A century of giving

Melbourne now has two major galleries—NGV Australia and NGV International, and it’s hard not to smile when walking out of Flinders Street Station into a gigantic new arts precinct after doing without for so long. O brave new world, that has such buildings in it! As artist Robert Motherwell once said, people just naturally accept modern buildings. The Ian Potter Gallery in Federation Square opened its doors in 2002 and the public has been pouring in ever since. The refurbished NGV International in St Kilda Road finally reopened in December 2003 to accolades, and scores have been to the Caravaggio exhibition.

Gerard Vaughan, director and CEO of the National Gallery of Victoria, must be one of the busiest people in Australia. Any dream of a soul-baring interaction with Mr Vaughan was dashed by the circumstances of the interview. Yes, he could find a window for me—in the taxi on the way to Sydney Airport and then suggested I call again after he landed, in the taxi from Tullamarine to the carpark of the NGV. After serving as director of the British Museum Development Trust in London for five years, he replaced Timothy Potts as director of the NGV in 1999. He has shepherded the Federation Square and St Kilda Road buildings into being, both projects of mind-boggling complexity, which were started by former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett.

‘I spend a lot of time on external relations with stakeholders, government relations, talking to the press and the members of the NGV. I’m lobbying for money a great deal of the time, that is very important of course, and support from the community. And I have to deal with a lot of straightforward administrative issues—not the day-to-day management, that’s handled by the chief of finance and others. And of course I have excellent professional curatorial staff. Dealing with issues like conservation of works and retail operations. Acquisitions program—we have some very exciting works coming up. We are getting a sculpture by Archipenko, among others.’

Fundraising is part of the duties of all gallery directors, but the rationing is what makes the difference. The NGV is often mentioned in the same breath as the name of Melbourne businessman Alfred Felton. It’s now a hundred years since he died, leaving the then enormous sum of £191,500 to Victoria’s National Gallery. Felton was a dedicated art collector but his taste was of its time, running mainly to middle-of-the-road landscapes. His was one of Melbourne’s great 19th-century success stories. A watch-maker’s assistant, he emigrated from East Anglia in the north-west of England during the Victorian gold-rush years and ended up at the head of a business empire. He believed in art as a force for good in society, and when he made his will he was farsighted enough not to place restrictive conditions on the use of his money. He did stipulate that the gallery was to keep its purchases, which has been lucky for the NGV. It now has holdings
under the Felton Bequest worth around $1 billion.

‘The Felton Bequest Trustees were always very conservative about investment. In the ‘60s the international art market rocketed while the Australian dollar dipped. By the mid ‘70s, it was seen that the Felton Bequest would be insufficient, and there was a period of financial doldrums. Premier Rupert Hamer was a very enlightened man … (who was) ahead of his time. (He) arranged an annual departmental allocation from government funding in order to build up the Bequest. He had ideas like launching an endowment campaign. The aim was to put them back in the position they were in 30 years (previously), when they could have anything they wanted.’

‘Anything they wanted’ is an alluring phrase: Melbourne may well be the home of the luckiest gallery in the nation. Not all others have had such a cornucopia of money and good will.

‘The NGV has one of the world’s great art collections. We would only be a respectable provincial art gallery without it. We are what we are because of Alfred Felton’s huge, amazing gift. And at that point the Victorian Government bowed out of collections. So much has been given to us from private benefactors, not taxpayers’ money. As a young boy I was taken to the National Gallery and I was inspired by things like the wonderful Rembrandt drawings which the gallery was able to buy. The income from the Bequest in those days also meant that every year something exciting was being acquired.’

It’s not so much the overall funding that a gallery receives, but other factors including the ratio and history of private and public funding. From the time of Felton onward there have been others who have strengthened the culture of arts endowment. The Myers, the Murdochs, the Baillieus—Melbourne’s cultural history has an unbroken chain of the scions of establishment, deeply involved in the arts. Some galleries now institute flagship programs to educate business leaders in the benefits of ‘qualitative rather than quantitative returns’ to justify sponsorship of the arts to shareholders. In this climate, a gallery’s director has to maintain complex relationships between the trustees, the funding bodies, public and private, the community the gallery serves and the exceedingly volatile fashions and markets in art.

Outgoing director of the National Gallery of Australia, Brian Kennedy, has likened public art galleries to secular cathedrals, and their CEOs to secular archbishops. His style differs from Gerard Vaughan’s: it’s more outspoken and speculative, he certainly appears to have attracted more than a director’s usual share of strife. In February 2003, Kennedy’s reported outburst at a Senate estimates hearing regarding faults in the air-conditioning system at the NGA hit the press, as did controversy about his acquisition of David Hockney’s $4.6 million A Bigger Grand Canyon and Lucian Freud’s $7.4 million After Cezanne—and all this amid rumours about low staff morale. In early June, only a few days after this interview with Gerard Vaughan, The Age published an article by Lauren Martin that placed these issues in high relief, as it were. During the interview with Vaughan, I had wondered if the Felton Bequest and similar private funding meant that NGV had a more independent position from government than the NGA because of a different ratio of public to private funding. I asked Vaughan for his perspective.

