Tony Ellwood has achieved the near impossible: he’s helped transform Brisbane from a philistine wasteland into a thriving cultural hub.

He’s done such a good job, his former bosses at the National Gallery of Victoria tapped him on the shoulder this year to replace the outgoing Gerard Vaughan in the hope he can bring some of his magic back down south.

Ellwood will have his fair share of challenges at the NGV, right near the top being the pressure to maintain high attendances. Despite reclaiming its crown recently as the most visited gallery in the country, NGV ticket revenue plunged in 2010/11 from $7.4 million to $4.7 million.

Still, the boy from country Victoria has demonstrated he’s got the bag of tricks to get people through the door.

“Tony’s had a huge impact up there,” Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele tells The Power Index. “He has really tapped into how to inspire the Queensland gallery-goer to feel like they just have to go and see what’s happening there.”

And go they have. Last year the Queensland Art Gallery and its sister institution, the Gallery of Modern Art, announced it had become the most visited museum in the country, drawing in 1.8 million visitors under the directorship of Ellwood.

Even to the man himself the 2010 figure was a surprising result (Ellwood had the numbers audited just in case), especially when it meant getting one over galleries of the might and reputation of the NGV and the Art Gallery of NSW.

Just yesterday it was reported the NGV had moved back into the top spot on The Art Newspaper‘s annual attendance survey, with 1.55 million visitors compared to QAG-GoMA’s 1.42 million last year. Still, Ellwood’s gallery could claim a decent second place with numbers affected by the 2011 Queensland floods.

Yet for those who have been watching Ellwood’s popular vision unfold at QAG-GoMA since he took the reins in 2007, his achievements would be hardly surprising. He’s made mass appeal his mission and quite deliberately set about looking to engage with as broad an audience as possible.

A fan of flashy suits and an even flashier spectacle, Ellwood’s message has been clear: there’s a little bit of something in this for everybody.

At GoMA, which opened just before Ellwood’s arrival, he made waves by shipping in blockbuster exhibits by Andy Warhol and Picasso, which drew in more than 200,000 people each (including a fair whack of tourists from interstate and overseas).

And then there have been his biggest fans: kids. A key part of Ellwood’s agenda has been to increase youth engagement at QAG-GoMA, including interactive exhibits aimed at a younger audience.

GoMA also has its very own Children’s Art Centre, while at last year’s 21st Century: Art in the first decade exhibition (the most popular in the country) it was a mutli-level stainless steel double slide which became a huge hit for kids who would queue up to ride it. “I get stopped in supermarkets with people saying to me ‘you won’t believe how often my children say take me to GoMA’,” Ellwood told The Australian last year.

But Ellwood’s kid-friendly mantra doesn’t go down well with everyone. Some critics deride his perceived fixation with chasing popular appeal and interactivity, labelling his gallery a “fun park” that focuses on spectacle over scholarship.

“There’s a tendency to walk in and say: ‘what’s the difference between this and a kids playground’,” says Justin O’Connor, a professor at the creative industries faculty at the Queensland University of Technology, who is supportive of what Ellwood has done at QAG and GoMA.

“There’re lots of exhibits which are immediately accessible and immediately popular, but there’s a certain point when you say: ‘well, not all art is this easy’, otherwise why would we go to a gallery?'”

*Read the full profile at The Power Index

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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