When Bendigo Art Gallery was founded in 1887 it was deemed necessary to create an institution that would bring culture to the goldfields – bring ‘art for the people’ – a motto that would later be etched into the architecture of the building.
An acquisitions committee was established by the board that followed on trend with neighbouring Australian galleries’ collecting ethos – to collect works from around the globe that would encourage an ‘international style’.
This style of collecting grand narratives, paintings and sweeping European landscapes was at once aspirational and also served to address the homesickness of the new colonials who were attempting to carve out a civilised existence in a harsh landscape.
So, we could speculate that there were two major motives at play in establishing the early collection; firstly to create ‘cultural capital’ within the colony as fine art was (and still is) associated with grand notions of culture, knowledge, and sophistication, and secondly for reasons of emotion and nostalgia.
Over the years since, the gallery’s collecting ethos has shifted and – like any collection – has fluctuated with directors, public opinion, financial and political factors to land neatly somewhere where it is today. It is a collection that is unique and seeks to represent the eclectic cultural, historical and social ethos of our Australian experience.
So, what drives a collection? Is it the public the collection serves or the whims of a private individual? An individual might begin with a passion borne from nostalgia or taste; social mobility and status can be other reasons although, in my experience, the most fascinating collections are often behind closed doors.
One commonality is that collections serve to say something about the person or institutions behind them, they speak to culture, significant moments in time, reflecting interests and pursuits and are inextricably linked in with identity.
In this sense, their location or home is important, which is why so many indigenous cultures work to reclaim and maintain their own cultural artefacts – as these tell the story of their own culture, a story that should be told and preserved by their own people.
Keeping a collection is an honour and also can bear great responsibility. Next week La Trobe Art Institute and Bendigo Art Gallery unpack all these ideas with an exciting new Exhibiting Culture program of lectures and workshops focussing on ‘Inside Collections’.
Many of the programs are free to the general public, who will have the opportunity to hear from fine art collectors, local historians, contemporary artists and ethnographic researchers in their pursuit to build, interpret and conserve great collections from the inside out.
For details and bookings see http://www.latrobe.edu.au/art-institute/programs-and-events or phone 5444 7272.