The La Trobe Art Institute’s View Street gallery launched its latest façade mid-lockdown, titled Work Worth Doing. New LAI director Bala Starr says Kay Abude’s photograph raises very public questions around labour inequality and the utility of artists’ work. “Questions that have become urgent under COVID’s shadow,” she says.
For Bala, taking La Trobe’s art academy reins is more than worthwhile at this precarious time for established and emerging artists.
“To work in and around culture is a form of service – for me that’s a powerful idea,” she says. “I feel like I’m in the right place.”
Bala started in the role on July 1 and has been working remotely and online to plan for the future and get to know the community.
Late last year she returned to Australia after six years working in Southeast Asia at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore.
“I had an open mind about what to do next,” she says. “My experience in Singapore and before that at the University of Melbourne had shown me that higher education offers unusual cross-disciplinary and intergenerational opportunities to work with art, artists and communities. So the context itself was exciting. I was also attracted to the role by the intellectual and cultural histories of La Trobe. For a Victorian especially, it’s a remarkable legacy.
“It’s a great honour to work with collections, artists, historians and other specialists as a way to imagine the future, present counterpoints to mainstream art narratives and examine the questions that inspire us. LAI – regional, small, concentrated – is distinctive. I was ambitious to help realise its potential for the university.”
From its Bendigo home, the LAI collaborates on arts and cultural projects and manages the university’s collections across its campuses.
“While Bundoora is home to most of our collection storage, our premises – galleries, an auditorium, workshop and outdoor spaces are located on View Street,” Bala says. “We’re in the centre of Bendigo’s CBD arts precinct. Our neighbours include Bendigo Art Gallery, the Capital, Dudley House, cafes, restaurants and bars.”
Bala says the pandemic has been a challenging time to begin a leadership role, although it also offers great opportunity.
“In parallel with these extraordinary times, there has been a huge amount of activism and debate in the art world,” she says. “We have an opening to thoughtfully experiment with new approaches to problem solving, to work more sustainably and dismantle conventional hierarchies.”
The LAI gallery is poised to reopen in November, with an exhibition curated by Travis Curtin titled One foot on the ground, one foot in the water, featuring 11 contemporary artists’ work around loss, grief and memorialisation.
“It feels timely when many of us are anticipating future uncertainty,” Bala says.
Presenting exhibitions, opportunities, education and residencies that include the experiences and values of the community will influence Bala’s directorship.
“The LAI serves the university and the community,” she says. “How can we embed that in the structure of what we’re building? It’s going to take time to find an approach where everyone feels included. We need to be generous with our time and energy.
“I hope the Bendigo space can be a site for production, dialogue and debate, a site for participation through socially-engaged art projects as well as exhibitions. I hope we can foster a welcoming and productive environment for students and a diverse audience.
“We’ll continue to be an experimental space for art education. We will invest long-term in local artists’ careers, making introductions and learning from them.
“Some of the most innovative organisations are located outside the big centres; those in the capitals can often be swamped by their own speed and find it hard to reflect. In the art world, strategic organisations can sit outside the mainstream.”