A year of milestones for Castlemaine Art Gallery

Castlemaine Art Gallery is the kind of place that inspires loyalty.

This year marks the gallery’s 100th birthday as well as director Peter Perry’s 38-year anniversary.

Mr Perry caused a stir when he took over the reins at age 23.

“It was unheard of at the time for someone that young,” Mr Perry said of his appointment.

But fittingly he took the title from another trailblazer, Beth Sinclair, the first female director of an Australian public art gallery.

“I owe her a great debt because she mentored me as a young person about aesthetics,” Mr Perry said.

“You need to have a passion for art as well as a trained eye to look at the visual world in a serious way.

“There is so much around these days and you need to pick the quality.”

Mr Perry grew up in Brighton but moved to Bendigo in the early 1970s to study art at teacher’s college.

“I had an exhibition of my private collection here in 1974,” he explained.

“I have a twin brother and when we were in school we collected artworks.

“Beth Sinclair was the director at the time and she was so impressed she offered me the position straightaway.”

Rather than being daunted by a directorship at such a young age, Mr Perry took the opportunity with gusto.

“I was excited, I was young and passionate and I had always been enthusiastic about Australian art,” he said.

The Castlemaine Art Gallery has had very parochial sensibilities since its inception.

“When it was established in 1913 it focused on Australian Art,” Mr Perry said.

“The gallery also has a figurative policy, so all the works are based on reality.”

Volunteer David Golightly is writing a history of the gallery for its centenary celebrations.

Mr Golightly said the gallery’s “local flavour” was what made it unique.

“It’s unique in that it’s only really concerned with Australian art and given the Anglo-centric sentiment at its inception, it was really battling against the odds,” he said.

“To cling to that ideal and make it a central philosophy of this operation was remarkable. It denoted real clarity of vision and tenacity against current trends.”

The gallery’s history will sit alongside a catalogue of some of its collection in a book Mr Perry hopes to have launched by Premier and arts minister Ted Baillieu at a special event in October. Mr Golightly has been combing through the gallery archives, correspondence files and committee meeting reports.

“I have gradually pieced together the anecdotal and recorded stuff to make a picture of the history of the gallery and how it operated,” he said.

“It’s not a dry document, I’ve aimed to give it a personality.”

Mr Golightly said the idea to start an art gallery in Castlemaine came after an “exhibition of local achievements” in 1910.

“This included a lot of local artists’ work,” he said.

“People had been coming to the area to paint the scenery.

“Suddenly people decided, ‘well, why don’t we have an art gallery?’.

“For a small town it was quite an achievement.”

The works were initially housed in rooms above the Castlemaine Post Office, before the gallery’s home in Lyttleton Street was built in 1930.

Constructed as a boost to the local building industry during the Great Depression, the gallery was one of the first Art Deco-designed buildings outside of Melbourne.

The gallery was unique in its operational set-up, too.

“Castlemaine is not a council run gallery, we are still privately run, so the gallery is in the hands of trustees with support from the state and federal government,” Mr Perry explained.

“So that gives me more autonomy but also means I have to do a lot more chasing of funds.”

Luckily the Castlemaine Art Gallery has been able to rely on generous benefactors and community support to keep things rolling in the right direction.

Mr Perry said the Rotary Club of Castlemaine and the Stoneman Foundation were particularly important groups, and this year local business Robertson Hyetts Solicitors has come on board as major sponsor of the centenary celebrations.

Robertson Hyetts Solicitors chief executive officer David King said the firm’s Castlemaine subsidiary Lawsons had a long history with the gallery and he wanted to continue that tradition.

“Our firm goes back to Sir Harry Lawson, he was a lawyer in Castlemaine and pivotal figure in the establishment of the art gallery,” Mr King said.

Robertson Hyetts Solicitors will specifically sponsor the centenary’s marquee exhibition, a collection of paintings from Melbourne-born, London-based artist Dora Meeson.

Shimmering Light: Dora Meeson and the Thames, September 21 to November 10, is the culmination of four years of research from the gallery’s senior curator Kirsten McKay.

Ms McKay said the works were sourced from public and private collections both here and overseas.

“She is an important figure in Australian art who was unfortunately neglected because she forged her career in England and died there,” she said.

Meeson moved to England with her portrait painter husband George James Coates in 1900.

“She said she would venture out onto the Thames to escape her husband’s dark studio he had set up for portraits,” Ms McKay said.

“She was drawn by the light and the movement.

“Each work is her take on the Thames, whether it’s a quiet view at sunset or a lively depiction of the dockyards.

“This is a stunning exhibition with beautifully framed works.”

As part of its centenary celebrations the gallery will be putting on a series of special exhibitions.

The first, which closed on February 3, was a “director’s choice” of works from Mr Perry’s 38 years of collecting.

The extraordinary length of Mr Perry’s tenure meant the director had more than 500 works at his disposal.

He ultimately narrowed these down to 46, and asking him to choose a favourite seems akin to selecting a favourite child.

When pushed he picked out a Jeffrey Smart, Hide and Seek III, a testament to his uncanny eye.

“I bought it in 1979 for $6500 and now it’s worth over $100,000,” Mr Perry said.

This valuation was pushed up by a purchase of another of Smart’s works by unlikely art connoisseur AFL personality Sam Newman.

But it’s not really about the money for Mr Perry.

“I respond to Jeff Smart’s figures in an alien landscape,” he said.

“I also admire his painting technique and composition.”

One gets the feeling that there’s something more there that Mr Perry sees but cannot put it into words for us mere mortals to understand.

That’s the secret talent of Australia’s longest-serving public art gallery director.

The Castlemaine Art Gallery will officially launch its 100th Anniversary celebrations with Drinks on the Patio on February 23 at 5pm.

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