It’s funny the memories that stand out from childhood. For Virginia Rigney, it was the glamorous new shopping mall in Civic, and the fancy doughnut machine near David Jones.
It was the marble floors and vast food hall, the gold columns outside the library across the road, and the public artworks casually scattered across the centre of town.
It was a time when, growing up in Canberra, your world barely extended beyond your own suburb. There were, usually, shops, a school and a tennis court in close proximity. Rigney and her twin brother grew up in Campbell, where her parents, enamoured of the recently built Civic Pool, had commissioned the same architect to build their own house.
Before the twins were born, the couple had spent their first married years in the Allawah flats, the recently demolished block directly facing Civic. Her father, a dentist, had his practice in Bailey's Arcade; he would drive the full distance - barely a kilometre - there every morning. The couple saved their money and planned their future carefully, so that they could build their dream house in one of the country’s newest cities.
“Sydney grew like Topsy, and Canberra is planned,” Rigney says.
“I really understood that very early, about what that meant, and things like not having high fences and the importance of gardens.
“When we'd go to Sydney to visit family, I have a very clear memory of saying, in shock, to my parents, ‘There're cars everywhere!’”
Later in life, during a long career in curating, Rigney would stage an exhibition at Canberra Museum and Gallery as part of Canberra’s centenary celebrations in 2013, Growing Up Planned.
“It was a show about people like me who had all been born in Canberra, but had left either as children or young adults,” she says.
In it, she asked several artists to bring to life the same sort of evocative memories she had of growing up in the capital.
That was six years ago; she’s now back in her home town on a more permanent mission, as seniors arts curator at Canberra Museum and Gallery.
“It's the first time I've worked somewhere that I have a really deep connection to - every other city I've been in I've had to really learn the city at the same time,” she says.
It’s a long time since she last lived here; her career in the arts has taken her to Sydney, London, Edinburgh and Glasgow, where she curated major exhibitions, while her husband’s work has taken her family to Thailand, Perth, Darwin and, most recently, the Gold Coast.
During those years, she opted out of paid work, deciding instead to focus full-time on raising their two sons. Her husband’s job offer on the Gold Coast made perfect sense at the time.
“We knew that we didn't want to go back to Sydney anyway, [and] we had friends who were of a similar age with similar-aged children, and they were having to have nannies," she says.
“We just saw that and thought we want a family life that we can really be together with, and there isn't that level of financial pressure.”
Once settled in Queensland, she discovered that the Gold Coast was another young city in which she found a community with the same tender identity struggles as Canberra.
“I'm really alert to the fact that there are lots of new Canberra stories to explore and discover, and that just because I was born here and [spent] my first 20-odd years here, I only know a fraction of that story,” she says.
“I think you make your choices, and we're in this global world where people are living in places for shorter periods of time. If you're going to set up these hierarchies of who's got more connection to a place than others ... their stories are just as important in this role that I'm in now. I don't want to set up a hierarchy that you have to have been here for a certain period before you're a Canberran, because I don't think that.
“The Gold Coast also struggled with that.”
Once the kids were in school, Rigney began a new job as curator at the Gold Coast City Gallery - the smallest institution she’d ever worked in.
“There was a constant turnover of great artists coming through, but also I was able to develop a series of exhibition projects that really addressed local character and culture with fresh eyes,” she says.
“I was trying to bring contemporary perspectives on that popular culture landscape, and I really enjoyed working on that mix between visual arts and social history.”
The job was the perfect lead-in to her new role at Canberra Museum and Gallery, an institution with a particular focus on social history as well as visual art.
There was a time, in her early years as a student, that Rigney wanted to be an architect. As it happens, she chose a curating path, but one that has been peppered with architectural writings and exhibitions along the way.
In Canberra, inspired by her beloved childhood home - sold, finally, after her mother’s death last year - she has found a rich new seam of interest.
“If we're a city that celebrates its mid-century modern heritage, it's really the only city in Australia that can do that, and we need those mid-century modern places that people can go and have experiences within,” she says.
“I'm really passionate about the potential of not just wrapping it in cotton wool but refurbishing in a contemporary way, using best practice to create a new winter bubble that's more responsive to the architecture, but keeping that open landscape and the trees.
“I think we're entering into that phase of respecting our mid-century heritage and really being more innovative with how we can live with it and maintain it, and if you lose those marker points, we really won't have a soul.
“I'm interested to both understand those design histories but also interrogate them, and keen to develop exhibitions that are a voice to talk about that kind of thing here at the gallery.”