Having grown up in the coalfields of the Hunter Valley, I never thought I’d see the day when those prosaic towns would manifest a love of art. That was before last weekend when Maitland confounded all expectations by opening a spectacular new gallery. The Maitland Regional Art Gallery is a clever meshing of old and new architectural styles, with state-of-the-art display areas designed by Paul Berkemeir added to two early twentieth century buildings by Walter Liberty Vernon. The development cost eight million dollars, and has given the city one of the biggest public art spaces in rural New South Wales.
Most of that money came from the Maitland City Council, along with significant donations from the Thyne Reid Foundation, the NSW State Government, and many other sources. Director, Joe Eisenberg, one of the most dedicated fund-raisers in the business, put his customary hard word on many artists, collectors and philanthropists.
Even so, it is the commitment of the Council that is most noteworthy. The first stirrings came more than a decade ago when the painter, John Martin, served a term as mayor. From that point, the project went through the predictable obstacle course until – miraculously enough – the culturati triumphed over the philistines.
If the huge turn-out for the opening was an indication of local support then MRAG is destined for a bright future. Yet if one were to focus on the number of empty shops and derelict businesses down the same end of High Street, the gallery begins to look like a bold strategy for revitalising the most historically interesting part of the city. Maitland is reputedly enjoying a period of prosperity and population growth, but this hasn’t translated into a more adventurous set of businesses or consumers. In this respect, the gallery will be expected to lead the way to a more sophisticated urban environment.
For the opening exhibitions Eisenberg drew on his good relations with big-time collectors, Geoff and Vicki Ainsworth, who showed works by local and international contemporary artists; and Ray Wilson, who, having put together a museum-quality collection of Australian Surrealism with his late partner, the inimitable James Agapitos, and has now gone over completely to indigenous art. There was also a room-sized installation by Fiona Davies called Intangible Collection, and a lively exhibition of recent drawings by abstract painter, Graham Kuo. The former show related to the history of the building and the community, while the latter heralded the MRAG’s special collecting area – works on paper.
Other attractions included a noisy children’s gallery, a room full of mechanical dogs by Jon Pryor, and a diverse set of shops selling everything from knick-knacks and postcards to blue-and-white China formerly owned by James Gleeson. In time there will also be a café. If all this wasn’t sufficient, Margaret Olley was on hand, fresh from the opening of her drawing show at the Newcastle Region Art Gallery. She bestowed her blessings and a Cressida Campbell picture.
This was an impressive beginning. The Agapitos/Wilson collection of contemporary Aboriginal art is only about six years’ old, but has been put together with great discernment. Most of the works on display would fit smoothly into any public collection. The Ainsworth show is a rather different proposition. The title Collecting Lines, gives the vaguest idea of what one might see: works on paper by Goya and Russell Drysdale rub up against German Expressionist prints, woodblocks by Raoul Dufy, etchings by Lucian Freud, and a couple of Tracey Emin’s word pieces. There are paintings by Fred Williams, Sidney Nolan and Leon Kossoff, videos, photographs and small sculptures. Geoff Ainsworth says it is not a collection but an “accumulation”, and that is a fair summary.
Since the Ainsworths take pride in making all their own choices, this eclecticism is not the result of an uneasy marriage between personal taste and the recommendations of arts professionals. Nevertheless, it made me wonder to what degree taste consists in being able to persuade ourselves that we really like something, or can see profundity in banality. Only Tony Bond of the Art Gallery of NSW, who contributes a catalogue essay, may be capable of putting Goya and Drysdale into the same category as Tracey Emin, although it’s tempting to agree with him when he says her works are “painful”.
Leaving the petty details to one side, it is a rare and precious thing to see pieces by major international artists in Maitland. This might be taken as evidence that the world is shrinking fast or that art’s tentacles are reaching out into the countryside in a way they never have before. Maitland is only the latest addition to the ranks of country towns that have built new galleries or redeveloped heritage buildings over the past decade. It seems there has been a pervasive change of attitude among local councils traditionally preoccupied with grass roots issues. They are increasingly aware of a gallery not only as a tourist attraction but as a catalyst for social cohesion and community solidarity.
A well-run gallery will have an education program and a range of art workshops. It acts as a function centre and meeting place, a space where ethnic groups, school pupils and retirees feel at home. It defines what is best in the local community, and provides a stimulating range of shows from the outside world. For many, it is much-needed alternative to the pleasures of sport, TV, pubs and clubs, which is the way I remember my old town, Cessnock. It is a sign of the times that even Cessnock now has a regional art gallery, although nobody has managed to send out a press release.
What holds true for the regions is equally true for the suburbs. Along with the Campbelltown Arts Centre, the biggest arts development in western Sydney in recent years has been the refurbishment of Casula Powerhouse, which reopened to the public in April. On this occasion the bill was $13.26 million, with the major sponsors being Liverpool City Council and the NSW government.
If the Maitland gallery is generously proportioned, Casula Powerhouse is so gigantic one wonders how it could ever be filled. Like the Tate Modern, another former power station, the rooms are cavernous, the ceilings stratospheric. It is coincidental that the new chief curator, Paul Howard, left a job at the Tate Modern to take up this post, which some might see as a peculiar career move. The first difference that must have struck the New Chum was that Tate Modern has about five million visitors per year, while there were no more than two people wandering around Casula when I was there last week.
The numbers increase considerably in the evenings when there are plays and films in the building’s theatre complex, but it was still a sobering reminder of just how difficult it is to attract audiences from scratch. In Casula that audience is much more heterogeneous than in Maitland, and this raises ongoing questions as to the kind of exhibitions and performances that will best serve community needs. Nothing crassly commercial, but nothing too obscure either? Casula would be betraying its cultural mission if it acted like Hoyts, and would alienate its constituency if it imitated the Museum of Contemporary Art.The current exhibition, Danny Huynh’s A Sense of Place, gets the mix exactly right. Huynh is a young photographer of Vietnamese origins, who undertakes commercial work in order to fund his artistic projects. I’ve enjoyed his pictures for a long time and written a small essay for the catalogue, if this counts as an interest worth declaring.
The works in this series draw on photos taken during a residency in Shanghai in 2000. They are combined into triptychs, with the largest panel in every piece featuring a young Caucasian dressed in the same manner as the working class Shanghainese seen in back-projection.
Huynh makes no attempt to disguise the jarring disparities between these youthful Australians and the people they impersonate. While the clothes match fairly closely, the features, hairstyles and accessories are utterly disparate. In attitude, these figures resemble fashion models from glossy magazines. They have the same blank stares, the same studied coolness in front of the camera.
One thinks of those nineteenth century photographs of Aboriginal people dressed in the starchy costumes of the Victorian era, demonstrating their allegiance to God and the Queen. Huynh reverses this tactic, getting white middle-class kids to play the role of Chinese workers, with the result being a vivid display of working class chic. For a fleeting instant one imagines that a proletarian identity might be adopted or jettisoned with a change of clothes. On second thoughts, we realise to what degree all our beliefs about class and ethnic identity are shot through with stereotypes and misconceptions. In his polite and witty fashion, Huynh asks us to look again and think a little harder.
Danny Huynh: A Sense of Place, Casula Powerhouse, 25 July – 11 October 2009
Different Tracks: The Agapitos/Wilson Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Maitland Regional Art Gallery, August 15-November 22, 2009
Fiona Davies: Intangible Collection, Maitland Regional Art Gallery, August 15-November 22, 2009
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 22, 2009