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

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Leon Paroissien AM is the Chair of Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design in Sydney. More about Leon Paroissien

Art museums: introduction
by Leon Paroissien

During recent decades Australia has witnessed an unprecedented development in the visual arts. Art museums have both responded to and been agents of change in this period through their collections, exhibitions and public programs. Their role in contemporary art, including Indigenous art, has been especially significant, and Australian art museums have contributed to Australian artists being represented in exhibitions and collections throughout the world.

In 1968, when the relocated National Gallery of Victoria opened its doors, it was Australia’s first purpose-built art museum to house an established collection. It also included a dedicated space for temporary exhibitions. The 1975 Pigott Report observed, ‘in the last quarter century art museums in Australia have been more favoured by governments; and the two great building programs for museums both centre on art museums – Melbourne and Canberra’. The Report does not mention the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s major extensions of the Captain Cook Wing completed in 1972. Before the long-planned National Gallery eventually opened in Canberra in 1982, the state gallery in Perth had opened a new building in 1979, and Brisbane saw the opening of a new state gallery building shortly after the National Gallery itself opened. In subsequent decades other state gallery buildings, and composite museums that included art collections, were restored or extended – in some cases a number of times.

Improving a museum in stages – as funding becomes available – became the most typical model of development for Australian museums, enabling them to respond through revision as well as improvement to changing needs. Such incremental growth has the great advantage not only of conserving heritage buildings that might otherwise have been torn down as fashionable standards changed, but also of displaying art of earlier periods in the architectural contexts to which they originally related. The National Gallery of Victoria and the Queensland Art Gallery, both having built new buildings in the earlier phases of their museum development, subsequently established second campuses for aspects of their collections and related exhibitions. In Australia there are now approximately 200 public art museums and exhibition galleries in addition to the six state galleries, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and the National Gallery of Australia.

Australia’s art museums had long sought to complement their collections by organising exhibitions of Australian and foreign art – becoming in the 1970s a participant in a worldwide movement in the initiation of major exhibitions, and at the very time that such programs were being developed in Europe and the United States. Australia’s Government Indemnity Scheme – unique in the generosity of its application – facilitated an ambitious program of exhibitions in Australian museums.

The great increase in temporary exhibitions and the expansion of building programs were closely interrelated, as states and cities sought to match facilities and programs elsewhere, and museums interspersed their own exhibitions with those initiated in other museums. Gradually an increased number of exhibitions were researched in-house, and museums appointed people with diverse skills in exhibition organisation, installation, marketing, merchandising and sponsorship management.

In 1950 there were only some seven regional art museums in the whole of Australia, most of these in Victoria. Stimulated by later population growth, as well as by civic pride and the rise of tourism, the development of further art museums spread gradually north along east-coast states: first to New South Wales in the 1970s, and subsequently to Queensland in the 1980s and 1990s.

Some of the many smaller museums have commissioned entirely new buildings; others are accommodated in recycled buildings such as former town halls or council chambers; meanwhile others have added new wings to nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century buildings.

Regional, city and university art museums often remain substantially under-funded and under-staffed. New initiatives generally depend on special project grants from government or private sources. Nevertheless this may not be evident behind the museums’ high aspirations, professional standards, and dynamic programs.

Substantial private collections have been rare in Australia’s history. However, in recent years this situation has begun to change markedly and there are now important private collections that museums would greatly value – some having already found their way into public museums. In 2003 Tarrawarra, Australia’s first small art museum initiated and endowed wholly by private funding, opened in the heart of the vineyards of the Yarra Valley, some 60 kilometres from Melbourne.

During some four decades of critical transformation, the whole Australian art museum profession has established a richer museology and has nurtured multiple publics that better appreciate the incremental and productive nature of heritage itself. A more thoughtful and discriminating population now has a sense of collective ownership of cultural heritage and places complex expectations on Australia’s art museums.

Essays in this volume address a selection of themes in the burgeoning of art museums in Australia. The collecting of prints and drawings, and the appointment of specialist curators in the field, lay close to the foundations of the country’s major art museums. Anne Kirker looks at recent changes in the organisation of museums that have challenged the well-established roles of specialist curators. Temporary exhibitions have played a major role in art museums, introducing works and themes not represented in local collections. Caroline Turner traces the exceptional development of major art exhibitions since the 1970s.

During the period spanned by essays in this book, every major art museum in Australia has collected and exhibited work by Indigenous artists. Bernice Murphy outlines the context in which this uniquely Australia phenomenon has occurred. Meanwhile, Daniel Thomas provides a rich personal account of the development of Australia’s art museums during his outstanding 30-year career as a curator and director.

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Cite as: Leon Paroissien, 2011, 'Art museums: introduction', in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Mseology, National Museum of Australia, published online at
ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6