Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia, 2021
Design Dominic Hofstede (Mucho)
No-one could be better placed to produce a history of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, celebrating its 150th year, than long serving Chief Archivist Steven Miller.
Catchily titled, The Exhibitionists is at once a social history of those years and an examination of the changes in the nature and purpose of the gallery – this one and, by association, others in Australia.
While there are details about the collections and how they came to be as they are, along with information about the buildings, the changing roles of the directors and the boards (trustees), what strikes us most is Steven Miller’s story-telling and his interest in the people who have made this history. And that includes the public, the ever-enthusiastic audience for art.
From the days of fusty though well-intentioned old men as sole determiners of what we might see and do in the AGNSW to the current day to the challenges of COIVD-19, this is a book bristling with personalities and life – never just a look at works on the wall.
Starting with an acknowledgement of the colonial past and its continuing legacy, Steven Miller’s book draws our attention to the site of the current buildings on Gadigal land. The author says he has deliberately gone in search of overlooked histories in the archives – ‘The old people are not absent, nor are they silent…they are returned to a living presence…’ (curator Clothilde Bullen, page 12).
The significant contribution to the very existence of an art gallery in NSW made by Eliezer Levi Montefiore and Alfred Stephen must be acknowledged also. And then we discover the many egos and buttings of heads along the way to our present times – from the quest to form a classical collection to the beginnings of purchases of works by Australian artists. Other changes have come more slowly.
Current director Michael Brand has penned an afterword in which he refers to the closure of the gallery in March 2020 due to COVID-19, the first time the doors had been shut since the 1919 Spanish flu pandemic. He also alludes to the continuance during this time of gallery public programs online, especially the Together in Art kids’ exhibition. The preciousness of the gallery to the public could not be more pronounced.
With ongoing building and expansion both of buildings and ideas, the AGNSW will continue to both strengthen and deepen its offerings to the citizens of the state and visitors from further afield. The Exhibitionists both tells and is part of that story.
It’s a fine work, accessible, informative, human in its focus. Its weighty subject never becomes a weighty read, but rather this is a pleasurable stroll through years of stories, nodding as we go to many interesting personalities and their passions.
Thank you to the Art Gallery of NSW for my review copy, the erudite but ever so approachable Steven Miller for a fascinating and relaxed chat about the book and his work at AGNSW and DMCPR for facilitating the connection.