How I Got Here: Melbourne Art Foundation’s Dhariz Manalo on witnessing artistic discourse

by Helena Morgan
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Some people think facilities and operations managers just make sure the lifts are running and the lights are on. In reality, an FM wears many hats. From space management to sustainability and security in the built environment, responsibilities can vary from FM to FM. It’s a career full of opportunity that takes people down many different paths.

Facility Management’s ‘How I Got Here’ series chats to impressive people who have worked in the field to map out some of the paths taken and demystify this essential profession.

It is clear that Melbourne Art Foundation Fair administrator Dhariz Manalo was destined to work in an operational management role adjacent to the arts, as she relies on a musical analogy to eloquently describe the ingredients essential for a successful event.

“Once on site, it is a delicate symphony of maintaining and fostering relationships while sticking to a build schedule with our dedicated contractors,” says Manalo. 

With a background in project management, Manalo is guided by a purpose to deliver inspirational experiences to clients, audiences and local communities. She envisages operational management as a highly organised symbiotic process between all those involved, to meet deadlines and address the needs of those affected by an event’s economic and social footprint. 

Manalo is honoured to work with a noble not-for-profit organisation such as the Melbourne Art Foundation and offer a platform for story-telling that has the power to influence cultural discourse. She is delighted to play a part in providing environmentally responsible, curatorially meticulous and memorable events to the vibrant and diverse Australian arts community. 

Melbourne Art Fair 2024, photography by Griffin Simm.

Facility Management: Talk us through your career background and what led you to be working in site management.

Dhariz Manalo: I am originally from a process engineering background, working in the materials construction industry, and I have come to realise there are quite a few skills that are interchangeable within any industry. 

As a former project manager, I learned to be decisive, organised and provide support and solutions to all stakeholders, whether that be assisting a client on a construction project or delivering one of the most engaging art fairs in Australia. 

My core passion is sharing inspirational experiences with clients, audiences and the local community. Pursuing a career that aligns with the Arts has been a personal goal, and it is a great opportunity to be working with a not-for-profit organisation like Melbourne Art Foundation.

Melbourne Art Fair 2024, photography by Griffin Simm.

What does an average day look like for you?

A great attribute of operations management is that there is no average day, especially when delivering a fair at the MCEC. 

Onsite, it is a delicate symphony of maintaining and fostering relationships, while simultaneously sticking to a build schedule with our contractors. 

“These contractors specialise in and are responsible for building modular booth walling (PICO), providing electrical needs (EDL) and audio-visual expertise from bespoke audio visual and lighting solutions supplier Everything’s Possible Productions  and facilitating secure transportation and storage of artworks (Artwork Transport).

Melbourne Art Fair 2024, photography by Griffin Simm.

At the start of every shift, the operations team will meet with the MCEC event supervisors and discuss any daily build and Fair needs, which can include mobile and stationary equipment needs, logistical needs for loading dock access and cleaning schedules. 

The day is filled with constant conversations and troubleshooting. These conversations involve a vast array of stakeholders – the eight contracting companies onsite, the staff of 60 galleries and Indigenous art centres and MCEC events, retail and cleaning staff – to ensure that when the Melbourne Art Fair opens, guests and attendees experience a smooth, enjoyable and thought-provoking event.  

Can you run through the set-up and pack down of the recent Melbourne Art Fair, and explain how it differs from other events?

There is quite a lot of planning that takes place before arriving onsite at MCEC to guarantee a smooth and on-time setup and pack-down process for occupancy handover. 

A production schedule – a step-by-step process organised by time – is produced so that each contracting partner can effectively complete build tasks without hindering other duties or contractors. The operational schedule is condensed into three days of build set up, one day of exhibitor bump-in, four days of the fair being open and two and a half days of pack down. 

Therefore, the relationships between MCEC event supervisors, contractors and exhibitors are highly valued, and communication is at a constant high. As Melbourne Art Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation, the set-up and pack-down differs from other events by focusing on the needs and wants of our exhibiting galleries, fair partners and the visiting art community and audience. 

Each aspect of the build is curatorially considered, from the furniture used throughout the fair, to the food and beverages available at the bars and specific lighting and audio needs to showcase the vivid artworks.   

Melbourne Art Fair 2024, photography by Griffin Simm.

