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

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Daniel Thomas AM was a curator at Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Australia and was the Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia. More about Daniel Thomas

Art museums in Australia: a personal account
by Daniel Thomas

From 1958 to 1990 I worked in art museums – first as a multi-purpose curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, then at the fledgling National Gallery in Canberra as head of Australian art, and finally at the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide as director. The art museum world that I entered was very British, and rather unaware that it was run largely by artist directors and artist trustees for a small world of artists and collectors. Only the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne produced a good quantity of scholarly art historical research; only the University of Melbourne then had a department of art history, and thus harboured colleagues for museum-based scholarship.

I was the first-ever curator at the National Gallery of New South Wales (which dropped the anachronistic pre-Federation ‘National’ the year I arrived). Apart from nomenclature we were very backward: the roof leaked and the collections were mediocre compared with the wealthier state galleries in Adelaide and Melbourne, where curators existed and where there were huge private endowments for acquisitions – the 1897 Elder Bequest and the 1904 Felton Bequest. The state galleries in Perth and Brisbane were even more primitive than that in Sydney. In Hobart the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery was, and still is, a multi-disciplinary museum for natural sciences, local history and art. In the second half of the nineteenth century a three-part structure of science museum plus ‘national’ gallery plus library had been the format for the major institutions in most Australian colonies except New South Wales. 

There were small late nineteenth-century institutions in mining boom cities such as Launceston, Bendigo or Ballarat, and also at Warrnambool and Geelong. After a stagnant early twentieth century for art museums throughout Australia, a professional regional gallery opened in Newcastle in 1957, the first in New South Wales. The University of Melbourne and the Teachers College at Armidale in New South Wales had been given significant art collections, precursors of the art museums now to be found within the present day swarm of universities. Almost all metropolitan local governments and regional cities throughout Australia now boast art collecting or art exhibition spaces. By 2008 there were almost 200.

Fifty years ago not even the state galleries had cafés, bookshops, lecture theatres or purpose-built spaces for receptions and entertainments. Above all, none then had purpose-built spaces to handle and display special exhibitions.

Membership organisations – ‘Art Gallery Societies’ – were founded in the 1950s; they improvised lectures, films, concerts and parties in the collection-display spaces. The six state gallery directors – the Australian Gallery Directors Conference – had been conferring regularly since 1948 to plan the touring exhibitions that similarly disrupted their collection displays. The art museums were becoming livelier for visitors, but in the process had become rather unsafe places for works of art. A great change occurred in the 1970s.

Melbourne started the big shift. The National Gallery of Victoria had been a rabbit warren concealed behind a great public library; galleries for paintings by Rembrandt and Cézanne also led to a science museum’s galleries for skeletons and taxidermy. In 1968 a conspicuous new National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road triggered a nationwide upgrade of art museum buildings. The new buildings, especially Sydney’s in 1972, in turn caused unexpected changes to funding and to governance as well as to collecting capabilities and public programs. Economic prosperity and cultural globalisation had created the momentum.

The prior conditions were state and civic pride – and healthy competitiveness. The term ‘global village’ was coined in the 1960s, not only in regard to media and communications, but also to international transport. Australians were able to travel across the world far more easily and quickly than by ocean liner. Jet aircraft allowed local powerbrokers, taking breaks from business or politics in Europe or America, to appreciate more often the stimulus and glamour of overseas art museums and to compare them with the drab art museums at home in Australia.

The run-down Art Gallery of New South Wales in sub-tropical Sydney was a conservation hazard to its collections and, crucially, a discouragement to high-value exhibitions from overseas. Even so, it was interstate competition with Victoria and South Australia that caused the New South Wales government to embark in 1969 on upgrading its state gallery. The new National Gallery of Victoria building had opened in 1968, but ahead of the palatial state-of-the art building in Melbourne the National Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide had opened a small extension in 1962 – Australia’s first climate-controlled art exhibition space.

