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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

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Margaret Rich OAM was the Director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat and of the Geelong Gallery. More about Margaret Rich

The development of regional galleries
by Margaret Rich

Victoria was the cradle for regional galleries in Australia. There were five regional galleries in Australia by 1900 and four were in Victoria. By 1970 there were just 26 regional galleries throughout Australia and 13 of those were in Victoria. It was, in the 1970s, a lively network of poorly funded galleries, with an umbrella organisation, the Regional Galleries Association of Victoria (RGAV).

This organisation emerged out of the earlier and smaller Victorian Public Galleries Group (VPGG), formed in the late 1940s through the initiative of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) to develop, support and provide greater access to the state’s widely dispersed public art collections. The initiative was also of benefit to the NGV as it wished to demonstrate a state-wide interest in the arts to support their own claims for improved funding. The state gallery chose to remain separate from the VPGG, but assisted regional galleries by providing advice and artworks for exhibitions, and acting as a conduit to government ministers. The will to assist regional galleries was there, though limited, with the need to develop the state gallery’s own resources a priority.

Regional galleries identified the key areas for attention as operating funding, exhibitions, conservation for their neglected but hugely important collections, and the need for professional staff. By the mid-1960s, they had, with the support of the NGV director and trustees, acquired a minimal level of operating funding, as well as access to state government capital works funding. The possibility of capital funding encouraged some local councils to establish new galleries, while older galleries sought to improve their buildings and add temporary exhibitions areas. Temporary exhibitions had not previously been a regular feature other than annual art prize exhibitions. Most of the newly established galleries were owned and managed by local councils, unlike the earliest galleries in Ballarat (1884), Bendigo (1887), Castlemaine (1913), Geelong (1896) and Warrnambool (1886) that began as incorporated associations. Funding assistance from the state government fuelled this extraordinary new growth of public art galleries in the 1960s and early 1970s, but it also reflected the enthusiastic encouragement by local pressure groups.

Enthusiastic local residents often lobbied local councils, providing an additional impetus. In the case of Benalla, the council held a referendum in 1967 that showed overwhelming support for a gallery to be established. Within four years of a gallery being opened in temporary quarters (in 1968) Mr Laurie Ledger, a local stock and station agent, offered his fine collection of paintings and a substantial gift of money on condition a new building was erected by the lake in the botanic gardens. The Benalla Council accepted. [1]

View of the Benalla Art Gallery taken from across a river. The gallery is a modern building in green colours. The top third of the image is clear blue sky, the bottom half shows river and the gallery's reflection in the water.

A view of the Benalla Art Gallery from across the river.

The Hamilton City Council proceeded more cautiously. The acceptance of a 1957 bequest by Herbert Shaw of £6000 to build a gallery and the offer of a significant collection was kept confidential for nearly a year before its announcement. [2] By 1961 a director had been appointed and the gallery opened. Other new galleries were opened in Mildura (1956), Sale (1964), Swan Hill (1964), Horsham (1968), Ararat (1968), Mornington (1969), Langwarrin (1971), and Morwell (1971).

Other gains for regional galleries included the allocation of a small budget at the NGV to use for restoration of artworks from regional gallery collections. By the 1970s the VPGG/RGAV had also established a central role in arranging touring exhibitions from a number of sources, including the state gallery, with each regional gallery paying a share of expenses.

The arts in Australia have always required government subsidies; here was an opportunity for the state government to assist in making art available to communities across the whole state, rather than just in Melbourne. There was enormous local pride and generosity, but little could have been achieved without a share of state revenue.

The issue of professional staff was partly addressed in the late 1940s when a chair in Fine Arts, the first in Australia, was established at The University of Melbourne. By the mid-1950s public galleries had the option of appointing graduates to professional positions. It was not until 1979 that a graduate diploma in Museum Studies was offered, initially at the Prahran College of Advanced Education and then, with the formation of Victoria College, the course moved out to the Rusden campus of the college (Victoria College has since been taken over by Deakin University). The course concentrated on the skills required for managing a public art gallery, registration and handling of artworks, curating exhibitions, marketing and fundraising, and working with committees. This course was immediately popular, and in its early years attracted around 25 students annually. [3] In the meantime gallery directors often lacked adequate preparation for their demanding roles, in spite of having access to speakers at workshops and meetings of colleagues. Museum leadership was an emerging profession in Australia; perhaps nowhere more than in regional galleries were directors so isolated from other arts professionals.

