The Ancient Made New
Since the 1980s the National Gallery of Victoria has pursued a collecting policy focused on contemporary Indigenous Australian art. This year, to mark the museum’s 150th anniversary, a further 173 works have been gifted by the Felton Bequest
Judith Ryan, Friday, 1st July 2011
International awareness of the NGV’s collection during this period is evidenced by Apollo’s decision to dedicate two entire issues of its magazine – September and December 1983 – to scholarly articles on its major strengths. Majolica porcelain and Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra (c. 1740s) were respectively favoured for the front covers. A Damascus moment was needed to redirect the gaze of the NGV away from the continents of Europe, Asia and America towards the only visual culture that is unique to Australia: Indigenous art – the world’s longest continuing artistic tradition. This strategic shift occurred just after the publication of the December Apollo issue, as recalled by the then director, Patrick McCaughey:
I was in for painful revelation in the summer of 1983–84. As I returned from lunch one day, a line of Aboriginal children came filing out of the gallery in clean white shirts and grey shorts. They were from Bathurst Island. I realised, heartsick at the thought, that they had been all over the gallery for the last two hours and had seen neither stick nor stone of their own art or culture. I felt ashamed, as I have rarely done before or since. I shot up the escalators, marched into [then deputy director] Ken Hood’s office and said: we are going to collect Aboriginal art.3
Relieved of the onerous conventions of a dogmatic acquisition policy, the NGV stipulated that its acquisition funds first and foremost be dedicated to the purchase of the finest contemporary Aboriginal art, with a collecting emphasis on the work of living artists; this policy has been maintained ever since. At this point, in 1984, the NGV was unable to mount an exhibition from its own modest holdings; it was therefore essential that a modern collection be established, one that was commensurate with the emerging status of Indigenous art as an important contemporary art movement – Australia’s equivalent to, say, European Cubism or American Abstract Expressionism.4
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