What are your responsibilities and who are your stakeholders?

The main responsibility of a site manager is to ensure that those visiting and working at Melbourne Art Fair have a smooth and enjoyable experience. 

This responsibility involves overseeing the build phase, liaising with contractors and MCEC loading dock staff, preparing onsite needs for Melbourne Art Foundation staff, volunteers, and exhibitors, front-of-house management of staff and guests, and ensuring the speakers of the Conversations program feel welcome and the panels are well attended and engaging. 

The stakeholders of the Melbourne Art Fair operations team are a myriad of communities – contractors, partners, exhibitors, gallerists, staff, volunteers, artists, curators, venue staff, visitors and speakers. 

What other departments do you work with?

Operations management has many touchpoints in differing departments. In terms of working with the MCEC, the departments include security, catering, retail, safety, cleaning, technology services and event planning. In terms of working within the foundation, our small team comprises marketing, galleries, VIP, programming and operations.   

Melbourne Art Fair 2024, photography by Griffin Simm.

What do you think an event such as the Melbourne Art Fair gives back to the city, and what does it mean to play an instrumental role in the operations?

Melbourne Art Foundation presents a forum for contemporary art and ideas and the spotlighting of new and iconic artists. The city of Melbourne and surrounds are invited to explore solo shows, works of scale and significance and to purchase art from 60 leading galleries and Indigenous art centres. 

Although the main objective of Melbourne Art Fair is to provide a platform for Australia’s leading galleries to exhibit and sell contemporary art, the foundation utilises profits to deliver an extensive commissioning and grants program. 

Since 2003, the Foundation has distributed more than $1 million in artist and curator fees. The fully-funded artistic program includes the vital showcasing of four Indigenous art centres, alongside works by artists living on Country. This program fosters lively discussions with international and national speakers.

Are there any misconceptions about the operations world that you’d like to address? What do you think people envision when you say you’re in operations and site management?

I don’t believe that there are misconceptions about operations, but more so people misunderstand what it entails and try to fit the description into a tiny, neat box with strict parameters. Operational management is a symbiotic process with all the stakeholders contributing to a key aspect that makes the fair a curatorially fantastic and rigorous event. 

Melbourne Art Fair 2024, photography by Griffin Simm.

What are the biggest challenges and obstacles of your job?

One of the main challenges of being a site manager is managing the ongoing relationships of all stakeholders onsite. Ensuring deadlines are met and understood, while also fulfilling the needs of communities directly impacted by the fair’s economic and social footprint, is a major challenge. 

What are some career or industry highlights?

A career highlight is the ability to be part of the unique Melbourne Art Fair. The fair delivers an extensive commissioning and grants program that allows for galleries and represented artists to establish a presence in the market. 

To be able to connect with and learn from all walks of life, in addition to facilitating ongoing engagement and story-telling by artists in this time and place, is incredible. 

Do sustainable operations practices play a part in your day? And if so, what are they?

Sustainability practices are an integral part of operating a fair. With a high consumption of packaging and one-use items, Melbourne Art Fair encourages all staff, exhibitors and contractors to reuse soft packing items and recycle other build materials. 

A soft-packing materials room is provided to encourage the reuse of soft plastics. The builder of booth walling also reuses their soft packing materials by collecting and re-rolling after each set-up, ready to be used again in the pack-down process. Additionally, one-off items such as lanyards are returned and used at the next Fair. 

Oigåll Projects VIP Lounge, photography by Annika Kafcaloudis.

The operations team works very closely with MCEC cleaning services to ensure other build materials such as pallets and aluminium sheets can be reused in daily operations and recycled at the venue’s onsite recycling management facility.

Melbourne Art Foundation had also commissioned Oigåll Projects to design and build the luxurious VIP Lounge that features a collectible design that has a life outside the fair. 

Sustainability needs are met in a practical way – recycled bike wheels are used as chairs and virgin aluminium is used as the main structure material, so they can be repurposed in the building and design community.

Oigåll Projects VIP Lounge, photography by Annika Kafcaloudis.

What do you love the most about your job?

My job allows me to be part of a cultural discourse and engage with the artistic community. I’m able to share and facilitate great experiences with the audience and contribute to the diverse Australian arts community.

Photography supplied by Melbourne Art Fair unless stated otherwise.

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