Both Adelaide and Melbourne have seasons that are kinder to art collections than Sydney’s summertime steaminess; conservation needs were not the whole story. South Australia’s lead in the climate-control stakes was instead a matter of synergy with the Adelaide Festival, the nation’s first large multi-arts event, first held in 1960 and modelled on the Edinburgh Festival. Ultimately, arts festivals and special-event exhibitions are what changed Australia’s art museums and art audiences.

When the upgraded and extended Art Gallery of New South Wales opened in 1972 it meant that, at last, the two largest cities, Melbourne and Sydney, could be entrusted with the kind of big budget overseas exhibitions that had to rely on box-office income and hence on large but essentially occasional audiences for art. There had been no shortage of overseas exhibitions previously, but they were fairly routine government-to-government cultural exchange displays that were easily borrowed for long absences from their owners; they interested the local art world well enough, but did not have much attraction for larger audiences.

Britain had sent 16 marvellous paintings by JMW Turner to the first Adelaide Festival in 1960, and then toured them on to Melbourne and Sydney. It was the only exhibition by a great artist to reach Australia before climate control was introduced. In 1962 a locally generated ‘scholarly blockbuster’ of Pre-Raphaelite art, for the Adelaide Festival and a subsequent extensive tour, secured loans of masterpieces from Britain. A decade later at the Art Gallery of New South Wales a similar formula, of scholarship based on the past century’s steady accumulation in Australia – and New Zealand – of contemporary art from the British motherland, produced Victorian Olympians and Victorian Social Conscience. In 2004 at the National Gallery of Australia The Edwardians, with many key works borrowed from overseas, broke newer ground than scholarship within Britain itself. In 2007, at the National Gallery of Victoria, Modern Britain: masterworks from Australian and New Zealand collections continued this process of creating a strength out of what had begun as colonial British parochialism. And in 2008 the National Gallery of Australia internationalised our Britishness with Turner to Monet: the triumph of landscape painting. An art museum at last had sufficient curatorial imagination to conceive an exhibition theme never previously attempted anywhere in the world; sufficient curatorial clout to negotiate international loans of masterpieces by artists such as Caspar David Friedrich from Germany, as well as Turners from London; and sufficient confidence to include Australian paintings by John Glover, Eugene von Guérard and Tom Roberts alongside the great nineteenth-century Americans and Europeans. Turner to Monet was not only a major art historical event; it was also a popular success. It made money and covered its huge costs.

In 1975 Australia’s first ‘populist blockbuster’, Modern Masters: Manet to Matisse, provided by the philanthropic International Program of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), came to Melbourne and Sydney from New York. MoMA had already sent exhibitions to Australia, and had been early to exploit globalised airfreight for exhibition itineraries that moved works through Japan, India, New Zealand and Australia. Ardent art-world New Yorkers in the 1960s had also been the first foreigners to start re-routing their private visits to Asia through Australia, in order to check progress at the Sydney Opera House, then under construction. A city giving birth to a wonder of the modern world clearly deserved attention. The upgraded Art Gallery of New South Wales of 1972 had perfect synergy with the Sydney Opera House that opened in 1973.

MoMA’s Modern Masters attracted huge attendances of 350,000 visitors – long queues had to wait outdoors – and produced hefty box-office income. Hare-brained ideas from businessmen suddenly cropped up for revenue-sharing productions with the art museums. Governments, more soberly, saw an opportunity to reduce their funding of the state galleries. Their investments in safe, attractive and high-prestige buildings had turned out well. Besides programs of immense high-cultural popularity there was also unexpected revenue, and the possibility of cost savings. Immense savings would indeed be achieved: 30 years later state government was contributing less than 50 per cent of total expenditure at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

At the federal level, the culturally activist Whitlam government had recently established a new agency, the Australia Council for the Arts, which supported Modern Masters in 1975. Federal government therefore best understood what was needed next, and in 1977 set up an independent company, the Australian Art Exhibitions Corporation, to produce and manage blockbuster exhibitions. The Art Exhibitions Corporation began with The Chinese Exhibition: recent archaeological finds of the People’s Republic of China, which was not really an art exhibition. Further archaeological exhibitions lost money. Inexperience at ‘shoehorning’ quasi-art exhibitions into art museums bankrupted the Corporation. For art museum audiences cultural edification was not enough; they also expected aesthetic delight or fright.

