Levi McLean is Art Centre Manager for Arlpwe Artists, an art centre in Ali Curung 400km north of Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory. In this interview, he talks about how he came to be in the role of art centre manager and what an average day can look like. Please note this interview was recorded in December 2021, before Covid reached the local community.
What led to taking up this job?
I studied arts at the University of Western Australia. First as a visual arts student, however, in the end graduated with an art history major. Around the time that I finished my studies, I took a trip to the NT to volunteer at an art & culture centre in Tennant Creek called Nyinkka Nyunyu Arts and Culture Centre. There I met a group of men who were working out of the centre, a team of artists called the Tennant Creek Brio.
After six months I was offered work as an all rounder at Nyinkka. Around the same time a research project developed in Tennant Creek with my current Honours supervisor, who I also consider a good friend, Darren Jorgensen. At the time, he was researching historical stockman artists around Australia. He had a particular interest in an artist mentioned in an old 1930s newspaper article and asked if I could poke around and see if anyone had anything to say about it. From then on a series of coincidences followed and that person turned out to be Joseph's grandfather, his mothers father, who we refer to in the project as ‘Tracker Nat’. Through oral history and archival documents we soon became aware of the fact that Tracker Nat was the cultural leader who led the four tribes staying at Philip Creek across the desert to found Warrabri (now Ali curung) in the 1950’s. The project has evolved as a collaborative approach to writing history, where Joseph, Darren, and myself work as co-authors. Since then we have been able to track down a lot of unattributed works and give them provenance. We also acquired an Australia Council of the arts grant to produce an exhibition which will hopefully happen sometime late in 2022.
Experiencing all of this led me to really enjoy living in Tennant Creek. The friendships that I made there are still strong, especially with Joseph and his family. It felt like the natural thing to do to go down the road to Ali Curung as it's only 140km from Tennant Creek. It meant I would be able to live in the place that I have been researching for an extended period, while also getting to experience what's going on in the community today.
What were the elements that took you by surprise?
I was pretty astounded to see how efficient everything was with only one full time worker. All of the art workers, Sonya, Peter, Graham, Warrick, Dwayne, Cecelia, Maria, and Marlene are exceptionally skilled at running and maintaining the studio. They do the heavy lifting when it comes to stretching canvases, cutting the canvases, mixing the paint, priming the canvases. As all of that was being done by the art workers, I was surprised by how little I actually had to do in terms of hands on when I first started. But for various reasons people come and go, so I've had to do a lot more of that in recent months. Because they are active members in the community, arts workers are often the first people approached by government, health, and other services, such as Land council, so they might go away for a variety of reasons.
I think that the art centre could really run itself. The community could do that on their own. The art centre manager is important mainly because of the networks and strategies that they bring to the table.Other than that, the community is really running the art centre. So that was a fantastic surprise.
What are the biggest challenges you find?
Probably the fact that there's two buildings and the logistics of constantly moving between the two buildings. I split myself between the gallery and the studio each day. There's a lot of driving up and down that dirt track and splitting my attention between the two venues. If a tourist visits, I pack up what I'm doing at the studio and go and open up the gallery for them. They might be there for a couple of hours. That means that other things aren't necessarily happening which might be a priority on that day. That's one of the main challenges.
What's an average work day look like for you?
Out of the house at eight with my dog Bilbo. Open the studio gate, go to the gallery, check the emails. By 8:30 return to the studio as people are rocking up. Make sure that there's morning tea supplies, and that the lunch ingredients are ready. Make sure enough canvas is primed and stretched, if not, I’ll make this my priority – usually Peter is there most days to make sure there's a ready supply. Then Sonya and I will probably mix a few paints up as people turn up. Each artist has a very different palette so it's always pretty arbitrary depending on who shows up first, which is nearly always Sarah Holmes or Judy Long. I might end up working with one person for a while or be moving between the artists offering assistance where I can. The canvas can be pretty daunting when it's blank, but people get into a rhythm pretty quickly once they get going. The rest of the day might be admin, emails, finance, grants writing, I’ll always check back in at the studio around lunchtime. It's quite a varied day.
At Alprwe we focus on art, as other services are well organised in this community. On Friday afternoons I'll often drive up to Tennant Creek to do postage and shopping, and I’d visit my partner when she used to work there, but recently she’s moved to Ali Curung to work with one of the farms. If anyone needs a lift I'm more than happy to get them to Tennant Creek as it’s a one and a half hour drive. Mostly, my main focus each day is to facilitate artists so that they can strengthen the art centre. It is a very satisfying role, particularly now at such a vibrant stage in the evolution of the art centre.