Art lovers rally behind sacked gallery director

The Latrobe Valley arts community is lamenting the premature loss of a ‘visionary’ from its ranks, after the controversial sacking of Latrobe City Council’s arts director.

Key arts scene stakeholders have rallied behind dismissed Latrobe Regional Gallery director David Sequeira, a former stalwart of Canberra’s creative world, after he was “unceremoniously” escorted through the gallery’s front doors four weeks ago.

Mr Sequeira’s supporters fear news of the “embarrassing” dismissal – only four months after his hiring in October last year – will reverberate through Australia’s well-connected arts scene, and could condemn the Valley to creative “mediocrity” for years to come.

Last week Latrobe City chief executive Gary van Driel confirmed Mr Sequeira was sacked during his probation period, however would not give further details surrounding the dismissal.

The Express has since obtained a letter sent by Mr Sequeira to Latrobe City mayor Dale Harriman on 4 March, questioning the processes leading up to his termination on 18 February.

In the letter Mr Sequeira claims he was dismissed for his inability to “communicate effectively” with supervisors.

It cites two examples of communication issues which led to his sacking, including an altercation in which Mr Sequeira protested a supervisor’s request to gift councillors $200 tickets to an LRG fundraiser held on Friday night.

“I stated my position that providing free tickets not only reduced the capacity to generate funds (the primary function of the event) but was an issue of probity,” Mr Sequeira wrote.

“The provision of free tickets risked embarrassing and diminishing the reputation of Latrobe City. (My supervisor) interpreted my point as argumentative.”

Describing his subsequent termination as “ill-advised” and “unprofessionally managed”, he claimed he was offered no 

exit interview to discuss the dismissal.

“I was denied the decency to say goodbye to my team. Immediately following my meeting advising me of my termination I was escorted from the building as one found guilty of committing a crime,” he wrote.

The Express understands Mr van Driel subsequently issued a gag order, forbidding councillors and members of Latrobe’s art advisory committee from speaking out on the dismissal.

Former Committee for Latrobe Valley chair and active arts scene supporter Nina Burke described the incident as “desperately saddening” for the Valley arts community.

“For us he was a uniting force. He hit the ground running and fully engaged the community. He got things going here like they have not been happening at the gallery for 20 years or more,” Ms Burke said.

“In the four months he’d been there he had identified a unique way to make LRG an Australia-wide focus, and that’s a huge achievement.

“He’s a flamboyant creative visionary, and for the Valley he had Australia-wide contacts.”

In his protest letter, Mr Sequeira claimed his supervisor expressed “no interest” in his function and role as LRG director, noting he had not attended or commented on any of the exhibitions curated during the probation period.

“I believe the supervisor’s disengagement, evidenced by his avoidance of LRG exhibitions and related openings and events, speaks volumes of his interest in the role and function of LRG,” Mr Sequeira wrote.

“I can only assume that he communicated these views to the LCC chief executive, who signed the letter terminating my employment. I have never met the CEO.”

Defending the decision to sack Mr Sequeira on Friday, Mr van Driel said due process was followed in accordance with human resource practices.

“We do not take these decisions lightly and I have full faith that the management team has dealt with this personnel situation appropriately,” Mr van Driel said.

Mr van Driel did not respond to a request to confirm whether he had in fact met Mr Sequeira during his tenure.

Mr Sequeira cited a separate incident of “poor communication” connected to his dismissal, detailing a last-minute change in accommodation plans during a visit to the National Public Galleries Summit in Bendigo.

He said he requested a hotel bill be taken from LRG’s professional development budget, also offering offered to pay for the accommodation himself “given the last-minute nature of the request”.

In response to the support he had received since the dismissal, Mr Sequeira said he was “moved” by the Latrobe Valley community’s passion for its artistic future.

“That so many people have responded to this, it’s very moving for me that people are so supportive about art, and LRG and its place in the community,” Mr Sequeira said.

A member of Latrobe City Council’s arts advisory committee, who wished to remain anonymous, fears Mr Sequeira’s sacking could jeopardise the region’s ability to attract high profile arts figures in future.

“He’s such a big bold figure in the arts world. He was ‘out there’ and flamboyant, but very, very well connected,” the committee member said.

“The issue now is what person of any sort of calibre is going to come to the Latrobe Valley to be treated like that?

The committee member called for the “immediate reinstatement” of Mr Sequeira to the arts director position, suggesting he report directly to Latrobe City’s chief executive.

“This was a real opportunity for the Latrobe Valley to enjoy an arts-led recovery for the region. People visit Bendigo and Ballarat for a show where you have a real appreciation of what a strong arts space can do for a region,” the committee member said.

“He’d already made some significant inroads into the next couple of years of programming, which has been inspiring stuff. But it just feels like the decision is condemning us to mediocrity now.”

However, Latrobe City chief executive Gary van Driel said he “firmly believed” council would be able to secure an arts director with a strong vision for building arts in the region.

“We will embark on a wide ranging campaign to attract the right person. This process may take some time,” Mr van Driel said.