Outsourced management of major exhibitions, with the huge advantage of federal government indemnification in lieu of otherwise prohibitive insurance costs, passed to other structures and now resides in Art Exhibitions Australia (AEA). In 2003 AEA, by then entirely self-supporting and able to cross-subsidise its exhibitions, toured the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s John Glover and the Colonial Picturesque. Though the scholarly exhibition of Australian art found a large audience and its box-office results were satisfactory, it’s an example of what would never have been undertaken without reserves earned from dependable crowd-pleasing ‘treasures’ exhibitions from overseas such as the National Gallery of Victoria’s recent The Impressionists: masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay and the sightings of Rembrandt and Vermeer in its Dutch Masters from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The most spectacularly successful exhibition of this kind was the National Gallery of Australia’s 2009–10 Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and beyond which – most unusually in the small population city of Canberra – broke Australia’s record for exhibition visitation with a figure of 476,843.

Australian government indemnification of prohibitively expensive exhibitions was made available to the National Gallery of Australia as well as to AEA. State galleries, now with management skills and international curatorial clout of their own for obtaining loans, sometimes preferred not to share income with AEA and soon persuaded their various state governments occasionally to underwrite insurance for blockbuster exhibitions. All quickly found that high-end box-office populism could cross-subsidise smaller, riskier, free-admission exhibitions of local art and contemporary art. They also subsidise numerous scholarly exhibitions of Asian art, especially at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Major art museums began to make money, not only from major exhibitions but also from their cafés and restaurants, from their specialist art bookshops and designer trinkets, from their publishing, and from public lectures and receptions. Following the membership organisations that had been started in the 1950s, high-powered foundations, at first seeded with matching funds from government, began to accumulate non-government capital in the 1970s. Governments for a while demanded the introduction of general admission charges, by way of compensation for the cost of the new buildings, but such charges were resisted and did not last long. Exhibitions, and shops and cafés and publishing, were more effective ways of making money. Admission charges to collections are uncommon in art museums in Australia; they occur most often in smaller museums at tourist destinations.

Teams of keen volunteer guides and in-house education officers helped make the art accessible to a much broader public than previously, a political plus with governments nervous about assisting art consumption by ‘elitist’ minorities. Governments accepted the argument that upgraded buildings needed upgraded staff: young art history graduate curators came on stream, and registrars to handle art logistics.

The building-led revolution continued on from Melbourne and Sydney. A new Art Gallery of Western Australia opened in Perth in 1979, and then Australia’s art-museum revolution climaxed in 1982. That year a new building for the Queensland Art Gallery opened in Brisbane and the Australian National Gallery opened in Canberra.

The advent of a real National Gallery in the national capital brings us to a problem bequeathed from colonial British times. Other colonial ‘National’ galleries in New South Wales and South Australia had already adjusted their names, in belated recognition that federation of the once separate colonies had taken place in 1901, but in the twenty-first century the ‘National’ Gallery of Victoria remains recalcitrant. It claims that its uniquely encyclopaedic collections, ranging from Mediterranean antiquities to international contemporary art, are a service to the entire federated nation, and it continues to use the nineteenth-century colonial name. However, in 2002 when it opened its separate building for Australian art, it quietly started using corporate-style abbreviations: ‘NGV Australia’ and ‘NGV International’.

Naming demonstrates another unfortunate British colonial legacy. The peculiarly British terminology of (public) ‘gallery’ – not ‘art museum’ – causes trouble; art museums become muddled with dealers’ galleries.  Redneck Australian parliamentarians have sometimes started by assuming that government ‘galleries’ are commercial businesses in need of occasional subsidy, not cultural, educational and research institutions in need of permanent sustenance; foreigners have approached the state or regional ‘galleries’ hoping to buy works of art.

