5 June 2024

John Monteleone makes his final mark as Wollongong Art Gallery director

| Dione David
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John Monteleone at Wollongong Art Gallery

Wollongong Art Gallery director John Monteleone officially retires this Friday (7 June), but says he won’t be a stranger. Photo: Wollongong City Council.

This Friday (7 June) will be John Monteleone’s official last day as director of the Wollongong Art Gallery, but he’ll be back the very next day to open Diana Wood Conroy’s exhibition An Archaeology of Woven Tapestry.

It’s a fitting curtain call for the retiring director, who has worked at the gallery for a quarter of a century, with 14 of those years spent at the helm.

“Diana was a lecturer when I started my studies in visual arts. She was there at the start of my career, and she’ll be there at the end,” he says.

But while John admits he’ll miss the people and the camaraderie of working at the gallery, it won’t be with sadness that he leaves, but a head full of wonderful memories.

John became director in 2009, just as the gallery came under the management of Wollongong City Council. Prior to that, though the council was the gallery’s main source of income, it operated as a not-for-profit.

It was the turn of an era for Wollongong’s premier art institution, according to John.

“It meant all the operational functions of the gallery fell under council’s care, and we were able to focus on the programming,” he says.

“Perhaps the most significant outcome of that change, however, was what it meant for our collection. Most regional galleries struggle to build the collection because they rely on gifts, which doesn’t give you a lot of control.

“We have an acquisition policy and a budget and can actively build on our collection to ensure it remains relevant. That collection belongs to the city; it’s a cultural and community asset.”

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The collection today contains about 3500 objects. Among other things, it focuses on contemporary art by local and regional artists and early Australian art, specifically Illawarra landscapes from before 1935.

That’s important because, as John says, “The works of today become the historical works of tomorrow”.

“A collection is a living thing that evolves over time and gives us clues as to who we were and are as a community. Galleries become the custodians of those stories and are in a privileged position of being able to help tell them to future generations,” he says.

It’s these stories – all of them – that have captured John over the years. Ask him to choose a favourite artwork, artist or exhibition that has graced the gallery in his 25 years and he’d “sooner be able to choose a favourite child”.

Perhaps this is because of how his own story sits within the broader narrative. After migrating with his family from Italy in the early 1960s, John’s dad worked at the Port Kembla Steelworks. In doing so, his family became part of the rich tapestry of the region.

“I have always been interested in the things a diverse community brings to a region. So while I can’t pick a favourite project, I will say the ones that really stayed with me have been the ones where we have worked with the community to delineate how these different parts of the community contribute to our story,” he says.

“My particular interest at the gallery has been in how art can inform, enlighten and entertain the community. If we can tell those stories – about different parts of the community to another part of the community that may not be aware of it – that’s good for everyone.”

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John will be handing the baton to Daniel Mudie Cunningham, who officially takes over in August.

In retirement, John looks forward to travelling more with his wife and completing a few home projects. He’s also going to dust off an art studio at the back of his home that he hasn’t had the time to use in 20 years.

“I started as a painter and printmaker but later in my art practice became more into sculpture and ceramics. My wife’s a potter, so I’m looking forward to getting my hands dirty again, so to speak,” he says.

“I don’t have any specific ideas for artworks I’ll create yet. The way creativity works for me is, once I get started things evolve and change. The act of making takes me in directions, sometimes unexpected ones, which is exciting.

“I also look forward to attending Wollongong Art Gallery in a different capacity. Daniel will do an amazing job of taking it in a fresh direction, and I look forward to seeing that unfold as a visitor.”

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