Meet Courtney Wagner, Curator MAC yapang
Published on 15 September 2021
Courtney Wagner arrived in New York City in early 2020, after completing a professional development program at the 58th Venice Biennale. Her plan was to find an arts job in the city that never sleeps, halfway across the world from her home in Sydney. She was on the ground applying for roles when COVID-19 hit and she had to leave. “Like others, I had to drop everything and come home,” Wagner says.
Once back in Sydney, Wagner and her partner realised that this might be a good opportunity to live and work outside a capital city.
One year later, the couple found themselves in Lake Macquarie where they could be closer to family, with Wagner joining the Museum of Art and Culture, yapang (MAC yapang) as Curator. “Being here in Lake Macquarie and having the opportunity to immerse myself in a complete curatorial role in a stunning location is an absolute dream,” she says. “It’s great to be a part of MAC yapang’s future at such an exciting and transformative time.”
Before joining MAC yapang, Wagner worked as an Artist Educator at the Art Gallery of NSW and as Curator of the Adelaide Perry Gallery, Sydney. Her motivation is to share art collections to audiences and curate stimulating experiences. “I now have the opportunity to work with artists and contribute to culture in regional NSW. Involving local community and bringing in wider audiences is something I'm totally passionate about,” she says.
For Wagner, curating an exhibition from the MAC collection is an opportunity to draw new meaning from works and present them in a new light. “Curating means ‘to care for’”, she says. “Whether that’s caring for the collection, caring for artists or simply drawing meaning from art, which is a visual language.”
The MAC collection is relatively young in collecting terms, and yet has evolved a distinctive identity. In addition to 20th and 21st Century works, it features two unique focus areas. These are Still Waters, Clear Visions, which takes as inspiration the idea of water as a literal and metaphorical concept, and yapang, which has led to the acquisition of many significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander works on paper.
First established in the 1970s, the MAC collection comprises works by highly-regarded national, international and Hunter-based artists. It features a strong core group of two-dimensional works by notable Australian artists, including a number of key works by Sir William Dobell (bequeathed by Ruth Spenser Komon).
One of Wagner’s first tasks in her new role at MAC yapang was to curate a small salon-style hang of Dobell’s artworks, including eight pieces from the Museum’s collection. The choice of salon hang referenced the gallery experience Dobell would have had when he visited Europe. European art schools, often short of space, would present works clustered together closely, creating interesting associations between works.
Wagner says she wanted to give audiences a taste of what it’s like to be alone in the collection room out back. “There’s an amazing feeling of discovery when I draw out the towering racks that hold different paintings in close juxtaposition – it’s much like a salon hang.”
Curatorially, her choice of hang was also a nod to the infamous Salon Des Refuses, the exhibition for rejects of the Paris Salon. These days, the S.H Ervin Gallery in Sydney follows this tradition each year by exhibiting its own Salon Des Refuses for the Archibald Prize, providing a popular alternative Archibald for Australian audiences. Wagner referenced this in her choice of hang, alluding to Dobell’s controversial Archibald win in 1943, which ultimately led him to relocate to the Lake Macquarie suburb of Wangi Wangi, where he lived until his death in 1970.
Looking forward, Wagner is particularly excited by the future of MAC. She is currently working on the Inaugural yapang Emerging Art Prize, an acquisitive prize for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander emerging artists. The initiative will support emerging artists by acquiring works that strengthen the Museum’s yapang collection, and will also provide opportunities for mentorship and professional placement to assist the winning artists in launching their careers.
“It's a really exciting time for MAC and the new Lake Arts Precinct,” says Wagner. “MAC yapang has undergone a $2.3 million-dollar transformation, and we’ve created a dedicated Aboriginal program within the Museum. We also have the Multi-Arts Pavilion, mima opening soon, which will bring a whole new visitor experience and dynamic to NSW and the region.”