Universities, always more worldly than state or local governments, were early to adopt more appropriate naming conventions, for example the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne. Contemporary art is similarly a global field, and when the Power Bequest to the University of Sydney eventually generated an off-campus museum it was named the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Sydney. The MCA receives assistance from the New South Wales government and the Australia Council for the Arts but is essentially a non-government museum, and so far the only one invited to supply an additional voice to the heavyweight gathering of state and national gallery directors that calls itself the Council of Australian Art Museum Directors. It was a lost opportunity in 1993 when the Australian National Gallery changed its name to the National Gallery of Australia. (Innocent first-timers, including parliamentarians, had been puzzled by its enthusiasm for non-Australian art.) Something like ‘National Museum of Art, Canberra’ might have better defined its role, and set an example.

The National Gallery’s visionary founding director, James Mollison, wanted to show Australians a sampling of all kinds of art worldwide – African and Pre-Columbian American as well Asian and Western art – alongside a concentration of highest-quality international modernism and contemporary art and an extremely comprehensive collection of Australian art. In 1967 Prime Minister Harold Holt had committed the Australian government to a national gallery; Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (1972–1975) escalated cultural funding to hitherto astonishing levels, including acquisition funds for the future National Gallery. The 1973 purchase, at a world record price, of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, a masterpiece of Abstract Expressionist painting, caused Americans to say they now understood how the ancient Greeks must have felt when their great works of art disappeared to newly rich Rome. Mollison’s National Gallery was startlingly different from the overly British collections formed previously in Australia. It was also different from the highly parochial state-based collections of Australian art elsewhere.

New South Wales and Victoria had neglected each other’s art; only South Australia had previously been collecting the full range of interstate Australian art. There were also prejudices and demarcations about mediums and categories and periods. Victoria and South Australia collected European and Asian decorative arts as art, but New South Wales left them for its technology museum, the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, which later metamorphosed into the Powerhouse Museum. At the Powerhouse ‘applied arts’ became ‘craft’ or ‘design’. The decorative arts collections at state galleries have taken a greater interest in ‘contemporary craft’ since practitioners began to receive assistance from the Australia Council. Modern design, too, now has a stronger presence in the decorative arts collections at state galleries. Decorative arts collections had seldom incorporated Australian folk art objects, a neglected area usually left to the very numerous volunteer-run rural museums of local history, but a conspicuous and unexpected delight at the new National Gallery.

Another inconsistency was early colonial Australian art. The state galleries in New South Wales and Victoria saw it as history rather than art, and left it to the pictorial and memorabilia collections of the state libraries. Until the 1960s there was little or no expert knowledge of Australia’s own art history, so outside their own states there was negligible awareness of the best nineteenth-century painters, John Glover who worked in Tasmania and Eugene von Guérard who worked in Victoria. On the other hand, in South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland the state galleries, not the state libraries, collected early colonial history. Photographs as history had resided in libraries and archives; photographs as art began to enter art museum collections only in the mid-1970s.

These inconsistencies and overlaps between art museums, natural science and anthropology museums, history and technology museums, libraries and archives, led the intergovernmental Cultural Ministers Council to create a Heritage Collections Committee. From that committee there emerged, in 2004, a company called the Collections Council of Australia, with an ex-officio board member coming from the Council of Australian Art Museum Directors, but it was defunded in 2009. The Collections Council established ‘cultural significance’ as an alternative criterion to aesthetic excellence for assessing the value of art objects and quasi-art.

The most important of the in-between categories is Australian Aboriginal art. One or two Hermannsburg School watercolours and Arnhem Land bark paintings had entered the art collections in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney in the 1940s. However, the liberation of Aboriginal art into the world of high art – a liberation from what some Indigenous Australians saw as the demeaning company of plants and animals in science museums – was chiefly due to the activities of the Adelaide anthropologist Charles Mountford. In the 1950s he engineered significant gifts of Aboriginal bark paintings to the state galleries throughout Australia and Tony Tuckson, deputy director at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, was the most eager of those who took up the challenge. From 1958 Tuckson carried out an extensive campaign of acquisitions for his art museum, which thenceforth always conspicuously displayed Aboriginal art. In 1960 the Directors Conference commissioned from New South Wales a large exhibition of Australian Aboriginal Art, mostly bark paintings, for an Australia-wide tour.

