Anniversary exhibition celebrates rich artistic history

Richard Watts

Twenty years after opening its doors, Canberra Museum and Gallery delves into its collection to put the ACT’s best and brightest on show.
Anniversary exhibition celebrates rich artistic history

Jack Britten (Australia 1924–2002, Gija people, East Kimberley, Western Australia) artist. Theo Tremblay printer, STUDIO ONE INC. Chris Clear printer, STUDIO ONE INC. Untitled. 1995, lithograph, 54.1 x 66.2 cm. CMAG, gift of Studio One Inc 2000.

When it came to selecting work for the Canberra Museum and Gallery’s (CMAG) 20th anniversary exhibition, outgoing senior curator of visual arts Deborah Clark was spoilt for choice. CMAG’s rich collection represents the full spectrum of visual arts practice in the ACT, including works by some of the nation’s most significant artists.

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‘I really wanted to show a lot of work so I decided that I would have a rule of only one work per artist, which really opened up the possibilities,’ Clark said.

‘There’s 167 artists represented in the show I think, which is a lot, and it’s kind of joyfully shoe-horned into several spaces. It even infiltrates the foyer.’

First opened to the public in 1998, CMAG’s 20th anniversary exhibition is the aptly titled Celebration. Naturally, given the rich history of the Canberra region and the many artists associated with the city, the exhibition spans far more than just the last two decades.

‘This show is not just a celebration of 20 years of the institution – it is a real recognition of the visual arts scene in Canberra,’ said Clark.

Celebration pays homage to the international stature of the glass workshop at ANU’s School of Art, founded by Klaus Moje, as well as the region’s strong printmaking tradition.

‘Studio One was a really influential printmaking workshop from the 1980s to 2000, and we’ve got a lot of their works – and within that some really terrific prints by people like Toni Robertson, a bit of poster protest material.

‘Also represented in this show are some really major figures of the Australian art world, people with particularly strong connections to the Canberra region, like Richard Larter and Vivienne Binns and Mike Parr – there’s a fantastic, big work by Mike Parr, who has had a strong and interesting connection with Canberra over decades.’  

The oldest piece in the exhibition is Joseph Lycett’s hand-coloured aquatint from 1825 depicting the ephemeral Lake George, while the most recent work is Dianne 

Fogwell’s 2017 linocut, Encounter. A rich array of artworks across a range of media, including painting, sculpture, photography, drawing, digital art, ceramics and textiles represent the intervening years.

‘There is a kind of sense of a continuum of art practice on display,’ explained Clark. ‘Probably 85% of the show is contemporary work but it’s part of a history – so you have works from the 1940s, for example, by Frank Hinder and Ethel Carrick Fox and indeed Jan Brown and Elioth Gruner. Some may have been birds of passage, but while they were in the Canberra region they became part of the art scene – exhibited locally, were known to people in town, and are part of that history.’

The exhibition also conveys a strong sense of landscape and place. ‘There’s been an interesting little focus in the last few years in our collecting of historical works around Canberra – and landscape’s an obvious subject for some of those earlier works. But lots of contemporary Canberra artists deal with landscape too because of where we are, sitting on these amazing plains and the valley surrounded by sensational hills.’

Honouring the region’s rich art history and the many artists associated with Canberra over the years was a daunting responsibility, Clark admits, but one she delighted in doing justice to. 

‘I was really excited because it gave me an opportunity to look through basically everything in the collection – and I did see things that I’d never seen before, so that was really interesting. To re-look at things and go through all the boxes and racks? Great stuff. Curators love that,’ she laughed.

Celebration: 20 years of collecting visual art at CMAG is now showing until 17 June 2018. Visit cmag.com.au for details.  

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; 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 Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre, on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging, and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel. He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts