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On the road from Bendigo to the Yarra Valley
Published by: Dr Nick Gordon | Feb 21st, 2018
What goes into creating an Academy Travel itinerary? Inspiration, perspiration, experimentation and just a dash of serendipity. In 2017 Dr Nick Gordon took a road trip around Victoria to research and plan our upcoming Regional Galleries of Victoria tour. The trip started in Bendigo, travelled around the southern shores of Port Phillip Bay up to the Yarra Valley, following the proposed path of the tour. As the road trip progressed, themes and connections emerged, and the entire tour itinerary was reversed – but that’s why we take research trips.
In this blog Nick reflects on the trip.
Creating a new tour involves plenty of research, and even a familiar area such as regional Victoria requires careful planning that can’t be done over the internet. On the one hand there is visiting sites, inspecting hotels and sampling restaurants (well, someone has to do it!) to ensure quality. On the other hand there are the subtler aspects of tour design that bring out the thematic and historical relationships between sites – whether they are galleries, historic towns or the landscape itself – that make a tour more than just a collection of places.
A cultural tour of regional Victoria? Seriously?
Victoria’s regional galleries have extensive collections and seen together they constitute one of the finest collections of Australian heritage and modern art. People don’t usually see them over the course of a week, so their collective value can be easily overlooked. An idea for a new tour was born from these premises.
Seeing these galleries together makes them more than the sum of their parts: a collective history begins to come out and it extends well-beyond the confines of the gallery. Australia’s first two regional galleries – Ballarat and Bendigo – were founded by gold-rich citizens who aspired for their cities to rival Sydney and Melbourne, and each wanted to become Victoria’s second city. When you see them on consecutive days you realise how much this rivalry has continued: it’s apparent in the directions taken by curators and directors, in their approach to hanging, and even in the framing.
Geelong Regional Gallery also makes sense in this broader context – the centre of the wool export industry, and the squatters who supplied, couldn’t be left behind by the nouveau-riche gold diggers, and they founded a gallery, whose collection contains works celebrating life on the land – cattle, the wool industry and the unique features of the landscape – west of Melbourne, such as the You Yangs.
The galleries are further united by the role they are playing in the revival of regional cities. This is perhaps most evident in Geelong, which has undergone a much broader change of image over the past 20 years. But Bendigo too has done exceptionally well to put itself on the map through its recent temporary exhibitions, which have been of an international standard not usually seen outside of capital cities.
Just as the older regional galleries were established by private wealth, so too are some of the most successful art endeavours after World War II. Heide has pride of place as one of the finest collections of Australian Modernism. It was a creation of John and Sunday Reed’s (once charismatic patrons of Sydney Nolan and Charles Blackman), originally a retreat for artists and intellectuals on the outskirts of Melbourne, with an excellent private collection, that was given over to the state and developed further (with a new building, a sculpture garden and a growing collection).
Another highlight is McClelland Sculpture Park, which in addition to almost 100 large sculptures in park and bushland settings, sponsors one of Australia’s premier sculpture competitions. It was supported largely by Dame Elisabeth Murdoch for decades and the result is one of the best collections of Australian sculpture I have seen.
The inside story
Local expertise comes in myriad ways: academic contacts, picking up tips from locals and close scrutiny of local media are a few. I was fortunate on this trip to be joined by Ian Rogers. Ian has travelled to Europe several times with Academy Travel, but in his working life was the manager of regional arts and cultural development programs for the Victorian Government. Ian knew everyone in the galleries and had a deep knowledge of the collections, their history and how donors and directors shaped the collections over the years. His knowledge was truly encyclopaedic and his generosity in sharing it, immense. (Ian also happens to be the cousin of Academy Travel director Robert Veel, who was also on the trip. Robert was driving the idea to offer the tour, but fortunately not the car.)
The back stories to the funding arrangements – and the quiddity of various directors and curators – speak of creative tensions as much as a belief in the value of many different projects. Equally important is the ongoing relationship each of these galleries has with contemporary Australian art, providing funding and public access for living artists. While other states have caught on more recently – MONA in Hobart, for example – the tangible support of contemporary Australian artists is relatively small by comparison.
Falling in love again…
Beyond the confines of the galleries and their collections, a different story was emerging. Much of my time travelling is spent overseas, and it is easy to forget how much is on our doorstep. I hadn’t forgotten the beauty of Australia – I grew up surrounded by bush and still take most of my holidays in Australia – but I had probably forgotten how much the landscapes can change in a relatively short distance. That one goes from green rolling hills and vineyards, to temperate mountain forests to rugged coastlines and bay views, to grazing plains and the harsh landscape of gold country is a rare treat.
In another sense, however, our journey was as much a road trip through Australian art, which started with passing comments about how a stretch of bush just north of Mount Macedon looks like something from a Peter Temple novel, and grew through a serendipitous exhibition of Fred Williams’ fantastic You Yangs paintings (after talking about the You Yangs in the car). We ended up looking through the Dandenongs for particular views painted by Streeton and co. Many of these landscapes are iconic, and seeing the source of inspiration and the paintings helped us see more in them both, such as the subtle manipulations of composition that come from familiarity with a landscape at different times of day, or different understandings of the use of light. That many of these landscapes have not changed much since their colonisation also suggests a conscious effort to maintain their appearance.
Following through such conversations over dinner, in the car, at a gallery, or while grabbing a quick pie before catching the Queenscliff ferry (my two colleagues chose healthier options), it became clear to us that what we were tracing was a story about the birth of an idea of Australianness and its relationship to art and landscape. An idea for a tour to visit Victoria’s Regional Galleries because of the strength of what they contain had evolved into a bigger, more diverse picture. But that’s what research does.
Dr Nick Gordon
Dr Nick Gordon is a cultural historian and artist, with over 10 years of experience leading tours to Europe. He has strong interests in art, history, philosophy and architecture, from the ancient world to the present. Nick is also a practicing painter and brings this passion to the visual arts. He holds a University Medal and PhD in history from the University of Sydney.