Karen Quinlan has been appointed the new CEO of Arts Centre Melbourne. The current CEO of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and former Director of Bendigo Art Gallery will take on her new role from 3 October.

Karen Quinlan

Karen Quinlan. Incoming Arts Centre Melbourne CEO, Karen Quinlan. Photo © Mark Mohell, National Portrait Gallery

It promises to be a challenging time for Quinlan and her team, with the Arts Centre Melbourne entering what has been dubbed a “once-in-a-generation” redevelopment costing $1.7 billion.

“We could not be more thrilled that Karen will be joining us as CEO at such a pivotal moment in our history,” said Ian Carson, President of the Victorian Arts Centre Trust.

Victorian Minister for Creative Industries Steve Dimopoulos also welcomed Quinlan’s appointment, saying, “An exceptional creative leader, Karen brings her vast credentials and talent to drive this next pivotal stage for our iconic Arts Centre.”

Quinlan played a transformative role as Director of Bendigo Art Gallery from 2000 until 2018, working with international cultural institutions to bring blockbuster exhibitions to regional Victoria, driving cultural tourism and the visitor economy.

Already underway, the Melbourne Arts Precinct Transformation projects includes the complete refurbishment of the Theatres Building, comprising the State Theatre, Playhouse and Fairfax Studio. Beginning in 2024, the State Theatre – home to The Australian Ballet – will close for several years to receive new stage technology, seating and a complete overhaul of its backstage areas.

Following years of disruption, first through the phased redevelopment of the Sydney Opera House and then the COVID lockdowns, these latest closures will be an obvious cause of concern for the various performing arts organisations that make use of Arts Centre Melbourne.

In dealing with such challenges, Quinlan will rely on her experience at the Bendigo Art Gallery, where she ensured continued operations during a redevelopment adding 600 square metres of new gallery space and storage at a cost of $8.5 million.

Over the past four years, Quinlan also steered the National Portrait Gallery through a period of change and ambition, which extended the gallery’s national reach and profile. Despite the ongoing impact of the pandemic, an ambitious procurement and exhibition program saw 462,000 visitors pass through the gallery’s doors in 2020–21, while its online access and learning initiatives saw an increase in participation of over 500 percent.

This places Quinlan in good stead to lead the development of the Arts Centre Melbourne’s new state-of-the-art education, workshop and rehearsal studios, as well as a new gallery for the Australian Performing Arts Collection and expanded space for the Australian Music Vault.

Carson acknowledged this by saying, “Karen is also keen to bring our prestigious Australian Performing Arts Collection of more than 700,000 objects to life, diversify audiences and further elevate the reach and impact of our creative learning programs across Victoria.”

Speaking to The Age, Quinlan said “My track record is very much about biography, narrative and storytelling. What I love doing is working with that kind of content; telling those stories and those narratives.”

Before moving to the National Portrait Gallery in the ACT, Quinlan was a Professor of Practice and Director of the La Trobe Art Institute La Trobe University; a former Trustee of the State Library of Victoria; and Board Member and former Chair of the Public Galleries Association of Victoria. Quinlan has also previously been a board member of the NGV’s Victorian Foundation of Living Australian Artists and the Melbourne Fashion Festival.

Quinlan could not hide her excitement at the prospect of taking on this exciting new role in her home state.

“Arts Centre Melbourne is a cultural institution of global significance and is a place that connects performers, artists, makers and presenters. The transformation of the Melbourne Arts Precinct will redefine our experience, engage new audiences and inspire generations to come.”

Quinlan added, “As an arts leader I am excited and energised by the prospect of leading the extraordinary team at Art Centre Melbourne, working with Ian Carson and the Trust, embracing change and growth, and importantly delivering a world class experience for the community in my hometown!”

Further information about the Arts Centre Melbourne ‘Reimagining’ project can be found here.

Contribute to Limelight and support independent arts journalism.