It's a sleepy weekday morning in the middle of a Canberra summer, and the front doors at M16 Artspace are closed to the public.
It's the summer shutdown, and inside, the walls of the gallery space are blank, and the lights off. But, in the gallery office just visible from the glass doors, Jas Hugonnet is already hard at work. Just two months into his new job as the gallery's executive director, he's firing off emails, setting up meetings, and letting his imagination unspool with visions of the empty gallery throbbing with party goers, fuelled by free wine and canapes.
"I want make M16's openings the best in Canberra, where people are going to leave raving about the art and the wine and the food," he says.
Not that M16 isn't already halfway there, mind you. Four years since the long-running arts collective relocated to its current premises – a former primary school in leafy Griffith – it is a thriving arts hub with a packed exhibition schedule and a warren of studios occupied by artists of all stripes. But, as Hugonnet is quickly learning, there is always more that can be done in a place like M16.
Originally from Sydney, he trained as an architect but has always had an artistic bent, and ran his own art gallery above a dry-cleaners in Newtown, from 1997 to 2000. With his wife and two sons, he then moved the family to King River, near Wangaratta, to take up a cultural coordinator position for two years. And finally, the family moved to Canberra.
"It was a good in-between place, because we loved the country lifestyle, but we wanted a bigger country lifestyle and closer to Sydney," he says now.
He worked as a curator at Craft ACT for six years – a perfect way in to the Canberra arts scene, and later became the inaugural director of the Gallery of Australian Design for two years. After an extended overseas trip, he returned to work for Thylacine, a design company that was about to manage several large projects related to the Canberra Centenary.
"We did a couple of massive projects, and then major art installations up in Sydney – the Danish Embassy and the Opera House – so I managed all those projects," he said.
"It was managing design fabrication, but I wanted to be more back with the arts and the creativity of the individual artists, and get back into that cyclical nature of exhibitions, and being inspired by being around ideas all the time."
But it's still the summer hiatus, and for now, he's mired in spreadsheets and costings and strategy. The job involves working closely with M16's board, of course, but there are plenty of decisions to be made about how the place is run, resources allocated, money spent.
"It's going to be a busy year, because it's quite forensic," he says.
"You come into an organisation and you've got to get together all areas and then chart your course about how you're going to make improvements and build on what's been done in the past."
Because M16 has been around long enough to have a past, one that extends back to its early days in what was, essentially, a large shed in Fyshwick. It's a place that, like so many places in Canberra, is defined more by the people involved than its physical setting. For example, less than two weeks after this interview, M16 plays host to a memorial service for a much-loved figure in the local arts scene, community radio broadcaster Sylvie Stern. By then, the first show of the year has opened, the wine is flowing and the place is spilling over with people from all over the place, leaning against the wall, sitting on the floor, congregating outside the front door and down the steps. It looks, for better or worse, exactly the way Hugonnet wants it to look more often.
But for the moment, he's focused on meetings – with winemakers, caterers, banks, art supply companies – to ask, basically, for cash. But it's not cash for nothing.
"I always push the line that it's associating [the sponsors] with the creativity and the uniqueness of the artworks, and they can then associate their product with that," he says.
It's a good time, he says, to be tapping into Canberra's potential for cross-cultural pollination – between the corporate and creative sectors, that is. He and his wife Gill – who works as the programming manager at the Canberra Theatre – and their two sons have been here just 10 years, but already they have watched the city morph and shift.
"We went out last night to a couple of restaurants and it's just awesome how Canberra's changing – it's just getting cooler and cooler," he says.
He's hoping, too, that his own trajectory as an artist might morph a bit too, surrounded as he is now by artists once more. He works in mixed media and has done some object design over the years – he's also been in Sculpture by the Sea – but his work at Thylacine has absorbed him too much over the past couple of years to get much done.
"Basically, I wanted to get back into working with exhibitions, and hopefully it will rub off on me and I'll get a chance to do some of my own work as well," he says.