A very strong presence of Australian Aboriginal art, most of it contemporary, is now found in all art museums. In Melbourne at NGV Australia it has the ground level entirely to itself, but Aboriginal art has also been seen alongside Andy Warhol at NGV International. In Canberra a new ground-level entrance to the National Gallery, opened in 2010, continues the focus on the 200 burial poles commissioned in 1988 as an Aboriginal Memorial. As well as filling its own separate spaces, Aboriginal art continues to be intermingled with international and other Australian collection-displays at the National Gallery. Social empowerment of Indigenous Australians would have been Mountford’s intention when he first inserted their work into art museums, but Tuckson’s and Mollison’s triumphantly realised initiatives were based largely on modernist aesthetics. They knew that the best Indigenous works were as powerful and beautiful as – although different from – the best Western works of art. Australian and foreign audiences now share that understanding. No other country in the world has done anything similar through its art museums.

New Zealand art also requires complicated curatorial handling. Specialists in international Western art will have little knowledge of New Zealand, so at least at the National Gallery, where it is more serious a political issue than elsewhere, New Zealand art is cared for by a department of Australasian art but displayed with European and American art as well as with Australian art. The National Gallery’s privately endowed Gordon Darling Australasian Print Fund mutated in 2008 into an Australia Pacific Print Fund, a further acceptance that the whole Pacific Lake is best overseen by Australia-based expertise.

When the Museum of Contemporary Art opened in Sydney in 1991 it promptly staged important exhibitions from New Zealand, Japan and China, a conscious departure from Eurocentric attitudes. Later, in 1993, the Queensland Art Gallery began its Asia-Pacific Triennials as major contemporary art events that would be very different from the Biennale of Sydney instigated in 1973 by Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, an Italian immigrant tycoon who, like other wealthy patrons in the twentieth century, wanted to bring isolated Australians into contact with the most recent art from the rest of the world.

In the 1970s the National Gallery of Australia, acknowledging the NGV’s great collections of Chinese art, began by focusing instead on South-east Asian art, especially Cambodian and Thai Buddhist sculptures and Indonesian batik cloths, and soon became probably the world’s leading centre for South-east Asian textiles. In 1978 Edmund Capon, a sinologist from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, became director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and promptly created a department of Asian art, programmed wonderful exhibitions, extended the meagre collections, and created purpose-built display spaces for Asian art. In Adelaide, the Art Gallery of South Australia developed special expertise in South-east Asian ceramics, but also now possesses the finest Japanese sculptures and screen paintings in Australia; in 2006 it installed the nation’s only collection space dedicated to Islamic art, still a neglected field. In 2005, when Ron Radford arrived from the Art Gallery of South Australia to direct the National Gallery, he further strengthened all the Asian collections in Canberra and created a new focus on Indian sculptures and paintings. He also shifted Asian art from basement spaces to the main entrance level, where Australia’s most spectacular displays of highest quality South-east and South Asian art displaced a scrappy display of European art.

The National Gallery’s 30 or so European paintings and sculptures, from the early Renaissance to Neoclassicism, were pronounced unlikely ever to develop into a coherent display worthy of a national gallery. In a bold but not too controversial move they have been transferred on indefinite loan to better contexts in the state galleries in Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

Art museum deaccessioning is a related issue. In the 1940s and 1950s the state galleries in Victoria and New South Wales deaccessioned a good number of British Victorian paintings and sculptures – not to raise money, but because they occupied too much storage space and were out of fashion. The process was ill-advised, both artistically and politically. In the late twentieth century better deaccessioning policies were drafted in most state galleries, especially in relation to works originally received as gifts, or to works suitable for transfer to other institutions, or that clearly duplicated others of lesser quality. Even so, in 1996, further deaccessioning of a number of Victorian and Edwardian British paintings from the Art Gallery of New South Wales was not done well; a few paintings of superior quality slipped away, while others of low quality certainly met the criterion of cultural significance.

