New ACE Director talks about career paths and New England

Published 10 May 2018

Robert Heather, currently Director of the New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM), has been appointed as the new Director, Advancement, Communications and Events at UNE after a 20-year career in Australian public galleries and museums.

Robert has previously held positions at the Queensland Art Gallery and  Cairns Regional Gallery, as  Executive Director of the Regional Galleries Association of Queensland, inaugural Director of Artspace Mackay and, more recently, as the Manager, Collection Interpretation at the State Library of Victoria.

You grew up on the Gold Coast. What did you want to be when you grew up?

An author. Then at one stage a lawyer or an historian. The idea of working in art museums could not have been further from my mind. I was not particularly good at visual arts at school.

You completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Queensland. Describe your university experience.

I loved studying and being at university and all of the social activities. When I finished my BA I enrolled to study architecture but really I just wanted to stay on campus. I was the Activities Vice-President of the UQ Student Union and editor of the student newspaper. I found my niche working with creative people and organising and marketing events. That eventually led to a position at the Queensland Art Gallery in the promotions and marketing team.

What is it that you enjoy about working with creative people?

The opportunity to collaborate and explore a great idea, and help to bring it to fruition, and all the ways that creative projects interact with people. At art galleries, museums and libraries, that often involves hosting exhibitions, which engage the general public.

At the State Library of Victoria I was responsible for the Fellowships program, which enabled people to work for three or six months with the collections. We’d have authors and historians, visual artists, film-makers, playwrights, poets, games designers, all sorts of creatives coming in. The long-term goal may have been to produce a book or play or exhibition but often you didn’t know where things might go. The process would often result in something unrecognisable but amazing.

Your previous experience has largely involved working with curators and artists developing exhibitions, programs and collections. How does that equip you to manage the university’s communications, alumni and events work?

I have a long history of working with universities to create artistic events, but I also have experience with fundraising and working with membership programs, like the Friends of NERAM and Friends of the State Library of Victoria. In Melbourne, I collaborated a lot with people from the University of Melbourne and RMIT, and at the Regional Galleries Association I engaged with almost 40 regional galleries around Queensland.

Most of my previous roles have involved promoting networks and developing projects that appeal to members, and throughout my career I have worked with the media in various capacities.

It’s all relevant to university communications and alumni, and I would like to reach out to alumni and do more to engage them. I’ve also worked on both sides of government funding – applying for grants, as well as assessing grant applications. I know what assessment panels are looking for and what grants are out there, plus I’m accustomed to liaising with individual donors.

How are you feeling about your new appointment?

It’s an exciting move and there is much to learn, but I think I will bring vision and a different viewpoint to the role. There are lots of opportunities to do some new things as well as look at what we are already doing.

You’ve lived in Armidale for almost three years while you’ve been at the helm of NERAM. What dealings have you had with UNE in that time?

We’ve held many exhibitions in conjunction with the university. Last year we hosted the Centenary of Beersheba exhibition, curated by UNE historian Bill Oates, I’ve worked with Anne Pender on the Judith Wright celebrations and there’s the annual UNE School Acquisitive Art Prize (UNESAP) exhibition. We’ve had lectures here and I’ve worked with UNE Collections manager Narelle Jarry. As part of a big exhibition opening in June, called Myall Creek and Beyond, we’ll be holding a symposium at the Oorala Aboriginal Centre, involving leading academics, scholars, authors and historians from around the country.

Artistic and educational institutions often have close associations, especially in regional centres. Has that been your experience in Armidale?

Yes. It’s like an ecology. Universities are trying to attract students to come and study in a town; they’re also trying to create a lifestyle so that staff, their partners and families want to move and be part of that community, and art institutions are a key part of that. The fact that UNE was in Armidale and had such a significant history as the first regional university in Australia was a great attraction for me when taking on the role at NERAM.

Since I’ve been here we have very much been trying to build a stronger relationship between NERAM and UNE. We’ve had stands at various events, like O-Week, and for the past two years we’ve run a program for international students to come to NERAM to learn more about Australian art and culture.

What observations have you made about the role of UNE in the region?

It’s an incredibly significant institution. Generations of people in Armidale have been to UNE; the university has a connection to so many people in the New England. People have studied there or their parents have worked at UNE. We need to look at what we can do to create more interconnectivity between UNE and the wider New England community.

Your partner is a designer and you have two young children, aged three and six. What do you enjoy about living in Armidale?

The beautiful days, the quality of the light, the history of the place, the sense of community. It’s a very smart community. Having had a university here for so long has had an impact on the way the community perceives itself. There’s a level of awareness of social and environmental issues that is great to be around.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I enjoy reading. I also enjoy the music scene here in Armidale. But most of my spare time is spent with the kids, so the music I am most likely to hear is The Wiggles. We have our favourite places, like Saumarez Homestead and Booloominbah. I am always taking visitors to have a look at it because it’s such an amazing building. The architecture is quite extraordinary.