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Institutional Art Galleries in Melbourne

This continues my occasional series of posts examining the different types of galleries. For more information about other types of galleries see my post: Types of Art Galleries.

NGV Ian Potter

Institutional art galleries exhibit art without intention of sales and are free from the usual commercial interests in the art that they exhibit. Most are funded by some level of government, although there are some institutional art galleries run by private individuals or organisation, like the Saatchi Gallery in London or MONA in Tasmania.

The purpose of institutional art galleries is far from clear. Is their purpose educational or entertainment? Is their collection representative or a treasury? The idea of an art collection is part of a tradition that extends back to a world owned and dominated by royalty. Royal Collections, rather like private house museums but on a far grander scale, the Vatican Museum and the Prado are amongst the largest of these. Although Melbourne does not have a royal collection it does have another kind of national treasury in the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).

There are differences in what are called ‘National Galleries’ some have encyclopaedic collections for the purpose of teaching the history of art others have collection of art by the nation. Encyclopaedic collections maybe good for the local population exposing them to art from around the world but unless they have destination art works they aren’t of great interest to tourists. What tourists, like me, who visit a lot of galleries, is to see the history of local art. National Galleries like that of Greece or Nepal, that collect and display the arts of a particular nation or other group identity. So, if I were a visitor to Melbourne I would see the NGV Australia at Federation Square in preference to NGV International because that is where the Australian art is exhibited.

James Cuno, in his book Museums Matter (University of Chicago Press, 2011, Chicago) argues in favour of the what he calls “enlightenment museums,” the major encyclopaedic, didactic museum as if these were the only kind of institutional galleries. The enlightenment ideal of a universal gallery that combines the intention an educational feature in the structure of the gallery, for example, the NGV International. However there are more reasons for an institutional art gallery than the encyclopaedic, didactic  enlightenment museum that James Cuno believes in. Cuno has a very narrow view, see a review of Museums Matter, and his type of museum does not cover most of the institutional galleries that I regularly visit from the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick or the Ian Potter Museum at Melbourne University.

There are many different types of institutional art galleries from kunsthalles, sculpture parks, house museums and community access galleries. Regional galleries need to have balance of gallery spaces for community access exhibition spaces, their permanent collection, and small touring exhibitions.

To cut through the technical language: ACCA, “Australia’s only ‘kunsthalle’” (or ‘art hall’ in English) where the focus is on commissioning and exhibiting living artists rather than collecting. And ‘community access entry exhibition spaces’ are at local libraries and in other local council run spaces.

Melbourne, so far, only has one house museum, The Johnston Collection in South Melbourne that was established as the legacy of antique dealer and collector, William Robert Jonston (1911-1986). The Nineth Edition has a review of the Johnston Collection.

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How Galleries Affect Art

Contemporary art is aesthetically dependent on gallery spaces; the gallery or museum architecturally and aesthetically frames the work defining it as art. It was the modern world that created the art gallery, the art museum and the contemporary art museum. And modern art grew increasingly dependent on gallery spaces. Despite the emergence of site-specific works, many works of contemporary art depend on the art gallery setting to give them meaning and even existence.

Given that the art gallery/museum has been the prime location for art it is surprising that there has been very little written about the aesthetic impact and other effects of art galleries and museums. Paul Mattick, Jr. of Adelphi University notes this in his entry on museums in A Companion to Aesthetics (Blackwell, 1992); adding that “a quick survey of the British Journal of Aesthetics and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism turns up not a single article devoted to the subject.” (p.297) Mattick did say “a quick survey”; my research was better, because I found two articles in the first volume of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1941 (Ananda K. Coomaraswamy “Why Exhibit Works of Art” and John D. Forbes “The Art Museum and the American Scene”). Neither of these articles is particularly insightful and both conclude that there is an educational function to art exhibitions. Mattick’s entry in A Companion to Aesthetics is possibly the best article written on the subject (I wish that A Companion to Aesthetics had been published when I was writing my thesis it would have made my life a lot easier).

Mattick traces the history of the art museum from the proto-art galleries of European royalty designed to be impressive displays of power and wealth. To the first art museums that removed the religious, political and moral function of art organizing them and, in that process, expanding the categories of art to include, industrial and non-European arts.

Although the architecture of art museums has changed from re-purposed neo-classical palaces to renovated industrial buildings and architectural design icons their function remains basically the same as that of the proto-art gallery. They are a display of the state’s wealth and power with a little bit of education thrown in.

It is for these reasons that I pay particular attention to current art gallery/museums, to the little details describing the number of people working in the gallery, the type of lighting in the gallery, the type of space, etc. in this blog. I have been trying to write about a greater variety of galleries so that no gallery benefits unduly from the free publicity in this blog. The mode of exhibiting art in white walled cubes may appear to be natural and necessary whereas it is arbitrary and only sufficient (see my blog post on The White Room). Gallery practice will change but if nobody pays attention it people will assumed that current practice is natural. I wonder how much longer the white walled gallery will continue to be the norm? Fortunately I am not alone in looking at galleries HobArts has a post about basically, the top 10 architectural features of contemporary art galleries, except HobArts lists 12.


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