A converse matter to deaccessioning is the acceptance of gifts restricted by conditions such as permanent display. In 2006 NGV Australia accepted a selection from the celebrated Joseph Brown Collection, originally formed to illustrate the full timespan and geographical range of Australian art. It did much to correct Melbourne’s neglect of Sydney art, and it must have pleased many that the collection was saved for Dr Brown’s home state, but his condensed history of Australian art within a much more extensive history is an awkward interruption and an oddity for visitors. There was a better interstate offer from the Australian National University in Canberra, to house the complete Joseph Brown Collection in a building that would bear his name, but localism unfortunately prevailed.

Australia’s art museums have always taken contemporary art seriously. Those deaccessioned Victorian and Edwardian British paintings and sculptures were contemporary art when they first entered the colonial and state collections. Contemporary art is best presented extensively in special exhibitions and best collected more judiciously than in the past; the upgraded special exhibition spaces of the 1970s allowed hugely increased and more appropriate attention to contemporary art.

The upgraded art museum buildings arrived just in time to cope with post-modernism, whose messy installation art, performance art, film and video could not otherwise have been accommodated. The international Biennales of Sydney, the national Australian Perspectas (1981–1999), also in Sydney, the Adelaide Biennials of Australian Art and, as mentioned, the Asia-Pacific Triennials in Brisbane became typical special-event showcases for newest art, local and foreign, designed for the large audiences that reach the state galleries.

Work by women painters and sculptors was never discriminated against in collections of Australian art. If they had assertive personalities like the modernist Margaret Preston, their excellence had been recognised from the start. If they had retiring personalities, like Grace Cossington Smith or Grace Crowley, or were out of fashion like Clarice Beckett, recognition took time, just as it did for retiring males such as Ralph Balson. A prime task for collection curators is recognition of neglected excellence, especially out-of-fashion excellence. The art museum upsurge of retrospective collecting and exhibitions of Australian art in the 1970s was part of that normal museological process, not a consequence of post-modernist feminism.

On the other hand, neglect of art mediums favoured by women artists was corrected by the newly changed mindsets. Prints, especially the mediums of woodcut and linocut, were one example; craft arts of all kinds, especially needlework, were another. Needlework quilts in the National Gallery’s collections gave Australian nineteenth-century colonial women artists, including convicts, a voice.

As mentioned, the colonial multi-disciplinary format survives in Hobart at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. In 2008 a commitment eventually came from government to upgrade a building that is very inconvenient for visitors. The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which opened in improvised premises in Darwin in 1964, was the one new multi-disciplinary institution established by a government in the twentieth century. A new post-Cyclone Tracy building opened in 1981. The combination of science, history and art still suits a small capital city. 

By 2008 the Art Gallery of New South Wales had been extended twice since 1972 and in 2010 it converted its entire art storage floor to display its collections of international contemporary art, greatly strengthened by the John W Kaldor Family Gift of classic minimalism and conceptual art. In Melbourne, Jeff Kennett, a monument-building former premier of Victoria desperate to find functions for the ‘iconic’ Federation Square that he hoped would rival Sydney’s Opera House, bullied the NGV into taking on the key tenancy as a museum of Australian art; in 2002 a museum of international contemporary art might have been more suitable for the site.

In 2006 the Queensland Art Gallery doubled in size, its beautiful Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) conveniently situated only 200 metres from its parent building, whereas NGV Australia and NGV International are on opposite sides of a river. GoMA is Australia’s first art museum to include a cinémathèque. As well as showing the Asia-Pacific Triennials it also showcases Queensland’s now extensive collections of contemporary Asian art. Acquisition funds from state governments were once substantial, but have dwindled and sometimes entirely disappeared; only in Queensland have governments continued since the 1970s with very generous funding for acquisitions as well as buildings and operations.

