and Learning Hub, that responds according to surrounding light levels, or ‘Words for Water’ (2006) by Charles Anderson. Another theme is around the dynamic nature of communities, as seen in works like Dr Anton Hassell’s ‘Community Ring’ and in the work by Anu Patel, ‘Connected Stories’ (2019), a large textile hanging in Melton Library and Learning Hub, woven in collaboration with seventeen women from different cultural backgrounds and ages who came together to share personal experiences, and contributed weaving skills for the piece.
Olivia: Do you have a favourite work?
Madeleine: It’s always impossible to pick favourites, but I do like the sentiments behind Charles Anderson’s ‘Words for Water’ (2006) outside Caroline Springs Library and CS Gallery, which has only gained more thematic relevance as time has passed. The work highlights the universal necessity of water to our cities and to all cultures and explores our collective dependence on, and vulnerability to the environment. By overlapping and fusing words for water from diverse languages, Anderson frames language as part of a continuing amalgam of meaning, and in the context of a highly diverse community, places value on the intersection, overlapping and meeting of cultural values. The image of an upturned house, pivoting on its roof and hovering over land, calls on our precarious relationship with nature, particularly in a city that sits on the urban edge of development. It’s particularly interesting to reflect on this work while I embark on a new project exploring our complex relationship with land and resources in a city that is expanding almost more rapidly than it can build houses. We’ll be presenting an exhibition called The Edge in coming months and it will be wonderful to see how artists extend this conversation nearly 2 decades since Charles Anderson explored this theme back in 2006.