The growth of arts bureaucracies

In the 1970s and 1980s the Australian government gave significant support to public galleries, artists and art audiences. They were exciting times. The Australia Council had its first full year of operation in 1973. Throughout the 1970s its Visual Arts Board (VAB) developed programs of great benefit to small public galleries. These included assistance to exhibit contemporary art, to develop exhibition programs, and to conserve artworks. The Australian contemporary art acquisition program subsidised the purchase of contemporary art by regional and state galleries. There were lecture tours and professional development grants for gallery staff. Directors from regional galleries were invited to serve on funding panels as peer group assessment was basic to the VAB approach. In the 1970s the director was usually the only art professional on a regional gallery staff, and the VAB programs gave an opportunity to network and consult.

The mood of the times in the 1970s was so supportive and progressive that if the VAB was approached with a stated need and a reasoned argument, a grant would often be possible. Towards the end of the decade criteria were developed and tightened. Exhibitions had to be innovative, and written reports became a condition of grants. For the most generous of all programs, the Australian Contemporary Art Acquisition Program, the applying institution had to guarantee public access, regular display, acceptable storage conditions and proper security arrangements. The works also had to be selected by trained curators and acquired directly from the artist or their agent. These conditions encouraged the establishment of galleries with good facilities and professional staff.

In 1978 the VAB launched a new initiative to assist geographically and culturally remote communities in Australia, the Regional Development Program. Under this program the VAB organised and toured small exhibitions of contemporary art to remote communities, particularly in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia, ‘for these states, unlike Victoria, have not yet developed a network of cooperative regional art museums’. [4]

Having pioneered these exhibition tours, the VAB hoped that another agency would take on this task, with VAB funding and support. The Australian Gallery Directors Council (AGDC), a not-for-profit company which also accepted regional gallery directors as full members from 1977, took on this role. It enabled exhibitions with well-researched catalogues to be initiated and toured, thus providing unsurpassable professional development experiences for staff in regional galleries. The networking opportunities at its conferences strengthened galleries throughout Australia. Its base funding was through the VAB, but it also attracted major sponsors, because of the involvement of state and national galleries, enabling the presentation of blockbuster exhibitions that excited galleries and their publics. The AGDC became insolvent in 1981, following a couple of large, expensive exhibitions that failed. Its successor did not open its doors to regional gallery representation, possibly in part because there were now so many regional galleries, with varying standards of facilities and staffing. Unfortunately the sheer number of galleries perhaps eclipsed the possibility of the larger, long-established galleries contributing to and benefiting from a national touring program.

The growth of Victorian regional galleries between 1956 and 1971 was unique in Australia, but from the 1970s regional galleries also began to spread throughout Australia, particularly in New South Wales and coastal Queensland. In 1971 there were 29 regional galleries nationwide, 16 of which were in Victoria. By 1995 there were at least 52 regional galleries: 18 in Victoria, 18 in New South Wales and six in Queensland and a further 10 in the other three states.

The number of public galleries had expanded so greatly by the mid-1980s that
competition for VAB grants was fierce, with a rigorous assessment process put in place to ensure that available assistance was applied as widely as possible.

Victoria, with its extensive network of public galleries, established a Ministry for the Arts (later Arts Victoria), with its first full year of operation in 1974. By 1976 the RGAV had incorporated, listing its 16 member galleries. The funding formula and the process of approval had possibly been far more successful in encouraging the growth of new galleries than the state had expected, and from this date no new galleries were accepted into the funded network of regional galleries until 2006 as part of the new Arts Victoria Local Partnership Program. Pressure was growing from new metropolitan and university galleries, and from regional performing arts centres, for similar programs of assistance. The expectations placed on regional galleries were daunting, considering their funding and staffing restraints. Salaries in Victorian regional galleries (average $11,000) were considerably lower than in NSW (average $16,000). [5] It is not surprising then that the main issues from the galleries’ viewpoint concerned salary levels for professional staff and the need for more specialised staff in the larger galleries, as well as conservation and security.

