It’s been a long time coming but last weekend the Gold Coast finally opened its new gallery, modestly titled Home Of The Arts. A few minutes drive from the concrete heart of Surfers Paradise it’s virtually impossible to miss the building – the latest concoction by Melbourne postmodernists, Ashton Raggatt McDougall (ARM). A six-storey block clad in brightly coloured, interlocking segments of blue, green, yellow and orange, it needs to be seen by day and by night.
On the evening of the opening the museum was transformed into a multifaceted screen for projected images, with parts of the structure defined by bright lines of neon. Sound rumbled out of hidden speakers while fireworks appeared to erupt, volcano-like, from the roof.
By day the new HOTA is quieter but hardly less eye-catching. For those who are not fans of luridly-coloured architecture, or who harbour unhappy impressions of ARM’s smart-arse, undignified design for the National Museum of Australia, the good news is that most of the wild ‘n’ crazy stuff stops at the front door. Inside one finds an eminently practical layout of exhibition spaces and facilities including a dedicated children’s gallery and a window to peek into the storage rooms.
At the very top, on Level 5, is the Exhibitionist Bar, which not only provides the most creative line in food and beverage I’ve ever encountered in a museum, but has the added attraction of panoramic views of the region. Look to the east and there are glimpses of the ocean in the spaces between tower blocks. Look to the west and the mountains of the National Park loom in the distance. Look over your shoulder and there’s a glass case full of macabre little voodoo sculptures by Lindey Ivimey, pieced together out of hessian and chicken bones.
The recommended sens-de-la-visite, as they call it in these parts, is to take the lift to Level 5, have a fortifying drink, and descend by the stairs. The galleries on floors 4, 3 and 2 showcase works from the permanent collection, which includes more than 4,500 items. It’s an eclectic body of work, incorporating painting, sculpture, photography, video and the decorative arts. There’s an impressive range of indigenous art, Hard-Edge and Colourfield paintings from the 1970s, and a mass of contemporary work, including pieces by Michael Zavros, Tony Albert, Alex Seton, Ben Quilty, and a room-sized installation by Nell, featuring small crucifixes made from paint brushes grouped around a robe decorated with images of the band, ACDC. Perhaps it’s meant to imply that heavy metal music is a form of torture.
For those who like to keep an eye on the numbers, women artists are very well represented, as are Queenslanders, such as Davida Allen, Joe Furlonger, Ian Smith, Scott Redford and William Robinson. There are new, permanent public works by Judy Watson and Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran.
Robinson’s painting, The rainforest (1990) at almost 5 metres in length, is probably the masterpiece of the collection, and is displayed in a suitably reverential manner. HOTA’s next big temporary exhibition will be Lyrical Landscapes: The Art of William Robinson, for which Dame Quentin Bryce is acting as guest curator (31 July – 3 October).
The inaugural temporary exhibition, displayed in a spacious ground floor gallery, is Solid Gold: Artists From Paradise, which features 19 newly commissioned works by artists who live on the Gold Coast or hail from the region. It’s a buoyantshow in a range of media, but “solid gold” is an exaggeration. “Solid Bronze” might have been more appropriate, with its echoes of a perfect suntan.
The stand-out is Hiromi Tango, who always gives 100 percent. This time she’s contributed an entire room painted in rainbow stripes. I was also impressed by Claudia De Salvo’s contribution of 100 clay vessels, which sits facing the entrance to the show, looking like a hoard recently extracted from a tomb.
Michael Candy has put together an elaborate wall of lights that duplicates the waxing and waning of the sun, but it looks like nothing more than a wall of lights. Samuel Leighton-Dore’s blue wall covered in tiny cartoon clouds comes with a surprise, as viewers can download an app and access a cache of secret messages. It’s diverting but not exactly profound.
The director of HOTA is Tracey Cooper-Lavery, herself a product of the Gold Coast, and once assistant to Fran Cummings, who was the first director of the Gold Coast City Art Gallery from 1986 to 1995. Perhaps some local knowledge is required to extract the artistic potential from a region that could just as easily be called Developers’ Paradise.
HOTA is the centrepiece of a revamped cultural precinct in the midst of sculptured parklands. One may attend open-air concerts and performances at the futuristic Outdoor Stage, sit on the grass, or even swim in the lake. There are two cinemas and a regular Farmers Market.
Criena Gehrke, HOTA’s take-no-prisoners CEO, says she is happy for visitors to shake the sand off their boardshorts and come to the gallery straight from the beach. She sees HOTA as a potent symbol for the Gold Coast, looking bright and hedonistic on the outside but full of surprising cultural and intellectual depths.
This may sound like wishful thinking but it’s up to the new institution to make good on the CEO’s claims. There may be more to the Gold Coast than what lies on the surface but it will take a lot of digging to get through that surface. Gehrke also believes HOTA should be a home for popular culture, which would make sense for a new gallery in a place best known as a holiday destination.
If you’re one of those diehards who can’t see how “popular” and “culture” can exist in the same sentence, this is may sound ominous, but then you probably wouldn’t be holidaying at Surfers Paradise anyway. Like all public galleries, HOTA needs to please its local audience first, but it has the momentum and the resources to add a powerful new dimension to a region that has always relied heavily on sand, surf and parties.
Although it may resemble an enormous lolly HOTA signals a coming-of-age for the Gold Coast. The gallery has a strong collection, a promising exhibition program, and is positioning itself as the lynchpin of an ambitious cultural strategy. It doesn’t aim to be another roadside attraction but a place where Australia’s playground can aspire to a new level of maturity.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 15 May, 2021