A National Portrait Gallery, opened in 2008 in Canberra, was almost entirely due to inspired lobbying from a private citizen. A former chairman of the National Gallery, Gordon Darling, and his wife Marilyn, had become addicted to philanthropy, persuaded prime ministers that a National Portrait Gallery was an essential asset for a national capital, and ensured its successful start by contributing financial support. Although the National Portrait Gallery is really a history museum, its director has been added to the elite Council of Australian Art Museum Directors, perhaps on the assumption that the Portrait Gallery will continue to use the not-so-secret weapon of aesthetic excellence in its campaign to make Australians interesting.

Ambitious private museums are a very recent development. Marc Besen’s TarraWarra Museum of Art opened in 2003 in beautiful Yarra Valley wine country outside Melbourne. David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art, known as Mona, opened in 2011 at the Moorilla vineyard on the Derwent estuary near Hobart. There is nothing like it in the world. A self-proclaimed vehicle for the owner’s missionary Atheism and Darwinism – marketed somewhat misleadingly as being about ‘sex and death’ – it displays major Egyptian and Greek antiquities alongside international late 20th century and 21st century art. It has free admission and in its first few months attracted an extremely high visitation, not only from an Australia-wide and international artworld but also, more significantly, from a non-artworld local demographic. Mona offers a paradigm shift in art museums; it’s the result of altruistic self-gratification by an extremely free-thinking mind.

Before Mona it seemed the most significant new development was ACMI, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. One of the world’s first such museums, it opened in 2002 in Melbourne, next door to NGV Australia at Federation Square. It is always crowded with young people, at home in the present-day age of disembodied digital images.

Older generations worry about one of the ways in which the Internet is changing the world; minds are narrowing as people graze on self-centred information, constantly reinforcing what they already know and believe. Bracing otherness in unfamiliar ways is seldom encountered by post-newspaper reading generations. Art museums should therefore treat complete Internet accessibility of their extraordinarily powerful images as a high priority.

However, their materiality gives the ideas and emotions embodied in art museum objects a much greater charge than their disembodied images can transmit from a laptop screen. At NGV Australia, a less crowded place than ACMI next door, video installations and other kinds of screen-based art are now taken for granted in temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, but they are not available all the time. To help capture present-day audiences for art they should always be available for serendipitous encounters by those who might wander through an art collection. In Hobart, the inaugural collection display at David Walsh’s Mona included much more moving-image and installation art as paintings or photomedia, and thereby made its unusually eager young visitors feel at home.

Special exhibitions are wonderful temporary stimulants, and good marketing tools for art museums, but the collection is the more wondrous final product. Revisiting, rethinking and re-scrutinising the thoughts and feelings that have been worked into clear and graspable form is the best way to use an art museum. A universal and unedited ocean of Internet information has vast lucky-dip potential, but browsing a good library or a large museum collection is a better way to encounter the high-energy artefacts that we call works of art. Works of art exist to suddenly provide understanding of self or, equally important, to take viewers out of themselves. 

Australia’s art museums, more perhaps than any others, have become unusually well-suited to a post-European or post-North Atlantic age. For over 30 years they have been defining and hence creating the Asia-Pacific age whose time is upon us. Perhaps that is why, while he was still director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Ron Radford was invited to join the world’s peak international Directors Council, the first from a museum outside Europe or North America to network formally with the directors of the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London, and the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. And perhaps that is why in 2006 Michael Brand, a Canberra-born one-time curator of Asian art at the National Gallery of Australia became the director of the Getty, the world’s wealthiest art museum. Australia is leading the world.


A longer version of this paper is published in Journal of Art Historiography, No 4 June 2011. Daniel Thomas, 'Art Museums in Australia: A Personal Retrospect', [PDF, opens in a new window]

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Cite as: Daniel Thomas, 2011, 'Art museums in Australia: a personal account', in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia, published online at
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