Tag Archives: art collections

Collections or Museums

A museum is a collection of collections. Some museums are encyclopaedic in their collections whereas others are more focused on certain types of collections. But single collections do not make museums, except that sometimes the naming of these institutions does get confusing. Some galleries and institutions have collections and others don’t, some places call themselves museums and others don’t.

Single collections do not make museums because the collector limits the collection in that you can to clearly see the identity of the collector in the collection. A collection of anything is similar to a work of art; it could be a work of art, consider Duchamp’s readymades and Danh Vo’s 2012 Hugo Boss Prize winning exhibition of the collection of Martin Wong. I saw Danh Vo’s exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2013 and it was a portrait of Martin Wong readymade from the things he collected.

Perhaps this is one of my problems with David Walsh’s MONA in Hobart, it is not a museum it is just his art collection (see my post on MONA). There are limitations on the number, quality and taste that a single collector can bring to a collection. A collection of collections fills in gaps in the have occurred in a single collection. In this respect an art museums collection may taste blander than that of a single collector that preserves the original taste of eccentricity.

You don’t have to be a multi-millionaire to be an art collector but it does help, a lot. There are collectors with important collections who aren’t rich (see my post on London Regionalism). But the collectors who open their collections and homes, or palaces in the case of Isabella Stewart Gardner, to the public are the very rich.

The Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston is an astonishing collection. It is well worth a visit even though but much of the collection is not of highest quality. I had a lot of fun at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum. I played at seeing how many works I could identify and put a date to and then check the room sheets to see how close I got to the correct answer. It is also a very eccentric collection, right down to the admission fee: free to people named Isabella or people on their birthday, a $2 discount to people wearing Boston Red Sox items and to people who have visited the Museum of Fine Arts in the last three days (I qualified for the last one).

Isabella Gardener was a dedicated collector but that was not her main love; that was art, music and literature. Collecting was simply a means to an end and it was not the only means. Gardener provided work-space, accommodation and even travelling expenses for artists, including John Singer Sargent.

The Frick Collection in New York has the same variation in quality and taste that can be seen in Isabella Stewart Gardener’s collection. It is a super collection with some of the best paintings that I’ve seen. However, the wall paintings of the absurd cherubs in the “Boucher Room” may not to be contemporary taste. Actually the Frick Collection is more a museum than the Gardener Museum as the Frick Collection has been added to considerably since the death of Henry Clay Frick.

With collections like Frick and Isabella Stewart Gardner, no wonder the Europeans felt that rich Americans were buying their culture. Gardner’s fantasy Venetian palace competing with William Randolph Hearst’s Castle in California and other American collectors like Frick. (Other collections on display see my post on Gustave Moreau’s Museum.)

(See my post on Types of Art Galleries.)


London Regionalism

London, Ontario is the first place that I remember and I lived there for 7 years during the first 9 years of my life. London is on the River Thames in Middlesex County in Ontario; it is a very Anglo area of Canada. It is a small university city and this was part of an environment that allowed for people to develop in freedom. At the time my father was lecturing in Zoology at Western University and London it was going through its own artistic renaissance. And this is the point of this blog entry how a small city became significant in the history of Canadian art.

Recently I returned to London for the first time since I left. I was fortunate to see “A Circle of Friends – the Doreen Curry Collection” at the Western University’s McIntosh Gallery. This modest collection by a librarian from the local public library shows that you don’t have to be a millionaire to put together a significant art collection. For Doreen Curry only collected work from local artists who she knew and these artists turned out to be significant to Canadian art of the 1960s – 80s in a movement called London Regionalism. The focus of Regionalism wasn’t a particular style but the local site and building a community mindset that embraced complete artistic freedom.

When I visited the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa I was surprised to find that the Regionalists of London Ontario are so important to Canadian art history. The first room of the Canadian art section, “Modern 1960 – 1975” is full of their work. Then at an exhibition on abstraction at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal I saw more paintings by Paterson Ewen.

The local artists that Doreen Curry collected included the twin artists, David and Royden Rabinovitch. David Rabinovitch was studying at the University of Western Ontario when he did his first floor sculpture. Greg Curnoe, painter and drummer, kazoo-ist and co-founded of the Canadian noise band the Nihilist Spasm Band. Curnoe also published a Region magazine and established an artist run centre in 1973. And Murray Favro, an artist and the guitarist in the Nihilist Spasm Band. Along with Ron Benner, David Boldoc, Richard Bonderenko, kerry ferris, Dave Gordon, Jamelie Hassan. Doreen Inglis, Ron Martin and Paddy Gunn O’Brien.

There wasn’t an overall style to the art of the London Regionalists just a location and enjoyment of artistic freedom in materials and expression. The location with both the Western University and the public library was important to that local regional cultural renaissance.

I would like to say that some of this radical art attitude rubbed off on my young self that the Regionalists had indeed succeeded in building a mindset that embraced artistic freedom in me. I remember the public library’s collection other media and I listened to a lot of the spoken word from its the record collection. The library’s director Dr Crouch was very progressive and believed that information could be contained in media other than books.

