Chris Malcolm discusses the impact of the John Curtin Gallery and a new project to add to its already vast collection.
I’ve always been interested in exhibition design and how you can have such a powerful experience when you walk through an art gallery.
Whenever we prepare for an exhibition I think of the iceberg analogy: what our visitors see is only what’s bathing in the sunshine, but it can sometimes take two or three years or more from concept to exhibition launch. There are so many things to consider long before we have to organise shipping, prepare loan contracts and design the gallery spaces. There are many conversations with the artists, their gallerists or museums around the world you borrow works from.
By far, our most popular exhibition since I’ve been director was by Korean artist U-Ram Choe, as part of the Perth International Arts Festival in 2012. The work was extraordinary. He made these machines– incredibly complex contraptions made from metal materials – that moved like they were alive. We were fortunate to have Channel Seven broadcast live from the opening night. Afterwards we had more than 20,000 people visit the exhibition, and up until then 20,000 would be the number of visitors we’d have in a whole year.
Our exhibitions aren’t all borrowed, of course. Soon after WAIT’s establishment, staff began what we now know as the Curtin University Art Collection. Today it includes more than 2,800 items, all contemporary to the period they were made in; it’s a historical journey of contemporary art. The collection has particular strengths in Indigenous, Australian modernist and contemporary art.
This year we’ve launched the 50fifty campaign, to purchase 50 major artworks over the next three years to add to the collection. We’ve just purchased a major artwork by one of Australia’s most respected painters, Brian Blanchflower, who used to teach at Curtin. All state galleries in Australia collect his artworks and we’re lucky to be able to acquire something that significant from him.
Making more people aware of where we’re located is a continuing challenge. Hopefully that will change as Greater Curtin blossoms, as there will be more residential and commercial offerings within the precinct of the University. In line with those developments, we’ve been working with a team of architects on plans to reconfigure a new entrance to the gallery to make it more accessible to the public. I’m sure some people ask why there’s a need for an art gallery at Curtin.
We present exhibitions to engage with our visitors and try to enhance people’s sense of wellbeing – to let art transform people’s ways of thinking about something. To have the kind of enduring impact that sometimes only art can have on people’s lives.”