Meet Your Local FM: Bendigo Art Gallery’s Simone Bloomfield on the ripple effects of a regional cultural space

by Helena Morgan
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When attending a concert at a theatre, moseying around an art gallery or museum, strolling past your local PCYC or experiencing child-like wonder at the zoo, have you ever stopped to ponder who is in charge of the management and operations of this bustling and beloved facility?

This year, Facility Management launches a new editorial series called ‘Meet Your Local FM’, where we talk with the facility and operation managers, technical service and safety operators, and sustainability officers of iconic Australian institutions.

We’re diving deep to reveal a facility’s inner mechanics, along with the who and how of what it takes to keep these special spaces running so smoothly.  We’re putting a face to a facility and debunking any assumptions surrounding this essential profession which many don’t know a lot about.

Facilities managers hail from niche and varied working backgrounds. Those profiled in ‘Meet Your Local FM’ and ‘How I Got Here’ come from far and wide, with former stints in primary school teaching, engineering, cultural event management, university lecturing, and industrial arts education. 

Bendigo Art Gallery’s collections manager, Simone Bloomfield, takes the cake for a fun and eye-widening former gig – working as a veterinary nurse alongside the gallery. That being said, ACMI’s technical services supervisor Aaron Hock still has a chance to take home gold for his time touring with a flamenco dance company.

“Veterinary nursing was definitely a tangent,” she says. “I organically found my way into that role,” says Bloomfield. She speaks to Facility Management just shy of a week after installing the hotly-anticipated international exhibition, ‘Paris: Impressions of Life 1880 – 1925.’

Clocking her twentieth year at the gallery, Bloomfield is forever grateful to play a vital role in maintaining the art gallery in Australia’s most beloved regional town for this year. 

She argues that Bendigo aims high, and is not afraid to be ambitious despite its size, location, and slight underdog status.

“I feel like we punch above our weight. You can say we are ‘little Bendigo’, but we are bringing in the internationals – and we’re bringing in the big crowds,” says Bloomfield. 

Vast tasks and duties as collections manager

While Bloomfield’s official title is collections manager, her duties and responsibilities encompass a wide range of tasks. 

Like many operations managers, her role is subject to distortion from incorrect assumptions that deviate from the reality of her job, however idyllic the imagined reality is.

“I think people who don’t understand the role just think that I sit in a store room all day and admire and look at the art,” she says. Ironically, collections management and daily operational database entry generally fall to the bottom of her daily to-do list.

Bloomfield has an education background in curatorial studies and art, having studied Fine Arts – honouring in Drawing – and Museum Studies at Deakin University. 

Elvis: Direct from Graceland, photography by Leon Schoots.

She had a gallery start as a volunteer, before moving to a gallery attendant, a gallery receptionist, a curatorial assistant and eventually landing the role of collections manager in 2016. 

The gallery’s aforementioned ‘Paris: Impressions of Life’ exhibition saw Bloomfield delve into her usual routine of conducting highly organised project management and getting into the nitty gritty of a setup. “I organise the insurance, logistics, the freight and the build, and then I’m on the floor helping my team,” she says.

Bloomfield’s role does not chain her to the desk but rather enables her to assist in the set up and pack down of an exhibition – painting, working to plans and hanging everything on the walls. However, echoing a narrative painfully familiar to facilities managers, Bloomfield’s focus on setting up an exhibition usually means emails fall by the wayside. 

“After the exhibition opens, I get to sit down and go back through the millions of emails that I’ve not taken priority in the last few weeks,” she says.

Spinning plates between building-related issues and exhibition logistics 

Bloomfield’s mornings in Bendigo – after having completed the one-hour drive from her home in Echuca – may play host to property-related issues or liaising with Parks Victoria, as the gallery is owned and operated by the City of Greater Bendigo. 

“If we do an external activation through the gallery, I’ll deal with Parks Victoria and different permits,” says Bloomfield. 

She directly manages a team of five people – with an electrician set to join the crew imminently – that respond to major and minor maintenance issues, such as a door refusing to open or a broken lock, and more severely, wall damage and drainage issues. 

She deals with scheduling and planning and air cargo security when receiving works from overseas. She adopts the post of chief warden for the site, alongside acting as a designated first aid officer and the main contractor liaison for all external contractors, whether that be HVAC, electrical services or state, federal and international freight. 

