Q&A with Rilka Oakley, Curator at the Blue Mountains City Art Gallery

‘It is easy to put a bunch of art in a gallery but to tell a good story with artworks is the challenge. The marker of exceptional art is the impact on the viewer – when I am physically affected or emotionally moved by a piece of art I feel compelled to include it in an exhibition.’ 

Rilka Oakley has been working in curatorial positions and arts administration since finishing her arts degree in Printmaking in the mid-1990s. She completed a Master of Art Administration from UNSW COFA in 1997 with an internship on the Australian exhibition fluent at the Venice Biennale. She worked at the Biennale of Sydney on the 1998 and 2000 editions in curatorial, venue management and catalogue management roles; she worked at Ivan Dougherty Gallery as Curator from 2000 until early 2009; and most recently at Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Katoomba as Curator since October 2012.

How did you become interested in art and prints in particular?

I have always loved art – colour, texture, form, line, image – I like the way things fit together, or not. I am really drawn to contemporary art and this includes printmaking.

With regard to prints in particular I majored in printmaking at uni – I had done some in high school but it wasn’t until uni that I really got to understand the beauty of printmaking. I love the depths of black you can achieve with etching. The layering. The repetition. The textures. The image reversal. I particularly liked monotypes.

By the time I finished my undergrad I really wanted to work with other people’s art as much as make my own so I studied art administration and began working first at the Biennale of Sydney and then as Curator at Ivan Dougherty Gallery in Paddington. I continued to do my own art making and completed a Masters in Printmaking in 2004.

How do you view the role of curator?

For me a curator’s role is to bring out the best of an artwork, and in some cases an artist. Often as a curator I am solving problems – finding solutions to making an exhibition look the best it can. This isn’t so obvious with many exhibitions but with installations or other unique approaches to art there isn’t always an easy way to display the work.

I enjoy curating group shows and creating a conversation between works. I find it is the same creative energy that goes into curating as goes into art production. There is an urge to bring things together to illustrate a theme. It is also an intuitive process – it needs time and contemplation to get it right. It is easy to put a bunch of art in a gallery but to tell a good story with artworks is the challenge. The marker of exceptional art is the impact on the viewer – when I am physically affected or emotionally moved by a piece of art I feel compelled to include it in an exhibition.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced while working as a curator?

The most challenging thing for me is working between the requirements of an institution and the vision of an individual artist. It’s like being an interpreter at times – making an artist’s vision possible within the constraints of budget, safety and time.

Can you tell us a bit about what a working day looks like for you?

My days can vary greatly depending on the stage of exhibition development. At the moment I curate three to four exhibitions per year and assist on installs for the other exhibitions in the gallery, so at any given time I will be dealing with all stages of development at once.

If I am curating a show then I work from a theme, I chose the artists and the works and then take the whole exhibition through to completion. In the early stages of exhibition development I might be out visiting artist studios and looking at lots of work. At other stages I will be doing a lot of administration: preparing loan agreements, sending emails, organising freight, discussing logistics. If it is an install week then I am in the gallery: painting walls, unpacking crates, condition reporting and physically hanging artworks. So you can see there is a lot of variety.

Who are your role models?

Victoria Lynn was an early role model in the 1990s. I interned with her at the Art Gallery of NSW where she was the Curator of Contemporary Art and I then travelled to Venice with her, Brenda Croft and Hetti Perkins to help with the installation of the exhibition fluent in the 1997 Venice Biennale. All three are amazing women and exceptional curators. I find I refer back to their exhibitions/styles/insights/sensibilities a lot when I am making curatorial decisions.

The other person who significantly influenced my career is Nick Waterlow. I first felt moved and excited by contemporary art when I saw his 1986 Biennale. I never thought I would end up working with him, but as it turned out I spent a significant amount of my career with him both at the Biennale of Sydney in 1999-2000 and then at Ivan Dougherty Gallery in 2000-2009 where he was Director. One thing in particular I learnt from him was how to see the good in an artwork that you might not personally like. He could see the point of what an artists was trying to say even if he didn’t care for the style. He could get to the essence of an artwork – see the artist’s thought process. He had a brilliant way with artists.

Often with a group show (not curated but a prize for example) the curator has no control over the content, and yet we have to install the exhibition and make it look wonderful. Nick was able to do this effortlessly by engaging with the intent of the artist and not being shy about placing bold works together. He taught me to tackle an exhibition head on, to deal with and appreciate the many different styles of art, not just my personal preferences.

Can you tell us a bit about the process of putting together Tracing the Line?

Curating Tracing the Line was lots of fun. It has been a journey through fifty years of Australian printmaking history. I discovered that the Print Council of Australia’s commissioned prints reflect and document the changing trends within print processes from the mid-1960s to date. The inclusion of photo etching and screenprints in the 1970s, heat transfer and colour copies in the 1980s through to the use of laser and inkjet printing in the 1990s and digital prints in the 2000s, finishing with a print on steel in 2015. The collection traces the development and progress of printmaking techniques across the five decades since its inception.

It also struck me that there was always a continued presence of the more traditional print processes. The skill and commitment printmakers have for techniques such as lithography, etching, aquatint, mezzotint, linocut – the appropriation of new technologies and processes has not replaced the traditional print process – it has simply given printmakers more tools to choose from.

Tracing the Line, curated by Rilka Oakley, is an exhibition of fifty works selected from the Print Council of Australia’s collection of over 500 Australian prints. As part of the PCA’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations, it opens following the Hungry Eyes symposium (Art Gallery NSW) at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre on 22 October and will be on display until 4 December.