Janine Barrand : Arts Centre Melbourne : Victoria, Australia
“The thing about my parents was their philosophy: as long as you’re happy. There was never any pressure at all to do anything or be anyone. And I think that, in retrospect, is pretty amazing. The main thing is to be happy”
Working from Arts Centre Melbourne (Australia), Janine Barrand has spent three decades of her life dedicated to archiving important elements of Australia’s performance culture to ensure they’re preserved and made available. Countless hours sourcing, collating and exhibiting aspects of our society’s fifth pillar: the arts. And she absolutely loves it.
Working in the arts wasn’t really presented as an option for her growing up in 1970s Geelong, and as soon as she finished high school she made her way to Melbourne to begin one of the few expected degrees of the time. As was the reality of the day, it meant leaving home, so she made the move from a somewhat sheltered, sleepy regional centre to the comparative metropolis of Melbourne; a wide-eyed reality check that held nothing but opportunity for her.
“A whole bunch of us left Geelong and embarked on different lives to the people that stayed in Geelong, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, but we all took off and came up to Melbourne. I actually studied to be an art and craft teacher, as it was called then, up at Melbourne Uni – it was called Melbourne State College. That was weird too, because coming from an environment at school that was very structured to an arts school, particularly in areas like the sculpture studio, there was no order. Just go do! It was different; really different. But about a third of the way through that I realised that I wasn’t going to be cut out to be a teacher. I did a couple of teaching rounds and thought, “This isn’t me””
While studying print-making and Asian art and culture as part of her course, a lecturer suggested she look into an area unknown to her at the time: Museum Studies. Her interest piqued, she completed her degree and enrolled in the suggested course which, aside from creating an opportunity to further satisfy her creative lean, would prove to be an opportune time to find her footing.
“In the 1980s there was an incredible interest in engaging in Australian culture and Australian history so there were a lot of jobs in museums and galleries…new places opening and being reimagined. I came to do a placement here in the Performing Arts Museum and when I was doing that someone left. I applied for the job and got it (and have) been here for over 30 years. And it’s been a pretty incredible journey because the work that I do is about recognising and valuing Australia’s performing arts history across all the art forms, so it’s not just opera and theatre. It’s circus, vaudeville, magic, rock music…and rock and pop music has always been a particular interest of mine. The thing I really love is that a lot of the art forms that we collect and develop exhibitions around are about communal experiences; it’s not about elitism. Everybody’s probably been to a circus or a rock concert or maybe seen a magic show, or whatever, so it’s kind of the every man and I really love that. It’s just great going down into an exhibition environment and seeing people come and enjoying the experience…understanding performing arts history”
The collection was still in its infancy when Janine started her position, but during her 30 year involvement it has grown significantly from the small space originally designated to house the staff, the collection, and a preparation area; to an office with over a dozen employees, still under the spire on St Kilda Rd. The collection itself now exceeds 600,000 items, stored in various places in Melbourne and boasting irreplaceable memorabilia of cultural significance obtained from a range of sources including some of the biggest names in Australian performance history.
“…Dame Nellie Melba, Barry Humphries – and all his characters from Dame Edna to Sir Les to Sandy Stone – Nick Cave, Kylie Minogue, companies like The Australian Ballet and Circus Oz, Bell Shakespeare, Ashton’s Circus…and most of it’s donated by the community or by individuals. And other material emerges from the community, so maybe people have had someone in the family who’s trod the boards and they’ve found things in a cupboard; to the theatre company, “Oh we’ve got to move next week or tomorrow, can you come and look at our archives?”
The further growth of the collection also involves a significant amount of research and development. To scour Australia’s broader performance history to ensure anything that becomes available is sourced before it’s lost forever, but to also plan and time an approach to current artists and request their involvement.
