The Dreamers.

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Chris Saines

When Chris Saines first took a job at Queensland Art Gallery in 1984, his Melbourne friends warned him of the perils of moving north. Chris ignored their advice and packed his bags for Brisbane, excited to be part of what was then a fledgling gallery only two years into its existence. In 1995, Chris moved across the Tasman to take up the post of director of the Auckland Art Gallery, which he held for 17 years. But the warmer climes of Brisbane eventually enticed him back, and in 2013 he made his return – this time with a family in tow – to assume the directorship at the now world-renowned QAGOMA.

Chris Saines remembers exactly the first piece of artwork that ever caught his imagination. It was when he was 15 while on a class excursion to Melbourne – a few hours from the dairy farm in country Victoria he had grown up on. “We saw an exhibition of Sidney Nolan’s The Gallipoli Series, which struck me as one of the most astonishing things I had ever seen. It certainly was my first experience of contemporary art and it was from a figure who was probably then in his prime. I remember I went back to school and wrote a feverish essay about it!”

Despite this revelatory moment, when it came to career aspirations, Chris was focused on a different artistic endeavour: acting. “I was involved in all the plays at school, often in lead roles,” he recalls. “There was nothing more pleasing than hearing that feedback from the audience.”

That love for pleasing a crowd, Chris muses, might also explain why he dreamed at one stage of becoming a minister. “I wasn’t particularly religious, but – belonging to the Church of England – I was always entranced by the way in which the minister would stand at the head of the congregation in a pulpit, and have the undivided attention of those who were gathered there. I think it was just that I was drawn to that public space – and the vestments that went with it!”

The turning point came when it was time to choose a university path, and Chris wavered between studying at Monash to become a drama teacher, or going to La Trobe to study art history. Eventually he chose the latter, but his theatre days were not time idly spent. “Nothing you do in life is ever wasted and no interest is ever lost,” Chris says. “I think that interest in theatre and public speaking was all built around a love of communicating with people.”

Following his first role in a public gallery, working as a curator at McClelland Gallery, Chris saw an advertisement for a job as an education officer at Queensland Art Gallery. “I was almost counselled against it by friends in Victoria who thought I would truly be going to the end of the earth,” he laughs. “There were those jokes that were always readily at hand about stepping back in time when you went to Brisbane.”

Undeterred, Chris applied for the role and in 1984 he moved to Brisbane. “It definitely didn’t feel like a very big city back then,” he recalls. “But by the same token, it was an incredibly exciting place to come to. The Queensland Art Gallery was then only two years old and within about four years Expo 88 burst across South Bank. So I really got to see that transition from tin shed to world-class destination. There was also the development of the first of the Asia Pacific Triennials and that, now, is a legacy that I return to the gallery to build upon.”

Being in the unique position of returning to run a gallery he got to know so well during its fledgling years, Chris says, is a great privilege. “Anyone who occupies this role is very fortunate. A great deal of public trust is placed in us and I also have one of the most highly engaged and passionate staff working in any art museum in this country.”

His vision for the gallery is grand. “I want to continue to grow the gallery’s audience and strengthen that relationship that we’ve built over the last 20 years with people within the Queensland community and beyond. And I want us to increasingly focus on delivering exhibitions that we’ve been responsible for curating and that we’re planning to take out into the wider world – both in Australia and internationally.”

While much of his time is spent dealing with supremely talented artists, Chris says he finds the most inspiration in the spirits of his two young daughters, Poppy, 9, and Georgia, 6. “They remind me daily of why I do what I do,” he marvels. “And I have the great privilege and pleasure of often coming into the gallery with them, because it’s kind of my world and has thus become theirs. I cannot tell you the pride I take seeing the way they respond to and interact with the kinds of things we do at the gallery. You never have to question why you do a job like this, but when you have a young family where you can see the benefit of the experiences that you find in a gallery, and the impact it has on their young lives, it’s difficult not to feel proud. The greatest thing you can give your children is time and attention, and you see them picking up interests as they grow. What I want to see is them become as passionate about something in life as I feel I’ve been about the things I’ve pursued.”