Aus State gallery perspectives on collns
One of the newly re-opened 20th-century galleries at the Art Gallery of NSW. Front: Pukumanigrave posts (1958) by Laurie Nelson Mungatopi, Bob Apuatimi, Jack Yarunga, Don Burakmadjua, Charlie Kwangdini and unknown artist; Rear: works by Tony Tuckson (far left and far right) and Noŋgirrŋa Marawili (far centre). Photo: Christopher Snee.
Jo Pickup, How does your State Gallery show its permanent collection?, ArtsHub, 31 August 2022
Have you ever thought about what life would be like without your State gallery and its collection?
Gone would be the chance to see the range of stunning, and sometimes iconic, art works our State institutions have spent many years (and dollars) collecting on our behalf.
At the heart of it, our major galleries’ collective place within the cultural fabric of Australia is really about how much we – the Australian public – value those collections and their works.
So, what exactly do our State galleries’ art collections look like? And what kinds of arts experiences do they offer?
How many works does your State gallery have?
In terms of the number of items per collection, interestingly, the largest collections in size are actually owned by the smallest galleries on the map.
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) is a combined museum, art gallery and herbarium; its colossal collection includes almost one million objects across art, history and science.
Similarly, the combined Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) has over 750,000 specimen lots in its Natural Sciences Collection, 20,000 objects in its Territory History Collection, and 1,200 secret sacred objects in its internationally significant Strehlow Collection.
MAGNT’s art holdings are far smaller than its museum items, having around 7,200 works of Aboriginal Art and Culture, 4,500 works of South East Asian Art and Culture, and 1,200 works in its Australian Art Collection (approximately 12,500 total works).
It’s no surprise that the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) has the largest stand-alone art collection, with approximately 155,000 works by more than 15,000 artists, recently valued at approximately $6.2 billion.
The NGV Collection – the oldest public art collection in Australia – holds approximately 75,000 works, and the next largest – at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) – has 47,000.
The size of AGSA’s collection is especially significant, because the Gallery is one of the nation’s smallest by square metre footprint, making its artwork to gallery space ratio rather impressive.
The Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) has over 35,000 works; the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) around 20,000; and the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) over 18,000.
How our State Gallery collections are displayed
Tallying the number of artworks across our State galleries – a total of approximately 375,000 works – boggles the mind at the treasures therein.
Notably, the number of collection works the galleries can reasonably display is a fraction of their entirety, averaging around 5% of their total collections at one time.
The NGA for example, routinely displays between 1-5% of their collection in their spaces (though 61% of its collection can be viewed online), while QAGOMA displays up to 9% of its collection across their spaces, but this number fluctuates throughout the year depending on programming.
While hard statistics are one way to track the nation’s epic art collections, perhaps a more pertinent question to ask is how these works are curated and displayed for the public to enjoy.
In recent years, some State galleries have followed what seems to be an international trend in re-thinking how their permanent and historical collections are shown – making stronger efforts to shift narrow-lens colonial narratives, and ensure more voices and stories can be shared through the art.
For example, the NGA’s 2019/2020 exhibition of their Australian Art Collection works entitled Belonging: Stories of Australian Art, was curated by a group of eight Indigenous and non-Indigenous curators and was intended to shake-up previous colonial readings of their Australian works.
As the Belonging curatorial team told ArtsHub, ‘Displays of non-Indigenous art [at the NGA] often start with the arrival of Europeans. This ignores millennia of First Nations occupation and unceded sovereignty.’
To counter this, the curators said Belonging ‘aimed to reflect the culture we hope to see develop across Australian institutions in which decisions are made collaboratively, and that reflect and embed a range of positions and points of view.’
Similarly, in 2017, when the Queensland Art Gallery (QAGOMA) unveiled a significant rehang of its Australian Art Collection galleries. At the time, its Director Chris Saines told ArtsHub the rehang ‘presented a very exciting rethinking of the way in which we interweave and interlock the stories of Indigenous Australian art history and non-Indigenous or post colonialisation history’.
A more recent marker of these changes can be seen in the newly re-opened Grand Courts and 20th Century Galleries at AGNSW, which have been refurbished to allow the gallery’s Australian and International Collection works to be displayed over two floors in dialogue with each other.
Maud Page, AGNSW Deputy Director and Director of Collections commented that: ‘Encountering [AGNSW’s] collection suggests history is a condition of experiencing the present moment.
‘When we show a work from that collection, we present it with care and consideration, physically and conceptually, so that it can be received with care by our visitors, and loved time and again in different lights, different contexts, different times,’ she said.
A State gallery taking a different curatorial approach
What binds the galleries together is their shared intention to present collection works in dynamic, ever-changing and expansive ways that allow connections with present-day topical discussions to emerge.
At this same time, curators are attuned to the public’s love for particular collection favourites, making sure they are frequently shown.
For AGNSW, that means works like Elioth Gruner’s Spring frost (1919) – perhaps the most treasured Australian landscape painting in their collection – and a work sorely missed by AGNSW visitors when it recently toured through regional NSW.
At NGV, audiences flock to see Grace Cossington-Smith’s The Bridge in-curve (1930) and Hokusai’s iconic The great wave off Kanagawa (1830) among others, while at QAGOMA, Under the jacaranda (1903) by R. Godfrey Rivers and Monday morning (1912) by Queensland artist Vida Lahey are year-round favourites.
Another part of State galleries’ commitment to their permanent collections is that they have always had dedicated spaces to display these works.
One State gallery, however, is departing from this approach.
Since 2020, AGWA has not devoted any specific gallery spaces to the display of their Historical Collection, and has no plans to return to that model in future.
AGWA Director Colin Walker said the gallery has not viewed the exhibition of their collection works in this way for some time, and are shifting away from showing them according to dedicated floor spaces.
‘We have a Curator of our Historical Collection, and I am bringing in an Associate Curator of that collection, so the collection is not being ignored,’ Walker told ArtsHub.
‘But if you want to be truly representative – and this isn’t a criticism of anyone else – it’s just a choice we have made; there are just so many other ways to present these works.’
AGWA’s current strategy is premised on exhibiting works from its collection as part of its year-round exhibition program of temporary shows.
‘I’m sure I’ll get criticism for it,’ Walker said. ‘But there again you get criticism for lots of things, don’t you?,’ adding that in terms of recent criticism the gallery has received: ‘AGWA gets letters on things all the time, but I compare that with the number of new people that are coming through the doors, and the number of younger people that are coming through the doors, and there is nothing in our surveys from them that they want to see any particular works,’ he said.
Walker also reported that AGWA’s new, younger audiences – of which the gallery has been enjoying a record number of late – are ‘much more interested in the issues of the day, and how they are contextualised.’
We’ve got be to agile, we’ve got be nimble, we’ve got to create those different access points.
Colin Walker, Director, Art Gallery of WA.
Evidently, the gallery’s shifting curatorial strategy around its collection is aiming to be more receptive to audience trends.
‘Wrapping up too much space for one particular way in which things are shown – it’s not a luxury I think we [AGWA] can afford and this point in time,’ Walker told ArtsHub.
Just what those different access points to AGWA’s Collection will look like is yet to fully unfold.
But audiences can get a taste in the gallery’s upcoming exhibition dis/possession, which will place two of AGWA’s most iconic Australian landscape paintings – Down on his luck by Frederick McCubbin and Droving into the light by Hans Heysen – in conversation with works by First Nations artists to raise questions about how painting landscape and Country feeds into understandings of identity.