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DAAFF Yarns… with Joann Russo

Oct 7, 2020

Part of Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation (DAAFF)’s ongoing mission is to help build a stronger and more resilient arts sector. And we reckon much of this work comes from simply sitting down and listening to each other. 

Taking a moment to have a yarn and walk in someone else’s shoes can help us understand different perspectives and reflect on how we can work together. 

In this series, we’re connecting with people from across DAAFF’s community to learn and share in some of their  knowledge about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts industry and DAAFF’s role within it. Today we chat to Art Centre Manager Joann Russo, who works out of Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre in Far North Queensland.

Words | Camilla Wagstaff


Joann Russo

Art Centre Manager, Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre

 Can you explain what an Art Centre actually is?

Art Centres are a central point for community. They’re also a central point for the arts industry – curators, collectors, institutions – to come and ethically source artwork directly from artists and communities. 


An important function of the Art Centre is to ensure that transfer of knowledge… that it remains intact as each new generation comes through. This work is done through meetings in the physical Art Centre space, through artist workshops, and even through the artwork itself. Each piece tells a story of the area, of each individual that is creating those pieces. We are making sure those stories don’t die out and that legacy continues into the future.

Tell us about a day in the life of an Art Centre Manager.

Art Centres are generally small in size and staff, so we always have a lot to do. It can be anything from running development workshops or classes with artists, documenting, promoting and selling artwork, interacting with visitors, updating the website, training staff, it goes on! No two days are the same, and it can get pretty crazy! 

What do you love most about your job?

That I am working for Mob. I get to make their visions come to life and I love that I am able to be there for them on a daily basis. Spending time with Mob is definitely the best part.

Senior Artist Ninney Murray working with earth pigments, Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre.

What are the major challenges of your role?

The amount of jobs involved can be overwhelming! Part of the territory with Art Centres is the need to be constantly adaptive, and sometimes the environment, or the resources we have, just doesn’t allow for that. 

For example, all of my staff come from community and they don’t all have a typical western education or administrative skills. So, one of the major challenges is finding new resources and new ways to teach them the skills they need to thrive in their roles. We have to constantly adapt our work practices to make sure everyone is able to undertake the workload. But this can also be a very rewarding part!

2020 has thrown plenty of curve balls our way. How has this affected you and your work?

It’s really put us back. We were due to open a new gallery and we had a renovation in the pipeline that has now been delayed. We had some exciting economic opportunities available to us which have been pushed back as well. Now it’s just a waiting game, there’s a lot of uncertainty around when we’ll be able to move forward.

We had to cancel all our workshops during the COVID-19 lockdown period, which the artists didn’t enjoy. They use our workshops as a social gathering, a way to interact with others. Social distancing is not a term not familiar to Aboriginal communities, so not being able to meet as often as they usually would has really impacted them. But ultimately, we had to put safety first. 

Ninney Murray, My Country, Earth pigments on paper, 76cm x 57cm, 2019, Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre
Philip Denham, Bagu and Jiman, Wooden Sculpture – traditional object, 30cm x 8.5cm x 2.5cm, 2019, Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre.

Why is it important to buy from Art Centres, and what should potential buyers be asking when they purchase an Indigenous artwork?

Understanding provenance is the really important part. Who is the artist? What is their story, their Country, their connection? What Art Centre do they have a relationship with? What do they get from this sale? 

When you buy from Art Centres, or galleries that work directly with Art Centres, you can ensure the production of the work has been voluntary and ethical, and that the profits from the sale are going back to the artist and their community.

What does the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair mean to Art Centres?

Obviously, it’s an important sales platform. But it’s so much more than that. It’s also a meeting place – a space where we can meet with artists and workers from all across this Country. 

It’s an amazing opportunity to network, but it goes so far beyond professional or even personal relationships. 

Mob have met… Mob, [who have now become extended] family through DAAF and its related events. They allow us to discover similarities, differences, how we can work together, how we can support each other, and how we can become more of a united front.

Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre team at 2019 Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair. Photo by Dylan Buckee.

Part of Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation’s mission is to encourage and assist with professional development opportunities for artists and arts workers. Can you tell me a bit about Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre ‘s experiences with these? 

The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair is a professional development opportunity in itself. It allows our staff to have a go at curating a booth and to network with other arts workers, so there’s a great transfer of knowledge in that respect. 

But we also participate in DAAFF’s curator’s and collector’s program called Cultural Keepers. The program is all about sharing knowledge and linking up with industry professionals to learn about different aspects of the visual arts industry that we may not have much knowledge of.

For example, in years when we have a physical fair, we get buddied up with an Indigenous curator from the industry. They come from all sorts of different organisations and institutions. Having our arts workers be able to sit down with someone from an institution and hear their perspectives is such a valuable experience. Especially as many of us are working so remotely, it allows us to get that hands-on industry knowledge we otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

What do these kinds of opportunities mean to artists?

We try to take a few artists with us to the fair and its related events each year. Soraya Whelan came with us in 2019 – she had never been to anything remotely like DAAF before. To see her work displayed alongside work from 70 other Art Centres gave her a real sense of pride. It gave her a chance to talk to other artists about her own practice, about their practices – she was absolutely blown away. 

It really puts into perspective for the artist that yes, you may come from a tiny community or a small rural town. But the reality you’re so much bigger than that. You’re known. People want to be a part of your practice; they want to take home a piece of it. To see how well received their work is really gives artists a boost to feel more confident in their own practice. 

Thank you to Joann Russo for sharing her knowledge and kicking off our ‘DAAFF Yarns’ series.  

You can see more from Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre here; www.girringunartcentre.com

Thanks for reading, and be sure to subscribe as the series continues.

John Murray, Three Boats on the River, 2018, Acrylic on Canvas, 690x700mm. Photo courtesy of Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre.