Tom Mosby (Torres Strait Islander) is Chief Executive Officer of the Koorie Heritage Trust, Melbourne. Beginning his career as an art conservator with the Art Gallery of Western Australia and later with the National Gallery of Victoria, in 1998 Tom curated the highly-acclaimed Ilan Pasin (this is our way), Australia’s first major survey of Torres Strait Islander art. Practising as a lawyer for 10 years, including Senior Associate roles in Melbourne and Brisbane, Tom returned to the cultural sector in 2009 as Executive Manager, Indigenous Research and Projects, with the State Library of Queensland. At the State Library, Tom was instrumental in developing The Torres Strait Project, a cross art-form collaboration between Queensland’s key cultural agencies. Tom is currently chair of the Board of Directors of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair and past Acting Chair of Bangarra Dance Theatre.
Tom’s family connections are across the Islands: Tom states, my father’s family is from Masig (Yorke Island) which is part of the Kulkalgal nation of the central Torres Strait, and my mother’s family is from Erub (Darnley Island) and Mer (Murray Islands) in the Eastern Torres Strait. But both of my grandparents moved to Iama (Yam Island), which is also in the central Torres Strait. So I consider Iama home, but we have connections everywhere. I went to primary school on Thursday Island. When I started high school, my parents moved to Cairns, where I went to High School. There’s a large Torres Strait Islander community in Cairns, so it didn’t feel too far from home. I was 16 when I finished High School and started university where I studied art conservation/restoration. I had originally wanted to study anthropology and archeology but the school’s careers advisor suggested art restoration because it takes in elements of both anthropology and archaeology, and I could always go back to further study if I decided I didn’t like it. So I thought, ‘why not? That sounds great!’ And that’s all there was to it. I loved it.
My first job after graduating was a 6 month contract in 1989 at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. I moved to Melbourne at the end of 1989 on a short term contract with the National Gallery of Victoria. I left the NGV in 1990 for an internship in Ottawa, Canada, working for three months at the Canadian Conservation Institute, and then after that finished I went back to the Torres Strait. In 1991, I was offered a job back at the NGV to head up their Objects Conservation Studio, so I came back to Melbourne and have been here ever since – apart from 5 years in Brisbane between 2007 and 2012 as my partner was offered the directorship of the Queensland Art Gallery. He was appointed Director of the National Gallery of Victoria in 2012, and that’s how we ended up back in Melbourne. What is your earliest memory of art? I think it was everything… As you know, to all Indigenous cultures, art is so central. But the concept of art itself – it’s a relative term. When I think of art in the Islands… We always had beautiful objects that were used in dance and ceremony and all that… but they weren’t treated as art. They were functional performance based objects. And these have become, and are now seen as art objects in their own right. You are a lawyer by trade. Can you tell us about this journey, what made you want to study the law?
My partner and I met in 1992. He was a junior registrar at the National Gallery of Victoria, and his career in the arts started to take off around the same time. Although I loved conservation, it is a very small profession and not easy to relocate. Because my partner was also working in the arts, we made a rconscious decision that I would change careers to something that was more transportable. I had always been interested in law, and so I began looking into it further. Melbourne Uni at the time had an Indigenous support unit that was focused on recruiting students into law, and so that’s what happened. It was a career choice, but it was also very pragmatic. And it worked, too – I was able to move and practice law in Melbourne and Brisbane. Prior to taking on the role of CEO of the Koorie Heritage Trust, you headed up Kuril Dhagun at the Queensland State Library. Can you tell us about your time there, and your proudest accomplishment?
In between working as a lawyer, and then going into working at the State Library of Queensland, I appeared on season one of MasterChef. When I was eliminated from MasterChef, I was offered contract work at the State Library. The Library was planning a refurbishment of the Kuril Dhagun Indigenous Knowledge Centre space, and so I was approached in a design/arts capacity to look at the space and how it could work, and it progressed from there.
My ambition was for Kuril Dhagun to become a digital space: rather than a traditional passive space. I wanted interactive technology to be used. So as part of this, we put in a huge digital wall, and another large screen that was intended to be a portal of the Indigenous Knowledge Centres throughout the Cape and Torres Strait. I had plans to see how we could use technology to link up with the remote Queensland communities, creating a portal into those communities. Working at Kuril Dhugan was my first experience with the use of technology as a means for engaging with and educating around culture. The Koorie Heritage Trust is a beloved organisation and cultural centre for the Victorian Koorie community. How did you go about honouring this history while also taking the Trust in a new direction?