‘I can’t possibly comment on that. I’m a public servant and the basic principle here is that I’m employed to do a job. While I’m obviously impacted by government, I’ve never felt restricted. I’m immensely grateful for the funding, but you have to remember that we’re all competing with a huge number of lobbyists for funding from government. The funding is adequate—sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t.

‘I can honestly say I’ve never had any pressure from government in five years. We had a recent incident that was politically controversial, the very confronting work at Federation Square (Gordon Hookey’s Sacred nation, scared nation, indoctrination) by an Indigenous artist, which took a stand on the US and Australian involvement in the Iraq conflict. Both Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun and the Opposition spokesman objected to it with Andrew Bolt demanding it be removed. Andrew Bolt challenged the Minister to instruct us to take it down. The Minister refused and assured me that the government would never involve itself in censorship.

‘I’ve had some very interesting talks with government which have been very positive, collaborative. There’s a consultative process which works very well. In fact there was a large collection of furniture, which we had acquired in the past, which we needed to dispose of, and although you would think selling off public assets would not be ALP policy, we were able to convince the Minister of the necessity for doing this.’

Another significant act of private benefaction to the NGV is Dr Joseph Brown’s recent gift of his collection. He migrated to Australia from Poland in 1933 as a 15-year-old and eventually headed his own successful fashion business. His involvement in visual art, both as a painter himself and later as a gallery owner, led him to build his formidable Australian art collection. For 20 years Dr Brown, now 86, has been trying to find a permanent home for his 500 artworks, which have been valued at $30 million. They constitute a canon of Australian major works by artists such as Eugène von Guérard, Margaret Preston, Sidney Nolan, Brett Whiteley, Fred Williams, Peter Booth, and Frederick McCubbin. Their acquisition was a major coup for the NGV. Vaughan explained the initial obstacles to NGV’s acceptance of the gift, and how they were eventually overcome.

‘Dr Brown had intended his entire collection to be on permanent display as an entity in perpetuity and we simply didn’t have the space to house it under those conditions. But we were able to reach a compromise in due course. Dr Brown wanted it to be at the NGV Australia, knowing that more than a million people per annum pass through. We chose 100 works which best represented the collection. It was a wonderful and generous compromise for Joseph Brown to make. Of course it was the end of an odyssey, a saga, for him and he had wanted to donate it for 20 years.’
The current show ‘2004: Australian Culture Now’, is an exhibition of 130 living Australian artists. I asked him if it represented a departure from the usual concentration on overseas acquisitions and the historical, collector’s view of art.

‘The gallery has always supported Australian contemporary art. There’s a tradition of young practising artists being closely involved with us. Right up to ten to 15 years ago the National Gallery school was training young artists. They had young practising artists as part of the infrastructure. In collaboration with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, it’s an opportunity for big, powerful issues in contemporary art to be seen. Many of the best new artists now are working with the screen and other new media instead of the traditional canvas—things like film, photography, design of video games, interactive computer-based works.

What have been some of the highlights of the last five years?

‘There’ve been so many fantastic things. The biggest challenge has been getting those two wonderful buildings built, and the incredible detail of that, and the installing of the collections. Opening those buildings was fantastic. Another highlight was major new acquisitions. We’ve done our best, and in doing that, we’ve delivered what both the government and the people of Victoria want. We’ve given them the best buildings, the best staff, and the best collections in Australia.

‘We didn’t have a Biennale this time around—it might be a Triennial or a four-year initiative. We want to ride on the back of the Sydney Biennale and attract international visitors to both. We can’t have them coming to Melbourne after Sydney to find nothing’s happening here. We want them to know Melbourne’s back in business.’

A way gallery directors put their stamp on their tenure is acquisition of significant artwork. Brian Kennedy’s Hockney and Freud were momentous, controversial, echoing James Mollison’s acquisition of Pollock’s Blue Poles under the Whitlam Government, or indeed the NGV’s own Banquet of Cleopatra by Tiepolo, acquired during the Depression. That and Mollison’s vision have long since been vindicated. The NGV has the buildings for such things now, but will the money be enough for the really huge acquisitions? Gerard Vaughan hinted tantalisingly at a big purchase he is negotiating at the moment. When asked about his own tastes, Vaughan laughed. ‘Everything,’ he said. His taste, he said was so broad that it was hard to single things out, but he then spoke of two passions: the French Post-Impressionists, and the subject of his doctoral thesis, which was on the history of collections and how tastes form and change over generations.
Emerging from a honeymoon with press and public, the NGV is still basking.  

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer. Lucille Hughes is an artist. They are sisters.

 

 

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