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How I Got Here: The National Gallery of Victoria’s Curator of Indigenous Art on learning to work collaboratively

IMAGE VIA @shonaehobson/INSTAGRAM

WORDS BY IZZY WIGHT

“The best piece of advice that I was given – and continue to live by – is to stay confident in my abilities.”

Have you ever stalked someone on LinkedIn and wondered how on earth they managed to land that wildly impressive job? While the internet and social media might have us believe that our ideal job is a mere pipe dream, the individuals who have these jobs were, believe it or not, in the same position once, fantasising over someone else’s seemingly unattainable job.

But behind the awe-inspiring titles and the fancy work events lies a heck of a lot of hard work. So what lessons have been learnt and what skills have proved invaluable in getting them from daydreaming about success to actually being at the top of their industry?


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Welcome to How I Got Here, where we talk to women who are killing it in their respective fields about how they landed their awe-inspiring jobs, exploring the peaks and pits, the failures and the wins, and most importantly the knowledge, advice and practical tips they’ve gleaned along the way.

Growing up with an artist mother and a myriad of creative extended family members, art has always been an integral part of Shonae Hobson‘s life. After moving to Melbourne to study art history, she took on the daunting task of networking by reaching out to local galleries, leading to her first internship at the Melbourne Museum.

After four years in the industry, Shonae found her passion in Indigenous Art. As a Kaantju woman, she is committed to uplifting First Nations art practitioners by showcasing Indigenous culture in the context of contemporary art. Here’s what she’s learnt along the way.

What do you do and what’s your official job title?

I recently landed my dream job as Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). I curate exhibitions, research and write for art publications and contribute to the acquisition of artworks into the permanent collection. I also work collaboratively with artists and other curators to deliver and develop public programs and events.

Take us back to when you were first starting out. Did you study to get into your chosen field, or did you start out with an internship/entry-level role and climb the ladder? Tell us the story.

I moved to Melbourne in 2014 to study a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Anthropology and Art History at the University of Melbourne. Art was such an integral part of my life growing up – my mother is an artist and so are many of my extended family members. However, it wasn’t until my second year of an art history degree that I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the arts.
During my undergraduate degree, I reached out to a number of galleries and museums about possible work opportunities and was lucky enough to be offered an internship at the Melbourne Museum.

I worked one day a week researching and writing about cultural materials and artefacts from the Museum Collection. In addition, I also worked as a gallery assistant at Alcaston Gallery. I met artists and collectors and attended various exhibition openings, art fairs and fashion events. It was a great opportunity for me to network and meet established people in the industry whilst also broadening my understanding and knowledge of the commercial art sector.

In 2018, I became the inaugural First Nations Curator at the Bendigo Art Gallery – I was offered the job a week after my graduation day. I was both excited and nervous by the prospect as this was my first time in a major curatorial role. I wasn’t sure what to expect but embraced the opportunity with enthusiasm and an open mind. A big part of my role was community engagement and relationship building with local artists and community stakeholders.

I also assisted with the strategic planning around the inclusion and representation of First Nations creatives within the gallery’s program and schedule. I helped develop the gallery’s Indigenous fashion collection and curated a number of exhibitions including Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion, Australia’s first and largest survey of Indigenous Australian fashion to be undertaken both nationally and internationally. I’m now living in Melbourne and three months into my new role at the NGV.

What challenges/hurdles have you faced getting to where you are now? Can you tell us about one in particular?

The biggest challenge for me was just believing in myself. Stepping into the role of First Nations Curator at Bendigo Art Gallery straight after my undergraduate degree, I had this preconceived idea that a curator needed to have years of experience up their sleeve. I was also tossing up doing my master’s degree at the time. Industry experience was the best option for me and I learnt a lot about the role from working with artists and industry experts.

 

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A post shared by Shonae Hobson (@shonaehobson)


What do you want people to know about your industry/your role?

Being able to work collaboratively is very important. When you are working in a space with other creatives it can be a challenge, but it’s about understanding other perspectives and embracing everyone’s ideas and contributions. I am learning every day in my role and constantly asking questions to broaden my own knowledge.

What’s the best part about your role?

The best part of my role is having the opportunity to work closely with artists and like-minded individuals. Listening and learning about an artist’s work and the inspiration behind their practice is the most rewarding part of the job. I also feel very fortunate that I am in a position where I can contribute to change and ensure that diverse voices are represented in the gallery and museum spaces.

What would surprise people about your role?

I think something that would surprise people about my role is that it’s so broad. One day I might be cataloguing works of art in a gallery storeroom and another day I will be visiting a community art centre working on ideas for an upcoming exhibition.
The best part of being a curator is having the ability to contribute ideas and see those ideas come to fruition.

What skills have served you well in your industry?

My art history degree paid off as my role requires a lot of research and writing. Public speaking is another useful skill to have. When you work as an art curator you are required to do a lot of speaking engagements, whether it’s for an exhibition opening, a lecture or talking to the general public about a work of art. I’m still trying to master this skill…

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be in a role like yours one day?

The best piece of advice that I was given – and continue to live by – is to stay confident in my abilities, my ideas and most importantly, trust my instincts. Galleries and institutions are always looking for fresh and new perspectives – back yourself.

What about a practical tip?

Work hard and set goals.

Read the rest of the How I Got Here series here.

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