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Revealing Identity: La Trobe’s hidden art collection revealed

Richard Watts

From donated works to student and staff funded acquisitions, the La Trobe University collections are a fascinating snapshot of 50 years of Australian art.
Revealing Identity: La Trobe’s hidden art collection revealed

Installation view; photo by Bill Conroy.

In 1967, La Trobe University’s first 511 students enrolled at the institution’s original Bundoora campus. From the very beginning, art was a part of their daily lives.

‘The philosophy at the outset with La Trobe was that art work was part of the University. It’s incorporated into the very architecture,’ explained Dr Kent Wilson, Senior Curator at La Trobe Art Institute.

‘They chose some fairly forward-thinking architects to design the campus but then they integrated art works into the campus itself. Outdoor works were commissioned on campus – there’s a wonderful sculpture park at La Trobe – and they commissioned a fantastic glass artist to make the entrance wall to the Library as well. From the very beginning they wanted art work to be an intrinsic part of the life of the students and the staff at the University.’

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As part of La Trobe University’s 50th anniversary celebrations, a new exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery – Revealing Identity: the Collections of La Trobe University –shines a light on La Trobe’s art collections, including iconic works by leading Australian artists as well as valuable ethnographic and political works.

While some such university collections remain hidden, Revealing Identity puts La Trobe’s finest works under the spotlight.

‘There are some not very well known but very high quality collections that are hidden away in the universities, in those bureaucracies and institutions – and that was one of the really pleasing things when I came on board at La Trobe: opening the files and opening up the doors and realising that there was such a broad array of wonderful stuff,’ said Wilson.

The exhibition provides a fascinating snapshot of art world trends and changes over a half century and more.

‘We have an early work from the seminal NGV exhibition, The Field, from Dale Hickey in our collection. Around that time Australians picked up on abstraction and you can see that coming through in the early Seventies with the works that we’ve collected,’ said Wilson.

‘You can see also in more recent times an awareness that there needs to be greater acknowledgement of the diversity of the practitioners of art. So early on in the piece – and this is pretty much the case with most collections –there’s white male artists dominating constantly. Then through the Nineties you see an awareness that there needs to be an opening up to broader voices – queer voices, female artists, Indigenous artists. You see that start to come into the collection.’

Learn more about Revealing Identity: the Collections of La Trobe University

Installation view; photo by Bill Conroy.

Given that La Trobe’s Bendigo Campus – originally Bendigo Teachers’ College – predates the University proper, Bendigo Art Gallery is a more than fitting home for the exhibition, especially given the historical connections between the former Teacher’s College and the art world.

‘There’s a collection which is specifically for the Bendigo Campus called the F.M. Courtis Collection, and that was started up by Fred Courtis, who began the Teacher’s College,’ Wilson explained.

‘His philosophy was that the student teachers, when they went out to teach young students in regional areas, they should be imbued with a sense of understanding of Australian culture – and he thought a good way of doing that was making sure they had art works around them while they were studying. So here on campus at Bendigo there’s actually art works in the hallways and in the faculty buildings – we’ve got John Brack and Fred Williams and Arthur Boyd – in and around the campus.’

Courtis’s plan to instill a passion for art in his student teachers was clearly successful, Wilson continued.

‘There was an occasion where they had a school assembly and the staff said “Look, we’re going to put together a fund and try and buy this work.” It was a Len French painting they were hoping to buy. And the students said, “Why don’t you grab a bucket and we’ll put some money together?” … At the end of the assembly they actually had enough money to buy it because the students pitched it to help buy the art work.

Visit Revealing Identity: the Collections of La Trobe University

From the University’s collection of Chinese and Soviet propaganda posters, to culturally and artistically significant works from Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific collected by members of the anthropology faculty, Revealing Identity is presented over six galleries in Bendigo Art Gallery’s new wing.

Wilson has curated the exhibition in such a way that it highlights some of the important individual collections as well as celebrating the historical and social repository which the collections collectively represent.

‘We’ve set up rooms to celebrate and honour the visionaries who collected their own vast storage of archives and work and handed them over, but there’s also a large central space in which the major La Trobe art collection is displayed,’ he explained.

‘You can stand at one point of the room and look across and in the foreground you’ve got an ethnographic piece, a shield from Papua New Guinea; a beautiful anthropological object of social use and ceremony, and in the background we have a Charles Blackman portrait.’

Installation view: photo by Bill Conroy.

Also on display is a work which speaks directly to the social history of Melbourne and the changes wrought by time over recent decades.

‘There’s a great panel of work we’ve got from Len French from a café – the café owner, Ian Nicolades, commissioned him. It was the 1950s and it was one of the very first cafés in the CBD of Melbourne. It had an expresso machine, Clement Meadmore designed the furniture and it was a sort of seminal point at which Melbourne became a cosmopolitan, café culture, open-minded international kind of city,’ said Wilson.

‘So there’s a mixture of elements and different media that are all blended together to tell a wonderful, rich story about what it means to be human, what it means to understand and respect the beautiful objects that we make and the people who make them; and then there’s honouring the idea that these are important things that we all share and which can help us understand who we are.

‘In a sense that’s sort of what the exhibition is – in Revealing identity, it’s not just revealing the identity of La Trobe, it’s about understanding who we are as people when we look at art and these objects. It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to look at that through a multiple array of objects and images,’ Wilson concluded.

Revealing Identity: the Collections of La Trobe University is showing at Bendigo Art Gallery from 24 June – 3 September 2017. Visit www.bendigoartgallery.com.au for details.

 

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's national performing arts editor and Deputy Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the boards of La Mama Theatre and the journal Going Down Swinging; he is a former member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, and a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts

 

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