Vale Dr Robert Bell

Gina Fairley

A champion of craft and design, NGA’s former Senior Curator leaves a great legacy.
Vale Dr Robert Bell

Robert Bell OAM

Dr Robert Stewart Bell AM (29 December 1946 – 28 July 2018) was a giant in the Australian craft and design sector. Quick to advocate for local talent internationally, he has been described as ‘an unfailingly generous and gracious man,’ who encouraged and supported artists working in the contemporary craft and design sector.

Bell was Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Design (DAAD) at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), Canberra from 2000 - 2016. He came to the gallery after 22 years in a similar position, as the inaugural Curator of Craft and Design at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (1978 - 2000). Prior to that, Bell was Senior Exhibits Designer with the Western Australian Museum (1967-1978).

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Born in Perth, Bell gained an Associateship in Design, Graphic and Exhibition Design from the Curtin University of Technology (1967), before doing a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Western Australia (2001), and Doctor of Philosophy at the Australian National University (2008).

His commitment to scholarship and research ran across his professional life; Bell was unfailingly generous in sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary crafts and a regular keynote speaker at an international level.

Bell was also a practising artist working in clay and fibre.

Over his 50-year career, he had an incredible capacity to serve the sector outside his gallery positions. Bell was president of the Craft Association of WA (1978-1979); president of the Crafts Council of Australia (1980-1982 and again 1999-2002); and served as deputy vice president, World Crafts Council (Asian Zone) and South Pacific Region (1980-1983).

Bell contributed to the paper, Mapping the Australian Craft Sector, the published outcomes of the National Craft Initiative (NCI) in June 2014, a partnership between the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) and the Australian Craft and Designs Centres (ACDU). He was very involved in the revision of the peak body, Craft Australia, and served with the Crafts Board of the Australia Council.

Understandably, Bell was awarded the 2001 Australian Centenary Medal, the 2005 Australia Council Emeritus Award and in 2010 was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for service to contemporary craft and design.

In terms of his exhibition history, Bell is well known for curating three major Australian International Crafts Triennial exhibitions while at AGWA, in 1989, 1992 and 1998. He also curated the exhibition International Directions in Glass Art (1982, AGWA) and The Language of Thread: Contemporary Textiles and Fibre Art (1996, AGWA) – all major shows considered firsts for this country. He was also one of the first curators to bring Scandinavian Design to Australia with an exhibition in 1987.

At the NGA, among his significant exhibitions were: Material Culture: Aspects of Contemporary Australian Craft and Design (2002), Transformations: The Language of Craft (2005-06), Ballets Russes: The art of costume (2010, which toured to Tokyo) and Bodywork: Australian Jewellery 1970–2012, among others.

He oversaw the acquisition of 4,875 Australian and 280 international decorative arts and design works, making the NGA’s holdings among the richest in Australia.

Craft writer Meredith Hinchcliffe recalled this week: ‘Audience development and the enhancement of an audience’s understanding were vital feedback for Dr Bell’.

Bell himself once said: “I have always spent a considerable amount of time on the floor, talking to visitors, watching their reactions and listening to their responses to exhibitions. It is important that their visits are enjoyable.'

Patsy Hely added of Bell in her article, Shaping culture: Conversations on craft and design, in Art Monthly Australia (Issue 294, Nov 2016): ‘Bell has worked consistently to ensure craft and design remain part of the dialogue about Australian creative practice.’

Tributes rolled in this past week:

'The School of Art & Design community are deeply saddened to hear of Robert Bell's passing ... During his career, Robert made an enormous contribution to the sector and he was amongst the most respected in the field. The vitality that the crafts enjoy across Australia is due to the advocacy and leadership that Robert provided. Despite all that he achieved, it was his gentle friendship that we will miss the most. He cared about people and took a genuine interest in all of our work and in us as individuals. He will be sadly missed.' – ANU School of Art & Design.

'We are saddened by the loss of a great curator and friend to many at the gallery. His service to the NGA resulted in a collection of international magnitude of which we are very proud. Our thoughts are with his wife, Eugenie Keefer Bell, and his family at this time...Robert was an integral part of building the fabric of the nation’s art history across the decorative arts and design, and his contribution to the NGA and other institutions will serve as his legacy for years to come.' - Nick Mitzevich, NGA Director.

Bell had a long journey battling cancer. He was 71.

Bell’s wife of 32 years, Eugenie Keefer Bell, thanked 'the exceptional treatment and care provided by Professor Desmond Yip, his team and the oncology nurses at The Canberra Hospital, and by G.P. Dr Cameron Webber OAM, and for the extraordinary support of friends over the past four years', in her obituary posted on social media this week.

A memorial celebration of Bell’s life and his contribution to the arts will be held in September in Canberra. Friends and colleagues who would like to be advised of the venue and date, are requested to send their contact address, email and phone number to bellmemorialcelebration@gmail.com

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.

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