Standing in one of the many corridors in the Monash Medical Centre Clayton with the curator, Rebecca Lovitt trying to look at the paintings in the hospital collection as cleaners working around us, patients and staff walking past I understand what a challenging environment this is to curate. The curator, Rebecca Lovitt is stoic as she shows me a frame scratched by a cleaning trolley and she remains calm when we discover a new pencil-sized hole in another canvas. “It is surviving well,” she tells me as she inspects the damage that would have sent other curators into a spiral of panic, “considering the amount of traffic that it experiences.”
A hospital is a difficult place to curate: the lights in the hospital are on 24 hours a day, the public corridors where most of the art is exhibited are extremely busy not just with people but equipment and simple wall repairs and repainting may take years to be carried out. It is also a vast space to curate; Southern Health is spread across 6 sites, the largest of which is the Monash Medical Centre at Clayton. And everything is, naturally, of greater priority than the hospital’s art collection.
Monash Medical Centre Art Gallery is registered as an art gallery for tax and administrative purposes so that people can donate or loan art to the hospital’s collection. A hospital does need an art collection, the paintings makes the long corridors less soulless. The art provides a distraction, a point of reflection, something else to think about other than being in a hospital.
And a curator is needed to look after the permanent collection, search for funding and donations, curate temporary exhibitions, assist in building the collection, de-accessioning work in the collection and working with the artist-in-residence, Efterpi Soropos to create a multimedia installation in the palliative care unit. Rebecca Lovitt is a curator without a gallery; she has worked in commercial galleries before and has no intention of returning, the challenge of exhibiting art in a hospital is far more appealing. And she is working on strategies to better display, protect and more easily rotate the collection – the installation of hanging rails has removed the need to repaint walls. Creating designated zones for art with recesses in the walls for the security of the art and the safety of patients. She has been working with architects on the new Dandenong Emergency Room to put art on ceiling.
There is no shortage of wall space along the hospital’s long corridors and most of the collection is on public exhibition. There is so much wall space that Rebecca Lovitt has been able to create an “Art Space” for temporary exhibitions with hanging rails and track lighting in one of the small lobbies. When I visited Melchior Martin was exhibiting a series of bold dynamic landscape paintings, five of which had sold.
Although the priority is in on public display in the corridors and wards senior medical staff and administrators need to have art in their offices that they like. And a hospital’s art collection does needs champions in the senior medical and administrative staff to ensure that it is not completely ignored.
Some of the hospitals departments are better funded for their art collection like the children’s cancer ward and the new heart centre. I see a new work for the heart centre on Rebecca Lovitt’s desk, a yet unframed embroidery work by Melbourne craft artist, Sayraphim Lothian.
Most of the hospital’s collection dates from the late 1980s, when the Monash Medical Centre was built. They are large paintings with thick heavy brushstrokes of paint by emerging local artists, none of them were famous at the time but now that has changed for a very few, most of the artists in the collection are not. We walk past one of the two Bill Henson photographs in the collection. The collection needs to be diverse to suite the taste of a diverse staff and public at the hospital. Some of the collection was inherited from the Prince Henry and Queen Victoria hospitals including a series of watercolours from 1910, the “Cheer Up Children Paintings” that may be earliest paintings made especially for a children’s ward.
I’m not recommending a trip to the hospital to see the art but to consider public art collections outside of galleries and the important role of curators in managing those collections.