The director

One year since Brigette Uren took the reins of Maitland's art gallery, attendance is up & costs are down. 
But what's her metric of success?

For the last few years Maitland Regional Art Gallery has swept up accolades and praise by the armful. 

Over and over again it comes from the artists themselves - praising the space, the staff, the vision of the gallery and the support it receives from the community.

Until last year, the blooming reputation of MRAG was inextricably linked with its eccentric, larger-than-life cultural director - Joe Eisenberg.

Often photographed wearing colour mismatched sneakers, Eisenberg had a reputation with local press for being 'up for anything'. In other words he'd never shy from an interesting photo or a colourful quote. 

Straight talkers are as rare as hen's teeth, doubly-so when it comes to high-profile, government-funded postings like his. 

Boundlessly energetic and determined, he fashioned the gallery into a spearhead of brick, glass and red paint that pushed Maitland's reputation into the wider world. 

So, last year, when Eisenberg announced he'd step back from his role as cultural director, there was a collective sense of loss in the community. 

But the gallery's supporters, protective and deeply smitten with Eisenberg's MRAG, had little to worry about. 

His deputy director, Brigette Uren, had long acted as his counterbalance - practical, respectable and welcoming to Eisenberg's off-the-wall. 

Even when commenting as deputy director, she spoke with strength, direction and a voice entirely her own. 

In October 2015 when she took up the office of cultural director, no one was surprised.

But, she said, the sense of responsibility weighed on her all the same. And a year on that's probably the only thing that hasn't changed at MRAG.

"I still am nervous," she admitted.

"People always expect it to be better, it takes a lot of planning.

"The gallery is very much owned by the people of Maitland." 

When asked what she thought of the first year in office she quickly jumped into glowing praise of the staff, volunteers and community.

"Our visitors are up 28 per cent, active engagement 311 per cent," she said.

"That's people participating in programs, not just looking. That's the community committing at a different level.

"We've reduced the number of exhibitions. We've reduced our expenses, increased our revenue, increased our visitation, we've proven to the community we're being smarter. 

"We're so focused on the Hunter's art community."

That's great news... but, how has it felt to be a part of that? As the leader of a celebrated institution, as an agent of that success, how do you feel?

"Joe [Eisenberg] gave us an excellent position to start from," she said.

"People see the value in this gallery. And my role is to take that to the next level, to do more.

"Joe's motto was 'come, see what we're about'. Mine is 'come, see, make and do'."

It's difficult to get to the centre of Uren's personal drive and sense of self. 

Ever humble, always pointing to the foundations laid by her forebear and efforts made by team members, she clearly spends her time thinking of the gallery and the people who make it work - rather than herself.

Ask her about the gallery as an instrument for improving the lives of individuals - particularly those who have suffered hardship - and the Director's vision pulls briefly into focus.

"The concept of being inclusive is very important to me," she said.

"It's important for all the staff and programs to reflect that this is more than a space for art. It's a space for the community to connect with art and each other.

"That's philosophically where the gallery is."

Uren said the gallery has a part to play on two fronts; arts and health. And no where has Uren's MRAG been so vibrant as in the Arts and Dementia and mental health programs.

The programs, funded exclusively by patronage from the community, invite people isolated by memory loss and mental issues to come back into a public space.

"It's not about what's on the walls," Uren said.

"It's about recognising these people are our family, they're not just tucked away in some linoleum-lined room. 

"It's about dignity."

Uren said it was impossible to quantify how much success the programs were having, but countless moments spoke to their importance.

"Grant bodies want to see statistics, but so much of health relies on interaction with people," she said.

"But to see people, who get off the buses cramped and looking down, walk away from the gallery taller, with brighter eyes – you see why I'm so proud.

"It creates new ways of having conversations. We had one woman, a daughter, come in with her mother. And she said 'My mother no longer recognises me, but she just spoke my name for the first time in so long'.

"That's the moment the gallery is about."

The mental health program is ambitious - its objectives read like those of a medical service. 

Create a space that reduces the number of hospital and doctor visits, even reduce the dependence on medication.

"We have people come in with acute mental health problems," Uren said.

"Not able to engage with their own family of the community.

"Slowly it changes.

"One woman told me that, for the first time in years, she was able to walk down the street and buy a bottle of milk and bread," Uren wiped her eyes, clearly moved.

"To be a part of that contribution..." she shook her head.

"So much of health relies on interaction with people.

"We're more than just drinks on exhibition opening night."