In response to claims for more funding, Arts Victoria focused on attendance figures and service to a region rather than just a town or city, arguing that if a region was served, then funding could be sought from the councils of the wider region. [6] Also, new galleries were encouraged to limit their collecting to specialist areas. Horsham chose photography, Ararat textiles, Latrobe contemporary glassware and Swan Hill naive art.

Other gains were made: part-time seconded education officers were appointed to some galleries, specifically to serve schools,[7] provision was made for reviews of salaries and the establishment of a base grant formula assisted galleries with their administration and planning. An acquisition fund for regional galleries – the Caltex-Victoria Art Purchase Fund – was begun, with the state matching donations from the corporate sponsor. The most important gain was the opening in Ballarat in 1979 of a conservation centre to serve regional galleries – the Conservation Centre of the Regional Galleries Association of Victoria. It followed a provocative and highly publicised exhibition at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery in 1976, Attention your collection is rotting. The centre’s first annual report noted that the combined collections of the 16 regional galleries ‘include one of the largest and perhaps most comprehensive collections of Australian art, valuable English watercolours, sizable holdings of nineteenth-century European and English pictures, medieval manuscripts and a considerable collection of decorative arts’. [8]

The conservation centre was never funded to adequately serve the regional gallery sector, and even with subsidised fees the costs were too great for many galleries to make extensive use of the centre. It was briefly reformed in 1986 at Laverton as the Victorian Centre for the Conservation of Cultural Material (VCCCM), but closed in the 1990s. It was easier and less costly, especially through grants, to use trained conservators working privately.

In the meantime, many philanthropic foundations had come to the assistance of regional galleries. The Ian Potter Foundation provided informed, professional help in the purchase of equipment for mounting and storage of works on paper, for acquiring sets of standard size frames, fitted crates, and assistance in the installation of security systems. But the needs of regional galleries continued to outstrip available government resources. Some gains in the 1980s included the establishment of a classification of galleries according to their collections and facilities. This included recommended salary levels for professional staff, important at a time when galleries were beginning to employ specialised staff.

Centralised advice and services were established, leading, amongst other achievements, to the cataloguing of 13 regional collections using the Commonwealth Employment Program to fund positions and a centrally employed registrar to train and supervise the program. [9] A state government insurance indemnification scheme was begun for major exhibitions. The Australia Council and Arts Victoria set up National Exhibitions Touring Support (NETS) Victoria in 1988, a jointly funded body to fund touring exhibitions of contemporary visual arts, craft and design, including exhibitions drawn from the collection of the NGV. Similar bodies were established in each state, all members of National Exhibitions Touring Support (NETS) Australia, relieving the Australia Council of managing its own exhibition funding program. Both the Australia Council and Arts Victoria moved towards assisting arts institutions through specialised grants, advice and services. This allowed the growing number of small galleries, without the blessing of recurrent grants, to have some access to state government funding. Some Arts Victoria program funding was aligned with other current government initiatives, for example multiculturalism or youth outreach.

The Ballarat Fine Art Gallery celebrated its centenary in 1984 by launching a public building appeal. Its collection was now around 6000 items and improved storage space was badly needed, as were more display areas. The gallery doubled its size and included climate control, security systems, and excellent visitor facilities. Newcastle Region Art Gallery (NSW) was the only other regional gallery that had such state-of-the-art facilities, after its new building opened in 1977. Some state galleries were less well equipped.

By 1995 the RGAV resolved to expand its institutional membership and became the Public Galleries Association of Victoria (PGAV), a peak body for all Victorian public galleries. The PGAV saw its role primarily as facilitating networking. It developed an intern program for staff from smaller galleries to spend a week at the NGV and for staff from the NGV to spend some days at regional galleries; and in conjunction with arts bodies such as Museums Australia it initiated professional training programs. In 2008 the Association had 44 members. In the mid-1970s there were not even 40 public galleries nationally. In the late 1990s the state-administered Federation Fund provided major funding to all 16 of Victoria's regional galleries, enabling a significant improvement in facilities and services across the whole network. The larger galleries – Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong – with their important collections, benefited greatly, gaining attractive buildings and excellent facilities.

