In Subject of discussionthe “snapshot” of Australian contemporary visual arts recently published by the Australia Council in 2014, it was surprising to find only one reference to the country’s 42 art galleries and university museums and no interviews with any of their professionals.
Described as a glimpse into the “vibrant and diverse ecology” of Australian visual arts, it nevertheless ignores 26% of the country’s public art museums. These galleries and museums collectively care for significant and valuable collections, spend over A$6 million annually to acquire the work of Australian artists, and stage 250 exhibitions each year.
It is hard to imagine how a mapping of Australia’s cultural terrain could overlook such an important topographical feature.
Although mentioned briefly as “an untapped resource” with the potential to offer partnership on more ambitious and long-term projects, there is no acknowledgment in the report of the substantial contribution made by university museums and galleries. .
So what do the country’s university art museums bring to their host institutions and more broadly to the Australian community?
Since their inception over 150 years ago, Australian universities have commissioned and collected works of art to enrich their cultural milieu and ensure that their graduates develop as fully-fledged individuals, with a balanced education. which includes a knowledge of the arts through contact with themselves and with others. cultures.
Additionally, universities have recognized their responsibility as agents in building civic responsibility and social capital, helping communities better understand and celebrate their cultural heritage.
This dual mission of providing a center for teaching and research while enriching community life continues to guide the development of programs within university museums and galleries. Certainly, over the past decade, the inclusion of new galleries when renovating or constructing facilities for art schools and the opening of purpose-built or renovated gallery spaces on college campuses testify an ongoing commitment to their mission as guardians and interpreters of our visual culture.
University art galleries are in an excellent position to engage critically with different ideas and to offer vision beyond the local while providing critical appreciation and interpretation of local beliefs.
One way they do this is to use their collections, which emphasize the local by creating a repository of artifacts and images that document aspects of community life and activity that might otherwise be overlooked.
Australia’s universities are a national treasure. Their collections are an important part of the nation’s cultural heritage, and through their annual program of exhibitions, supported by academic publications and research, they are a vibrant component of Australian cultural life.
My own university – the University of Western Australia – is a good example. Its art collection grew out of the acquisition of books and works of art by Professor Walter Murdoch on a trip to Europe in 1927, with funds provided by the Hackett Bequest. Art buying began in earnest in the late 1940s and the University maintains its commitment to buying contemporary art.
the Berndt Museum was founded with donations from Professor Ronald Berndt and his wife Catherine and its collection has grown steadily through donations and acquisitions.
With the Cruthers Collection of Female Artdonated to the University in 2007, these three collections constitute more than 16,000 works of art and artefacts and more than 35,000 photographs.
To develop and showcase these collections, the University, through its museum and gallery, commissioned new works from 13 Australian artists and presented 12 exhibitions, 11 featuring the work of Australian artists, in 2013. These exhibitions were supported by the publication of two books, two journals and ten catalogs and the professional staff of the museum and gallery presented 57 public program events and hosted 118 guided tours by internal and external school groups.
It is unfortunate that this level of commitment, which is replicated in university museums and galleries across the country, is not recognized for its significant contribution to the commissioning, acquisition, research and presentation of arts practice. Australian contemporary visuals.
Surely one of the talking points that emerges from this recent report is how the authors have overlooked such a body of evidence when investigating the “diverse ecology” of Australia’s contemporary art community. ?
Established in 2008, University Art Museums Australia (UAMA) is an affiliated group of art museum professionals who each have direct responsibility for an Australian university art museum. Its main objective is to advocate on behalf of university museums and galleries to create a better understanding of their impact in building and maintaining a vibrant and sustainable visual arts sector in this country.
The Talking Point report reinforces the urgency of this task.