Fiona Salmon is Director of the Flinders University Museum of Art (FUMA) and, in a case of pure serendipity, has personal links to Matthew Flinders as a direct descendent of his younger sister, Susannah.
What is your role at FUMA and what does a normal day look like for you?
I am responsible for the University’s art collections (comprising more than 8,000 works) and FUMA’s diverse activities including exhibitions, education and public programs, publications, artist residencies and public art projects.
This involves leadership of a small, talented and dedicated team of arts professionals, collaboration with artists and colleagues across the University, and management of external partnerships, fund-raising, media and communications. As a representative of FUMA – and current chair of University Art Museums Australia (UAMA) – I am also engaged in efforts to advance the interests of the cultural sector nationally.
A ‘normal’ day will inevitably entail a check-in with the team, engagement with visitors, meetings about existing and potential projects, bouts of problem solving and a good dose of administrivia. It might also involve exhibition research and writing, advocacy, attending events and networking, catching up with artists, writing grants, providing advice, strategic thinking – the list goes on.
Can you briefly describe the work journey that took you to this point in your career?
My career has been shaped by a passion for language, arts and culture; a penchant for collaborating on creative outcomes; and exploring and communicating ideas.
As a student at the University of Melbourne I was heavily involved in student film and theatre while waitressing and working in a bookstore to pay the rent. Later, while completing a master’s degree in applied linguistics, I taught courses for international students in academic writing.
Upon graduation I moved to the Northern Territory where I was employed by Diwurruwurru-Jaru Aboriginal Language Centre as a field linguist. Based in southern Arnhem Land, I worked with elders producing books, videos and other resources in Rembarrnga and Dalabon, as part of a community-led Indigenous language maintenance program. In the late 1990s I moved to Maningrida, the so-called New York of Arnhem Land, where I was appointed to manage the community’s thriving art centre. This was an exhilarating and all-consuming role supporting over 200 Aboriginal artists from nine language groups.
Returning to Melbourne in 2002 to have my first child, I completed a postgraduate diploma in Museum Studies. I then worked as a program manager for Museums Australia (Victoria) and curator for the Cunningham Dax Collection. In 2004 I accompanied my partner to the Netherlands taking freelance assignments with me. Whilst there, I was awarded a guest lecturing role in museology at the Reinwardt Academy for the Arts and had child number two.
I joined FUMA in 2007 as Collections Manager and was promoted to the position of Director in 2009. More than a decade later I am still here, as-energised-as-ever by the scope of the collections; the wealth of expertise and collegiality that exists at Flinders; and the dynamic role FUMA plays as part of the University’s education and engagement agenda.
What are some of the artists or styles you most appreciate personally?
While FUMA represents many significant periods and styles of art, the contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections resonate most with me. These collections reflect the strength, vitality and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities, while enabling audiences to see the world from Indigenous points of view. Late 20th century works by senior Indigenous women embracing bold palettes and lose gestural lines, including for example by Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910-1996), Eubena Nampitjin (1921-2013) and Judy Napangardi Watson (1925-2016), are personal favourites.
Can you share any hints of what’s on the horizon for FUMA in the near future?
Due to COVID-19 the gallery is shut until further notice however FUMA is working behind the scenes on the delivery of online exhibitions and other digital initiatives which can be found on the FUMA website.
One of our more ambitious projects is a collaboration with Flinders academic Dr Ali Gumillya Baker which will respond to the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s landing on Dharawal Country, on the southern headland of what is now known as Botany Bay. (Read more here – opening 27 May.)
Can you describe a challenge in your life and how you dealt with it?
From my perspective, challenges are best tackled by recognising and acting on the opportunities they inevitably bring.
Right now, living and working in the age of COVID-19 is a challenge we all face, but with technology, creativity and ingenuity the world is finding many coping strategies. In the case of FUMA, closing the gallery doors has provided opportunities for the team to upskill in the virtual realm, expand services to academic staff who are using the collections in teaching and learning, and deliver a raft of novel online initiatives. The shut-down has also enabled us to connect with artists and audiences in new ways and appreciate the critical importance of visual art afresh.
What is something you are most proud of?
I am super-proud of what FUMA has achieved as a team over the past decade, including delivery of over 85 exhibitions and more than 400 education and public programs. We have secured grants, donations, bequests and in-kind support to the tune of 1.5M, launched a new gallery, rebranded, delivered a new website and put the collections online for the first time.
FUMA has also lifted the profile of the collections as a cross-disciplinary resource and now engages in some form with every university college for educational purposes. Regarding the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections, I am especially proud of the work we are doing with communities and colleagues to engage students with Indigenous knowledges, understandings and lived experiences.
How do you like to relax or spend your spare time?
I am a keen walker; I like to plant things and cook for friends.