I also remember visiting Western University on an open day and going into the art workshop and an artist saying: “We don’t use art materials any more, we use anything” and pointing to an assemblage of monkey wrenches on the wall. Maybe it was David Rabinovitch or one of the other Regionalists.

I have some vague memories of visiting the public art gallery with my mother and siblings as it was in the same building as the public library. And I definitely remember enjoying an exhibition of edible art by some university students, as you could eat the art after the viewing time. It was an interactive exhibition, in the elevator on the way to the exhibition one of the students announced that he had brought his own spoon. It wasn’t the most serious of exhibitions, these weren’t exclusively art students, and some of the works were just a bunch of students having a laugh, like the rice crispy coffin or the mock up of the cake from the cover of the Rolling Stones “Let It Bleed” (released Dec 1969). Other pieces had a message; the aquarium full of what appeared to be polluted water with weeds and a coke can was in fact a jelly.

Anyway I was digressing into reminiscences when I should be looking at what made London so fruitful artistically. And even this question is around the wrong way, although the public library, the university and the city were part of the structure that allowed the London Regionalists it was the artists who made it, who were determined and conscious about their goal to make it artistically free and fruitful.

NGV Problems

Some have greeted the news of the appointment of Tony Ellwood to director of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) with joy. I am more cautious as the NGV has a lot of problems with its space, its collection and its role. Tony Ellwood was the directorship of both the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art and we will see what he brings to the NGV.

Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square

“At the beginning of the twentieth century the National Gallery of Victoria was one of the world’s most richly endowed galleries as Alfred Fenton’s bequest made available to it an annual amount exceeding the combined grants of London’s British Museum and National Gallery. Yet money alone could not secure quality or build a collection of distinction.” Elieen Chanin and Steven Miller, Degenerates and Perverts – The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, (The Miegunyah Press, 2005, Carlton) p.219

Elieen Chanin points to a series of problems with the NGV’s acquisition policy. At the beginning of the twentieth century the NGV was spending a lot of money on replica paintings and sculpture. The NGV also purchased of works of dubious authenticity like the “Rembrandt Self Portrait” in 1933. The NGV collection was focused on public approval and so many opportunities to buy modern art at good prices were ignored; unlike the Americans who leapt at the opportunity. The NGV then paid higher prices to acquire similar work later when public opinion had changed. There was criticism of these acquisitions at the time but the NGV choose to ignore rather than respond to them. Buying from Britain may have been loyal and patriotic when Victoria was part of the British Empire but 19th and early 20th British art has become a sidetrack in art history. And so the NGV’s collection is full of conservative taste, tax dodges and political interference and although this has improved in recent decades the effects on the collection remains.

The addition of the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square has improved the way its collection is displayed and along with the NGV Studio for street art and the NGV Kids space the NGV continues to expand in useful directions. However space is still an issue for the NGV, for example, their fashion exhibitions are still divided between galleries at the NGV International and NGV Australia (disrupting this distinction).

“There are 32 curators at the NGV but not one major exhibition” Juan Davila (talk 3/2/2012 “Dispersed Identities”, University of Melbourne)

Issues of space and the display of the collection in that space ultimately lead to the question of what is the purpose of having a public art gallery. The idea of the art gallery has been under-examined compared to the extent that it influences on the art it exhibits. Especially once the state had acquired all that valuable art. There is assumption is that an art gallery is educational housing a high quality collection to educate the next generation of artists and designers. However this educational assumption would exclude most contemporary art from the collection or force the gallery assume about the place of contemporary art in future education. Or is the role of a state gallery to enhance reputation of contemporary artists represented by Australian commercial galleries? Should its collection include examples of Melbourne’s burgeoning street art? Or, is it simply a location for infotainment, for host travelling international blockbuster exhibitions that can be measured in visitor numbers and revenue?

(See also my post about State Galleries & Politics and Arts Diary 365 for a 7 part examination of the NGV’s collection. Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, & 7.)

Art @ Monash Medical Centre

Standing in one of the many corridors in the Monash Medical Centre Clayton with the curator, Rebecca Lovitt trying to look at the paintings in the hospital collection as cleaners working around us, patients and staff walking past I understand what a challenging environment this is to curate. The curator, Rebecca Lovitt is stoic as she shows me a frame scratched by a cleaning trolley and she remains calm when we discover a new pencil-sized hole in another canvas. “It is surviving well,” she tells me as she inspects the damage that would have sent other curators into a spiral of panic, “considering the amount of traffic that it experiences.”

A hospital is a difficult place to curate: the lights in the hospital are on 24 hours a day, the public corridors where most of the art is exhibited are extremely busy not just with people but equipment and simple wall repairs and repainting may take years to be carried out. It is also a vast space to curate; Southern Health is spread across 6 sites, the largest of which is the Monash Medical Centre at Clayton. And everything is, naturally, of greater priority than the hospital’s art collection.

