T Projects curator Olivia Poloni welcomes Sarah Hibbs to the team with our latest in team interview blogs.
Olivia: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work (within and out with T projects)?
Sarah: Hello! I am a curator and cultural producer currently living and working on Gadigal land in Sydney, Australia. With only very limited access to contemporary art and cultural activities as a child, I had no idea that roles of curator or cultural producer even existed. Despite this, I still wanted to work in the field. After a few years of making very bad art at art school, I realised I was much more motivated to facilitate the creation of artwork by supporting artists.
This desire has been a continued driving force within my career - I am so excited by the prospect of being able to champion artists and it is my hope that I am able to be a strong advocate for best practice standards within our industry.
After graduating with a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne, I’ve worked for the last decade in the contemporary arts sector across a variety of commercial and not-for-profit organisations, both in Australia and internationally, including Gertrude Contemporary (Melbourne), Swiss Institute (New York), Artspace (Sydney), Contemporary Arts Organisations Australia, LoveArt Art Advisory (Sydney and New York), and Yavuz Gallery (Sydney and Singapore).
In late 2021, I was thrilled to join the T Projects team as Curator. I currently also sit on the board of Runway Journal as Treasurer and Development & Engagement Manager. Runway Journal is a digital publication that has been commissioning experimental works by emerging artists for almost two decades, and 2022 marks our 20th anniversary.
Olivia: Could you tell us very briefly about your career background and your interest in public art?
Sarah: My first experiences commissioning public art came about when I was working at LoveArt Art Advisory with the brilliant and formidable Amanda Love. She was an incredible mentor to me, and we worked with some amazingly talented artists including Callum Morton + MAP, Jonny Niesche, Mel O’Callaghan and Izabela Pluta, to name just a few. These experiences were formative; they made me realise that I wanted to continue to work directly with artists. To be able to support them to realise their vision was (and still is) such an honour.
Olivia: What is your role in the commissioning of public art?
Sarah: I see myself as a facilitator between the client, artist, and audience - where I act as a translator between business or government and the art sector. By sharing my experience and expert knowledge, I am able to empower clients to make bold and informed decisions that then enables artists to create the best work for the brief and their intended audiences.
Olivia: What do you consider to be the benefits, opportunities, or role of public art generally?
Sarah: The power of public art is so undervalued and truly not recognised for the radical and unique opportunity it represents. With the relatively recent ‘social turn of art’ (Bishop, 2006), we have seen an increase in artists and audiences operating outside of the traditional hierarchy of institutions, museums and galleries. When artists decide to leave the white cube and operate within this real world context, their work is engaged by everyone passing through the space, whether it be on their commute to work or simply walking past. Considered and ambitious public art has an unparalleled and revolutionary power to generate cultural, social, and economic value.
Olivia: What do you consider to be the benefits, or role, of public art specifically within healthcare settings?
Sarah: Growing up as a person with type 1 diabetes, I’ve spent countless hours in hospitals and medical settings. All too many healthcare settings are tedious places to be at best, and at worst, traumatic and stressful locations. Art, however, has the power to mitigate these tensions and even enhance the curative properties of location when it becomes a considered part of the healthcare infrastructure. Indeed, there is a growing body of literature that indicates art installations have measurable positive impacts on the psychological and physiological outcomes of patients.
Olivia: What do you consider the risks, or downsides, of public art to be?
Sarah: Public art requires significant investment from all stakeholders. It requires space, funding, time, and trust from local communities. When facilitators of public work remain too rigid in their thinking, when they don’t trust an artist, and when there is a failure to consider context and communities, art can fail to make any meaningful contribution.
Olivia: What do you consider to be the most challenging aspects of commissioning public art?
Sarah: Commissioning public art is such a sensitive balancing act. When operating within the public sphere, one has a duty to consider those who will encounter the work and how it will be interpreted. Who has ownership of shared public space? How do we do justice to all the different communities engaging with the work - and is that even possible? How can we trust artists to take risks and be experimental? These questions must be addressed. Taking consideration of these wider social, cultural and political implications can be time consuming, but it is an essential part of the commissioning process.
Olivia: What is your favourite example of public art, either in the Australia or globally and why?
Sarah: This question is difficult - there are way too many to choose from! From the last year or so, there are numerous examples that come to mind, internationally and a little closer to home. The staging of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Arc de Triomphe was so poetic and beautiful, while Reko Rennie’s Remember Me is such a powerful statement as he reclaims the public space of Carriageworks to become a visible site of political protest. I’m also really looking forward to Lindy Lee's epic Ouroboros. It will be installed in the garden of the National Gallery of Australia in 2024, and the cool $14 million price tag makes it the most expensive acquisition by our state capital’s institution.
One other recent memory that is particularly salient for me was stumbling across Agatha Gothe-Snape’s The Noblest of the Elements is Water. After watching Friends and Strangers at Sydney Film Festival 2021, I was walking to a dinner with some of the cast and crew, and several artists who also attended the screening. We happened upon this work; a Murano-tiled mosaic that covers the curved ceiling of the laneway connecting Bathurst Street and the Primus Hotel. It was completely unexpected and an utter delight! It drove home the power of public art to be woven into the fabric of a city, revealing itself in exciting and surprising ways. These are a few of my recent favourites; I think they are wonderful examples of artists with rigorous studio practices who have been given the opportunity to expand these ideas into a large-scale and public context. They have all successfully considered the context of their surroundings and totally nailed the brief. The artists have been adventurous, experimental and taken calculated risks to achieve something truly timeless and remarkable.
Olivia: What is your least favourite example of public art, either in the Australia or globally and why?
Sarah: Anything I can’t remember would have to fall into my category of least favourite; the worst thing an artwork can be is boring! If art can elicit a strong emotion - even if that means I hate it - then it has provoked something within me which makes it successful.