Umbrella Spans Three Decades

'Life in the Studio: Thirty Years of Umbrella' is now available at Umbrella Studio contemporary arts or online. IMAGE: Angela Little

Flipping through their 30th anniversary publication, it’s clear to see how Umbrella Studio contemporary arts has survived for 31 years: familiar names on the Townsville arts scene are spattered throughout its pages, and continue to be involved in the gallery to this day. We sat down with Umbrella’s Gallery Coordinator, Angela Little, for a look back following the launch of Umbrella Studio’s anniversary book, Life in the Studio: Thirty Years of Umbrella

Where did the concept of publishing a book to celebrate 30 years come from?
It was our Director Jonathan’s idea: when he arrived here, we knew Umbrella had a rich history and were going to make a fuss about it anyway for its 30th anniversary. Jonathan said to me, ’Why don’t we make a book?’ I knew we had enough archives to make a book; it was a great idea to make a publication for such a momentous occasion because we hadn’t done that for the 10th or 20th year anniversary, and 30 years is kind of a big deal. It makes us one of the longest-surviving arts organisations, especially of a smaller nature, in Queensland, and even in Townsville particularly. We felt this was the time to do it, and with Jonathan as a new Director coming in, that was one of the things that he really wanted to achieve. So we wrote and received a Community Heritage grant through Townsville City Council which paid for printing and helped with the actual publishing.

How has Umbrella survived for 30 years?
Through the dedication of its members, volunteers, supporters, purchasers of artwork … all of that. It’s the people that make Umbrella what it is, that’s what makes Umbrella special. It’s an arts organisation that is strongly committed to local arts, with a revolving door of people – a lot of the people who were at the launch last night were here at the beginning. It’s the support of the people that has made the gallery what it is, it wouldn’t be here otherwise. It’s had a consistent supportive group of people driving behind us from the beginning; and it’s the supportive members who make it what it is.

Were past Directors and artists involved in the creation of the book?
Yeah, you’ll see in the first couple of chapters that they’re written by previous Directors. Jonathan tracked them down and got them to write about their time and experience as a Director. Umbrella went through many changes apart from staff and venue – funding and other things went on that affected the way the organisation ran and that’s definitely reflected when you read from chapter to chapter. Especially in the beginning with the experiences those people had and the developments that occurred. Obviously 1986 – when they started – was a time when regional arts was the ‘in’ thing, so the timing was quite important. Then in the mid-90s it took a bit of a turn and got lost, but then came back. Umbrella’s been up and down in ways, and that’s reflected in that body of text. Jonathan has nicely stitched all of that together in a timelined version.

Do you think Umbrella has the same values it had back in 1986?
Absolutely. We stay true to our vision and our mission, and yes that has slightly evolved, but we’ve become more streamlined due to skilled staff and the help of skilled people making it what it is today. But we’re the same organisation with the same core values: we’re a membership organisation that supports local artists and they support us in return. We’re a place of bonding and stay true to what is, definitively, being local. We sometimes have external people and exhibitions, but that doesn’t change that we care about people here first and do what we can to support them.

What do you see for the gallery in the next 30 years?
That’s too difficult. That’s way too difficult! Hopefully Umbrella will continue to prosper and deliver what it has always done, which is exhibitions, events, workshops, and things like that. I don’t want to use the word ‘grow’ because that’s scary. If we grow, that would be great. But in saying that, if nothing else, to be remaining as we are, delivering arts to the audience we have and helping to inform Townsville is really what we want. At the end of the day, if we continue to make an impact on the community of Townsville, then we’re doing what we set out to do at the beginning.

For those that aren’t already involved, how can they start off?
One of the perks of our membership is being part of our members’ exhibition, which occurs every year, and everybody who’s a member is invited to participate. Every year also has a different theme, and this year’s theme is ‘Drive.’ You could be inspired by ideas of movement, transport, intuition, initiative, force … all sorts of things. It doesn’t have to be taken quite so literally. It makes you part of the community and gives you a sense of what our organisation’s about – it’s really fun being a part of that show, because everybody’s work is so different, everyone has a different interpretation of the theme, and you get to be a part of it and have your work displayed in a professional gallery space. You don’t have to have a whole body of work, so it’s accessible, covers every style of work, and bonds everyone together.

So it is like the definition of ‘umbrella,’ it covers everything.
Yeah that’s right, and the members’ show has been going right from the beginning as well. The very first members’ show was called ‘Umbrella is a tree’ – and I’m not sure what they were thinking then, but we’ll just go with it! – and that was in 1989, close to the beginning of the organisation. We only became incorporated in 1989 so that was when it started to really take off in regards to more interactivity, having a bunch of people facilitating events, bringing on staff members, and things like that. Ever since then, there’s been one every year. And every year, it’s really hard to come up with a theme that everybody likes! So if anyone has any suggestions for future themes, I’m always open to suggestions!

And this year we have new youth membership for under 25s – and even then with free membership, you get to be part of the exhibition. We already have about 50 youth members so far this year.

The book is a pretty momentous step for us, and summarises 30 years of archives downstairs – we’ve all been trawling through those for about a year. And since we’re 31 now, you have to cut us some slack for our timing because we didn’t receive the grant until December!

Life in the Studio: Thirty Years of Umbrella is available both for purchase at Umbrella Studio contemporary arts and online. To become a member of the gallery, click here.

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