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Institutional Art Galleries in Melbourne

This continues my occasional series of posts examining the different types of galleries. For more information about other types of galleries see my post: Types of Art Galleries.

NGV Ian Potter

Institutional art galleries exhibit art without intention of sales and so are free from the usual commercial interests in the art that they exhibit. Most are funded by some level of government, although there are some institutional art galleries are run by private individuals or organisation, like the Saatchi Gallery in London or MONA in Tasmania, however Melbourne does not have any private institutional art galleries.

The purpose of institutional art galleries is far from clear. Is their purpose educational or entertainment? Is their collection representative or a treasury? The idea of an art collection is part of a tradition that extends back to a world owned and dominated by royalty. Royal Collections, rather like private house museums but on a far grander scale, the Vatican Museum and the Prado are amongst the largest of these. Although Melbourne does not have a royal collection it does have another kind of national treasury in the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).

There are differences in what are called ‘National Galleries’ some have encyclopaedic collections for the purpose of teaching the history of art others have collection of art by the nation. Encyclopaedic collections maybe good for the local population exposing them to art from around the world but unless they have destination art works they aren’t of great interest to tourists. What tourists, like me, who visit a lot of galleries, is to see the history of local art. National Galleries like that of Greece or Nepal, that collect and display the arts of a particular nation or other group identity. So, if I were a visitor to Melbourne I would see the NGV Australia at Federation Square in preference to NGV International.

James Cuno, in his book Museums Matter (University of Chicago Press, 2011, Chicago) argues in favour of the what he calls “enlightenment museums,” the major encyclopaedic, didactic museum as if these were the only kind of institutional galleries. The enlightenment ideal of a universal gallery that combines the intention an educational feature in the structure of the gallery, for example, the NGV International. However there are more reasons for an institutional art gallery than the encyclopaedic, didactic  enlightenment museum that James Cuno believes in. Cuno has a very narrow view, see a review of Museums Matter, and his type of museum does not cover most of the institutional galleries that I regularly visit from the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick or the Ian Potter Museum at Melbourne University.

There are many different types of institutional art galleries from kunsthalles, sculpture parks, house museums and community access galleries. Regional galleries need to have balance of gallery spaces for community access exhibition spaces, their permanent collection, and small touring exhibitions.

To cut through the technical language: ACCA, “Australia’s only ‘kunsthalle’” (or ‘art hall’ in English) where the focus is on commissioning and exhibiting living artists rather than collecting. And ‘community access entry exhibition spaces’ are at local libraries and in other local council run spaces.

Melbourne, so far, only has one house museum, The Johnston Collection in South Melbourne that was established as the legacy of antique dealer and collector, William Robert Jonston (1911-1986). The Nineth Edition has a review of the Johnston Collection.

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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