5 Minutes With Tony Ellwood, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria

Tony Ellwood

From his first job in the arts to now, the director of the National Gallery of Victoria continues to strive to build trust and push boundaries.

My first official paid job was at Waringarri Aboriginal Arts in Kununurra. I was employed by an Aboriginal cooperative to work with artists right across the East Kimberley and sell their art. I was 23 when I got that job and it was the first time I’d worked outside of my home state, having grown up in regional Victoria. It was a huge learning curve but the dependency on the role for the community was very high so I needed to perform, learn quickly and work sensitively. The personal growth was extreme. I went from being a fine arts graduate to running a small business that required a steady flow of income. I had to understand complex cultural needs applying to storytelling, to gender, what was safe to be told to a broad audience and what needed to be maintained within the community – there was a lot to negotiate. The assumptions I made were often wrong. My language was often inappropriate or not where it should have been and I had to find ways to adapt and learn fast but also maintain the role of a leader. It was an extraordinary privilege.

The first time that I realised I was making a difference – one of the most rewarding moments of my life – was towards the end of my tenure at Bendigo Art Gallery. I was appointed director at the age of 28. It presented a huge leap forward for me as an arts professional and I surprised everybody – including myself – by actually getting the role and loving it. In my first opening for the gallery, a handful of people came and then, after four years, there I was with hundreds of people coming. I remember feeling like I’d done something good for the community and the artists. The arts is a complex business. It’s not only about nurturing and supporting a collection and artists but also about running a commercial endeavour, providing economic benefit to the community, corporate engagement, philanthropic engagement and good relationships with government. You have to take a lot of hats off and put a lot of new hats on every day. It’s important to tailor your approach and attitude according to who you’re working with. This takes time, experience and lots of research into the challenges that you’re facing together.

It wasn’t my first rejection but the one I found most confronting was when I was appointed as the deputy director of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) at the age of 32. I was given the responsibility for international art. At the time, people didn’t think I came with the necessary skills, the right age or the right knowledge. It was a very fast learning experience. I did the role for seven years and not only gained in-depth knowledge about a very broad collection but also how to negotiate being a good manager while being mindful that there was opposition. I had to find ways to build confidence that I could add value and bring a new perspective. I was able to earn trust by developing the NGV’s collection and expanding the exhibitions calendar, as well as creating new professional opportunities for my colleagues, which demonstrated my respect for their expertise. Those first years were very hard but what I took from them is that I enjoy managing people. I don’t mind if there are different views and varying levels of respect. I learnt to take a back seat in terms of my own personal challenges in order to reach the common goal of sharing the visual arts with the community.

My first and biggest high-profile risk was when I returned as director of the NGV. I wanted to engage deeply with local artists and to do it early in my tenure. I’ve come into all of my roles respecting what I inherited from the wonderful leaders in our field but knowing that I come with a new lens, perspective and understanding. As CEO, I feel it’s my obligation to find ways to implement change and not implement it too slowly. People need to be taken with you but at the same time, there needs to be some pace behind that in order for it to have an impact. We ended up with more than 400 local artists for a show called Melbourne Now. While there was no precedent for it, I felt it was the right thing to do. The exhibition attracted hundreds of thousands of people and lifted the lid on the value of design and art in our state. Each role I have taken on has presented its own challenges and creative risks but they’ve taught me to trust my instincts.

Defining moment

“Getting the support of the Victorian government to build The Fox: NGV Contemporary, which will open at the end of 2028. It will be the largest contemporary art and design gallery in the region and one of the largest in the world. We knew we had to build people’s confidence that contemporary art had that kind of appeal and we took a business-minded approach – we kept talking about international precedence, with the evidence behind that. Through projects like the NGV’s Triennial and Melbourne Now we demonstrated that we can attract millions of people to this kind of art experience while still complementing our historic programs and collections. As the evidence became better known, more people started saying, ‘Yes, this makes sense.’”

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Image credit: Tim Carrafa

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