Interior view of an art gallery exhibition. A modernist sculpture is in the foreground.

Contemporary gallery, Ballarat, Victoria.

In the early 2000s the arts sector changed even further. Arts Victoria no longer dealt directly with arts professionals. Instead, it began to negotiate memoranda of understanding with local councils. In the new Local Partnership Program [10] the total government grant a gallery might receive depended on the level of funding from its local council, as well as program responses to priority areas. With most regional galleries owned and managed by local councils, this approach held the promise of maximising both local and state government contributions. The relationship between the gallery and its local council became crucial, although not all local councils are supportive of the arts. Innovative, outreach and community and local artist involvement became important words for gaining funding.

The specialisation of the collections of the 1970s has given way to new orientations towards the region and the community. The concept of regional galleries has been diluted, and ‘outer metropolitan’ is a new term that is often associated loosely with regional. Funding from sources other than governments has become more difficult, as philanthropic funds concentrate on areas other than galleries, with the exception of the very generous Gordon Darling Foundation. Corporate sponsorship in regions far from capital city head offices has never been large, unless negotiated by state or federal agencies.

In the 2000s, the National Gallery of Australia emerged as the new champion of regional galleries through its touring of major exhibitions and a willingness to discuss joint ventures. It is probably no coincidence that its director, Ron Radford, was once a regional gallery director.

The federal government established a new program in 1993, Visions of Australia, to provide funding to eligible organisations to develop and tour exhibitions of Australian cultural material across Australia, in particular to regional and remote areas. This partially filled the gap left by the exclusion of regional galleries from involvement in AGDC's successor following its demise in 1981. It also opened up new possibilities as the program encouraged partnerships between collecting organisations – archives, galleries, libraries and museums – and encouraged community involvement.

Increased community interest in art, stimulated in part by the growth in well-marketed major exhibitions, contributed to a climate that made the arts a legitimate area for government support. New state and federal government assistance programs, as well as targeted grants from philanthropic funds, encouraged the growth of public galleries and also promoted the development of professional standards.

Arts Victoria claimed in 2008 that it was the only state government agency to offer operating funding to selected regional galleries. [11] It announced in November 2005 that it would focus on bringing regional facilities and programs up to metropolitan standards, spending $28 million over four years. [12] Both federal and state government funding has gradually become a more ‘arm’s-length’ affair, with grants, advice and services offered through government-funded agencies, or in the case of Victorian regional galleries, through their local government. The initial growth of regional galleries in Victoria can be traced to determined and passionate individuals who inspired their communities and achieved government support.


1John Jones, COLLECTION, The Benalla Art Gallery, Benalla Art Gallery, 2002, p. 9.

2 Danny McOwan, Director, Hamilton Art Gallery, emails to author 18 and 19 May 2008.

3 Roger Trudgeon, Senior Lecturer and Course Co-ordinator, Museum Studies, Deakin University from 1988 to 1994, email to author 21 May 2008.

4 Elwyn Lynn, Chairman VAB, Foreword in exhibition catalogue Roadshow 1: 1978.

5 Summary of Proceedings, RGAV Half Yearly Forum at Sale, 17 November 1979. Dr Eric Westbrook, then Director of Arts Victoria, was the keynote speaker.

6 Ibid

7 In a 1965 pilot scheme at the Geelong Art Gallery the education officer had been a quasi-gallery director.

8 ‘First Annual Report: The History of the Setting up of the Conservation Centre of the Regional Galleries Association of Victoria’, October 1977, p. 1.

9 Joe Pascoe, Director of Craft Victoria and previously Arts Victoria registrar, telephone conversation, May 2008.

10 Local Partnerships Program in Moving Forward: making provincial Victoria the best place to live, work and invest, Arts Victoria, November 2005.

11 Elizabeth Jones, Senior Arts Officer, Arts Victoria, telephone conversation, May 2008.

12 Local Partnerships Program in Moving Forward.

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Cite as: Margaret Rich, 2011, 'The development of regional galleries', in Understanding Museums: Australian museums and museology, Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), National Museum of Australia, published online at ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6