“Performers are aware of their legacy and there’s a point in time when they’re ready to hand it over, let it go, and celebrate it. It’s mainly when people get to their mid-40s or 50s and think, “Hang on…I’ve accumulated all these things. I’ve got a legacy, and I’m ready for it to be preserved and made available”. There’s a tipping point. Because before that, performers – particularly from the music industry – think, “I shouldn’t be in a museum…I’m still making the scene!”. For us it’s really looking at the people who are likely to have a body of work that will form a basis for new knowledge and understanding, and that’s why we collect it. Maybe there’s been some kind of landmark, or maybe they’ve represented a shift or a change. For example Tim Minchin would be someone now who we’d think about. He’s got a significant body of work, he’s got national and international recognition through his work. He’s transitioned his career into things like Matilda and so on…but still performs live and loves the live environment”
Over the years, all of these cultural tidbits sourced by Janine and her team have been displayed in a number of exhibitions at the Arts Centre, including tributes to Peter Allen, Kylie Minogue, Nick Cave, AC/DC, and Geoffrey Rush. As facilitator of these experiences, she sees a larger vision to the work and wants a permanent home in which to house these pieces of Australia’s cultural identity. A place where the archive can stretch its wings so the public can see the collection and temporary exhibitions alike in the form of a dedicated gallery. But of course, as is often the case with large-scale arts projects, the dream often falls away to funding issues and broader priorities, but she’s convinced that this ambitious goal will eventually be realised.
“There’s been about five attempts in the last 20 years to get it to happen and I suspect I won’t be here when it does; which is fine. I just hope that one day it happens and all this stuff can be displayed and made available to people. A recent concept was to establish the Australian Performing Arts Gallery in Melbourne, where there’d be a permanent space for the collection and a temporary space where we could curate large scale shows or bring in performing arts exhibitions from overseas. You only have to look at the David Bowie exhibition at ACMI to realise that there’s a lot of content that would be great to bring to Australian audience”
As frustrating as the false-starts must be for her team and the enormous live performance community of Australia, there’s a sensible and patient understanding of the process. The political environment and budgetary realities have stalled the project, but it’s about timing the alignment of these moving pieces to see a dedicated gallery realised, finally formalising an important aspect of Australian history in a space everyone can access.
“A lot of advocates that would like it to happen…obviously the performing arts community would love to see it. Performers such as Geoffrey Rush, Barry (Humphries) , Nick Cave, Kylie (Minogue), and all the performing arts companies. And there’s a lot of community support, but it’s about the political environment, maintaining momentum and profile in the midst of diverse priorities”
It’s a challenge Janine is up for and, while working towards it, there’s plenty to do each day: chatting to influential artists, conceiving the next exhibition, and keeping a keen eye on the past to ensure that its important elements are captured and preserved for the future. To diversify and strengthen a collection that enables us to make the unexpected link between a slurred Sir Les Patterson gag and Kylie Minogue’s infamous hot pants, and see that it all forms part of our unique societal fabric and should be valued. And hopefully well before Janine eventually bids farewell to her role at Arts Centre Melbourne, she and her committed team can celebrate a milestone that will see a dedicated gallery showcasing something tangible and inspirational; fodder for young performing artists and an eye-opener for the general public. All finally housed in a well-earned space of its own that recognises the people and performances that have been fundamental to the development of the Australian culture.
“In the early years when I started I met some amazing older people who, even at age 80, still had this incredible wonder in the world, young people and their potential. Irene Mitchell, who was a volunteer but had been a theatre director, had this incredible enthusiasm and connection with young people. Kenn Brodziak, most known for bringing The Beatles to Australia in 1964, was a fountain of knowledge and was quite scary – I used to call him Mr Brodziak when I first met him, but later called him Kenn – and even again, aged 80, he was getting phone calls from performing companies asking him, “When you presented ‘A Little Night Music’, how did it go?”. I was there. He pulled out a log book and was able to talk about how the show went when he did it. For me that was about, regardless of your age, maintaining a fascination and wonder in things is always the way to go!”