The Trust has an amazing collection. It’s both historical and contemporary. So to honour this history, and to take the Trust in a new direction: it’s about showcasing this amazing collection, developing public programs and exhibitions that involve the community. Key to our curatorial strategy is to work with guest Indigenous curators. These could be artists, an early career curator, or a community member, and they work with our Trust staff to curate a defined show. An example of this is a show we’re putting on next year. Glenda Nicholls is a Victorian artist, and we’ve engaged her as a guest curator to develop the show and that’s really exciting for her and for us. We work with our guest curator to engage with community, but we’re also running workshops to get more community through the door. Earlier this year, Glenda ran closed community weaving workshops that showcased the collection and helps build on community and culture.
We’re also using the new space as a way to engage with community. We have a kitchenette and a big lounge area that we’re really encouraging people to drop in and use. The vast majority of responses to the move and the new space have been really positive. We’re getting more and more people dropping in and discovering us, and engaging with us and the space. Under your leadership the Koorie Heritage Trust moved from King Street to Federation Square. What does this new location mean for the Trust? Firstly, there’s the historical connection to the site itself. The history of the gatherings of the Kulin Nations around this area. There’s the connection to the river. So there are those cultural connections, but the space is also in the centre of a cultural precinct. This reflects that we’re no longer accepting our position as fringe dwellers, both from an historical perspective but also because in our previous location in King Street, we were physically on the fringe of the Melbourne CBD.
Relocating the Trust is about placing Indigenous culture at the centre of Melbourne, and showing that it is central to everyone’s lives. The collection is often referred to as the heart of the Koorie Heriatge Trust. What is its significance? The Trust is the only collection that focusses solely on Victorian Aboriginal art and culture, which makes it really special. As part of that, we don’t pass artistic judgement on what we collect. Our curation is about reflecting art styles and development as they occurred and continue to occur in Victoria. Contemporary stuff from the 1980s, for example, you can see the influence of design styles from other parts of Australia, and over the years you can see the emergence and progression of Victorian design styles and aesthetics.
Our focus on Victorian Aboriginal art is reflected in the design of the spaces in our new Federation Square building – for example, the diamond motifs on the concrete and the carpet. The Trust’s collection shows a progressive discovery of artists. We’ve been collecting artists who have gone on to become incredibly successful, like Bindi Cole, Josh Muir or Pitcha Making Fellas. We pride ourselves on mentoring and support that we can provide young artists. The new look of the Trust is bold. What was the thinking behind the design choices of the new building?
The old Trust site at King Street had a particular design aesthetic to reflect Aboriginal Victoria. We wanted to do the same thing, but to reflect a more contemporary aesthetic. Kerry Lyons from Lyons Architecture is a big supporter of the Trust. He came on board with his team to work on the interior, and collaborated with Reuben Berg and Jefa Greenaway at Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria who came up with things like the design on the carpet, the decal on the glass which is the manna gum blossoms and leaves used in Kulin Nation smoking ceremonies. We wanted a modern, contemporary design, but we also wanted to ensure Aboriginal Victoria was reflected in the building. There are clear connections to land – our desks and the materials used reflect the topography of country. The space tells a story about and reflects contemporary Aboriginal Victoria while paying tribute to all that has come before.
What will the next five years bring for the Trust? The next five years are all about consolidation. Consolidating ourselves as an organisation, building confidence in our brand, and then moving forward. I want the Trust to be bigger than what it is. When I came on board, the Trust was coming up to it’s 30th birthday. A lot of my initial work at the Trust was to consolidate our operations, who we are and what we do. We’re now in a good place to look to the future. We’re looking to expand, but remaining strategic in that expansion. It’s about building our Indigenous staff and supporting Indigenous employment in our exhibitions and collections area, finance, education and retail.
It’s also time for secession planning. It’s time look at the next generation coming through, who can bring in new ideas and take the Trust to the next level. And for yourself, a qualified lawyer, with a love of cooking, travel and a deep appreciation of the visual arts, are there any adventures that you would like to embark on? The big thing that I admire about Jirra (Director of Kalinya Communications) is the fact that she can run this incredibly successful business, and go travelling to all these exciting places, and look gorgeous – I think that’s the next adventure for me! I want to emulate Jirra where I can run a successful business but still have time to travel and see the world.