Monash Medical Centre Art Gallery is registered as an art gallery for tax and administrative purposes so that people can donate or loan art to the hospital’s collection. A hospital does need an art collection, the paintings makes the long corridors less soulless. The art provides a distraction, a point of reflection, something else to think about other than being in a hospital.

And a curator is needed to look after the permanent collection, search for funding and donations, curate temporary exhibitions, assist in building the collection, de-accessioning work in the collection and working with the artist-in-residence, Efterpi Soropos to create a multimedia installation in the palliative care unit. Rebecca Lovitt is a curator without a gallery; she has worked in commercial galleries before and has no intention of returning, the challenge of exhibiting art in a hospital is far more appealing. And she is working on strategies to better display, protect and more easily rotate the collection – the installation of hanging rails has removed the need to repaint walls. Creating designated zones for art with recesses in the walls for the security of the art and the safety of patients. She has been working with architects on the new Dandenong Emergency Room to put art on ceiling.

There is no shortage of wall space along the hospital’s long corridors and most of the collection is on public exhibition. There is so much wall space that Rebecca Lovitt has been able to create an “Art Space” for temporary exhibitions with hanging rails and track lighting in one of the small lobbies. When I visited Melchior Martin was exhibiting a series of bold dynamic landscape paintings, five of which had sold.

Although the priority is in on public display in the corridors and wards senior medical staff and administrators need to have art in their offices that they like. And a hospital’s art collection does needs champions in the senior medical and administrative staff to ensure that it is not completely ignored.

Some of the hospitals departments are better funded for their art collection like the children’s cancer ward and the new heart centre. I see a new work for the heart centre on Rebecca Lovitt’s desk, a yet unframed embroidery work by Melbourne craft artist, Sayraphim Lothian.

Most of the hospital’s collection dates from the late 1980s, when the Monash Medical Centre was built. They are large paintings with thick heavy brushstrokes of paint by emerging local artists, none of them were famous at the time but now that has changed for a very few, most of the artists in the collection are not. We walk past one of the two Bill Henson photographs in the collection. The collection needs to be diverse to suite the taste of a diverse staff and public at the hospital. Some of the collection was inherited from the Prince Henry and Queen Victoria hospitals including a series of watercolours from 1910, the “Cheer Up Children Paintings” that may be earliest paintings made especially for a children’s ward.

I’m not recommending a trip to the hospital to see the art but to consider public art collections outside of galleries and the important role of curators in managing those collections.


Reframed @ Counihan Gallery

“Reframed” is an exhibition of art from the Moreland Art Collection on exhibition at the Counihan Gallery. It is post-modern collection because of its post-colonial view and its inclusion of naïve artists. Although much of the work is in traditional media – the one installation in the exhibition by Kirsten McFarlane is a charming reminder of Sydney Rd’s vaudeville history – this is itself a feature of post-modernism.

The collection is based on the work of Noel Counihan who “never received the recognition afforded their rival Angry Penguin Associates.” (Trudi Allen, Cross Currents in Contemporary Australian Art, 2001, p.53) Counihan was more interested in socialist realism than the Angry Penguins’ expressionist Australian modernism. The Counihan Gallery received a substantial donation of works by Noel Counihan from art historian, Robert Smith. The exhibition has prints from the “Noel Counihan Tribute Folio” on the back wall of the gallery, like a base to the structure of the exhibition. Not that the exhibition (or even the tribute folio) is full of socialist realism but it is alternative starting point in art history for the collection. The collection shows that art and the understanding of political issues have developed from socialist realism to include wider issues, like the environment, and a variety of cultural vocabularies.

The exhibition’s narrative starts with a substantial and diverse collection aboriginal art and moves to more art exploring themes of identity, culture and place. Curator, Edwina Bartlem has organized the exhibition into several block that highlight themes in the collection: the environment, feminism, multi-cultural Australia and Moreland’s recent history.

One of the standout works of the show, for me, is by Turkish artist Füsun Çağlayan of a Turkish-Australian wedding. This powerful realist painting with its somber colors, the patterned border top and bottom with yellow photos of Turkish-Australian life on the top border. William (Bill) Kelly’s bronze Tiananmen Square Monument using the image of the man in front of the tank had a suitably vast base. I also enjoyed seeing Nusra Latif Qureshi’s “Balancing Act II” again, this time I noticed the way that flowers permeate the borders and outlines in her paintings.

The City of Moreland’s art collection shows what can be done over 20 years with a $10,000 annual budget and some good curatorial advice. It is not the perfect collection and Cr Alice Pryor speech admitted that mistakes that had been made; she regretted passing over a painting by Sam Leach before he won the Archibald. Some of the collection has been purchased from previous exhibitions at the Counihan Gallery; regular visitors to the gallery will recognize some of the art on exhibition. Unfortunately the exhibition did not include the dates of acquisition of the works so that visitors could see how the collection developed.

On Thursday evening local city councillors launched exhibition and the 2011 program at the Counihan Gallery with catering by local business, Poplars Café. It was a beautiful evening and as I ride my bicycle home I couldn’t help but notice the local art that wasn’t represented in the exhibition – all the anarchic street art beside the bicycle path.

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