The Contemporary Art Society (CAS) of Victoria is celebrating 70 years with an exhibition at Fortyfive Downstairs. 70 consecutive years is impressive for any arts society, a great deal changes in the art world in that time. CAS has survived the philistine conservatism and retrograde arts policies of the Menzies. It was an artist-run-initiative long before the idea became popular in the 1980s. And the choice of ‘contemporary’ in the society’s title shows remarkable presence.
The CAS has an important place in Australian art history but it is not being recognized with an historical retrospective in the NGV or other major gallery. And this is because it also a history of the declining importance and relevance of the society (at least according to Gwenda Robb and Elaine Smith’s Concise Dictionary of Australian Artists).
The CAS was founded in 1938 with a committee of artists that has since become major names in Australian art history. George Bell was president, Rupert Bunny was vice-president and Adrian Lawlor was secretary. However, within two years these notable artists had left the CAS because of the domination of the society by amateur artists. But this is not the end of the story. In the 1950s CAS was lead by John Reed and Georges Mora. In 1961 David Boyd was president and John Perceval was vice-president.
The CAS organises many group exhibitions for its members like the one celebrating its 70th. However this anniversary exhibition also included a display of the history of the society; a collection of their newsletters and exhibition catalogues including a notice about an Anti-Fascist Exhibition at the Athenaeum Gallery in December 1942.
At the exhibition opening Fortyfive Downstairs was packed with people as you might expect for a large group exhibition. Current president of the society, Robert Lee made a short speech and then prizes were awarded. This included a prize for the innovative use of materials showing that CAS is still encouraging innovation.
Some of the art in the exhibition is good, especially the sculptures, and some of it is bland, derivative or overworked. That is to be expected in an open entry group exhibition. The quality of the work is somewhat irrelevant; the CAS is important to the ecology of Victoria’s art world in providing affordable entry-level exhibitions for artists for 70 years.