So what do curators of world-leading Australian cultural institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) do when a pandemic forces them to close their physical doors?
Do they paint their own portraits from a variety of of angles? Brush up on their art history? Draw on inspiration elsewhere to tell their stories?
Not the NPG in Canberra.
It buys all the green fabric from the nearest Spotlight store and prepares to welcome hundreds, or even thousands, of virtual strangers into their homes. And Penny Grist, curator of exhibitions at the NPG, couldn’t be happier.
Penny and her NPG colleagues, digital manager Gill Raymond and curator of collections and resources Joanna Gilmour, along with what Penny describes as “a brilliant team”, are the brains behind keeping the NPG’s collection in the public eye despite the fact the gallery is currently closed due to COVID-19 lockdown.
From this Thursday, 16 September, online visitors will be able to log on to the NPG’s website to be part of the latest online program, ‘In Conversation: You Choose the Story’, which is designed to bring the collection to the people.
Penny will host a digital story via Zoom where people everywhere can sign in and go on the journey with her.
It will start with an image of actor Richard Roxburgh, then onto two portraits that somehow connect with him. It will be up to the audience to guess what the connection is and take the story in whichever direction they want by voting what they want to see next.
Not only does the voting show the curators what interests their audience, it also provides an excellent guide to how many people are actually watching.
Penny, who has been NPG curator for eight years, says in previous lockdowns hundreds of virtual visitors were drawn to the NPG’s online tours to follow their stories. These were not just regular audiences in Canberra and throughout Australia, but from all over the world.
“That’s got to be the best part of my job,” she says. “It’s all about sharing our collection with as many people as we can – reaching out to people.
“The only difference is that when we’re in lockdown, we’re doing this from our various bedrooms, lounge rooms and dining rooms rather than the gallery space.”
The new online series will run weekly.
The NPG describes the series as a “very strange land where portraiture meets Choose Your Own Adventure meets Six Degrees of Separation meets Australian Idol”.
For Penny, it’s a lot about parallels.
“What we want to show people through these visual, online journeys is the fascinating biographical paths people follow,” she says. “There’s such a strong parallel with art and life.
“What we do in the gallery is celebrate the life and art of a portrait, and we love to delve into the most unusual aspects of their lives.”
Penny says that parallel has never been stronger than now during lockdown life.
“What it has done is create a sense of connection to the fabric of our society,” she says. “These days, we’re constantly reminded of connection to the places we’ve been.”
Because the NPG has already worked through one lockdown, Penny believes the experience learned during that process has not only earned it a loyal audience, but the ability to become a little experimental.
“The guys behind the scenes have made this process quite seamless for us because they’ve done it before and know what works,” she says.
“So I love that we can experiment more with ideas now. I love the rush of going live, of not knowing who is going to be there – that the interaction with people by doing this is enlivening and joyful.”
The ‘In Conversation: You Choose the Story’ program is available here.
The full calendar of the National Portrait Gallery’s online events is available here.