“Every exhibition we put on, whether it’s a large international show or a small loan from a regional gallery, we’re always working closely with the lenders, artists and their galleries,” she says. 

She also contributes to team morale and motivation and streamlines proceedings to avoid last-minute dashes across the finish line. 

“I keep the team on track to meet those deadlines, so that there’s hopefully not a massive scramble and crazy part at the end,” says Bloomfield. 

Elvis: Direct from Graceland, photography by Leon Schoots

Reminders of history littered throughout the gallery 

The gallery building was constructed in 1887 and was originally used as a volunteer rifleman’s orderly room. Bloomfield revels in the reminders of the history noted throughout the gallery, particularly the original flooring. She empathises with the plight shared by the facilities managers of heritage-listed buildings – ensuring the historical integrity and authenticity of the building are protected while seeing to maintenance issues.

HVAC is a notable thorn in Bloomfield’s side, as the gallery must be temperature and humidity controlled over a 24-hour period and seven days a week. 

“Temperature control is particularly challenging in heritage buildings,” she says. 

“We manage it, but it is tricky and we have great service providers that learn the little tricks to keep it humming happily.”

Additionally, changes and modifications to the structural integrity of the building are subject to review and approval from the heritage board – even something as seemingly insignificant as planning to change the paint colour means Bloomfield’s team has to complete a heritage submission form. 

Bringing artistic and cultural discourse to Bendigo

The gallery is a major draw card for Benidgo and its surroundings and produces a ripple effect on the local economy. “People are not only buying tickets to the exhibition, they’re also buying accommodation, food and retail,” says Bloomfield. “It’s a big tourism boost for the area.”

Bloomfield’s career highlight was the Elvis: Direct from Graceland exhibition in 2022, which brought in 200,000 visitors to the gallery. 

“It was just so rewarding to pull off a feat that big,” she says. Past exhibitions coalesce into one in Bloomfield’s mind due to the high frequency and manpower required, yet the ‘Elvis: Direct from Graceland’ and ‘Paris: Impressions of Life’ exhibitions are standouts.

“Both of these exhibitions were big undertakings and we’re very proud of the outcome,” she says. “It’s a massive team effort, and very rewarding.”

Paris: Impressions of Life 1880 – 1925, photography by Leon Schoots.

Juggling gallery priorities 

A major challenge for Bloomfield is determining the hierarchy of priorities on her to-do list, prompted by a personal goal to “avoid doing things on the run”.

“There’s many things happening all at once,” she says. “I just need to make sure that I prioritise and plan my time and make sure that everything is booked in advance.”

The severity and timeliness of maintenance issues range – a major international exhibition like ‘Paris: Impressions of Life’ can coincide with a broken bathroom lock or routine fire hydrant audit. 

Bloomfield is supported and bolstered by a loyal team of contractors, whose tireless efforts alleviate stress and assist in the ordering of priorities.

She also addresses an intriguing instance of a clash of priorities based on the gallery role, which has also emerged as a challenge for the team. “What the director deems a priority, is not necessarily a priority of people on the floor,” says Bloomfield. 

Facilities management as a reactive job 

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the reactive nature of facilities management and the industry’s ability to efficiently and calmly respond to a crisis, whether that be a global lockdown or a water leak. Schedules outlined the day or week before can be tossed out upon walking through a facility door in the morning. 

“I’m often dealing with OHS in a reactive sense first before I get to sit down and deal with the paperwork,” says Bloomfield

Like many cultural institutions, the gallery did not experience a complete closedown during lockdowns. Bloomfield and her team had exemptions to visit the site and conduct regular maintenance tasks.  

Paris: Impressions of Life 1880 – 1925, photography by Leon Schoots.

However, she laments the numerous exhibitions that were lost in the lockdown vortex and never got to see the light of day by visitors. 

“There were some exhibitions that didn’t ever get to be publicised, and we went to all the trouble of installing exhibitions,” says Bloomfield. 

Overall, she relishes the liveliness and vibrancy of her role, as there is no risk of the days resembling anything close to boring or predictable. Curveballs and unanticipated challenges arise – even with thorough and rigorous planning – that keep Bloomfield on her toes. 

“Every exhibition is different,” she says. “You’re dealing with new people, and every exhibition has different challenges. It’s never straightforward.”

Photography supplied. 

Melbourne Art Foundation’s Dhariz Manalo is thrilled to witness artistic discourse.

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