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Bringing the world’s heritage to Australia

Betty Churcher and Dr Caroline Turner, 22 March 2011

PETER STANLEY: It’s time now to turn to the aspect of Bob’s career that Neil MacGregor spoke of this morning, and that is Bob’s role in bringing the world’s heritage to Australia. It is my great privilege to introduce two distinguished Australian women in art: Betty Churcher, the very popular former director of the National Gallery of Australia, who I think arouses the same sort of affection in the art world as Bob does in museums; and she will be accompanied by Dr Caroline Turner from the Australian National University, who is a scholar of Australian and Asian art, and her services to that subject have recently been recognised by the award of an AM. We will give you 20 minutes and in that way gradually make up time.

BETTY CHURCHER: Thank you, Peter. Caroline and I are going to try to pay a tribute to Bob for the major exhibitions that he brought to Australia. We have heard today so much that you could think: is this really the work of one man? Has one person been responsible for all this? Is it man or is it superman?

But the interesting thing about Bob is, like the comic strip Superman, he can at the blink of an eye become the most quiet, self-effacing, mild-mannered Clark Kent that you could possibly imagine. I think that’s why he is so universally loved wherever you go.

When I was first Director of the National Gallery and going on the rounds trying to get exhibitions, one of the first things that was asked when I walked into the director’s room in Europe or in America, ‘Did I know Bob Edwards?’ When I said very enthusiastically, ‘Yes indeed I did,’ I could feel the temperature of the room warm, and suddenly I realised I was walking in the footsteps of a very important person. He stayed that way for me all the way through the time I was the director of the gallery. We worked together very closely between 1990 and 1997. We were careful never to cross across each other’s bows, never to be competitive, always collaborative, and always be careful to keep within the Federal Government’s indemnification limit. It was a terrific comfort to me to know that wise advice was only a telephone call away, and Bob was always there to provide that wise advice.

Getting back to the stream of the exhibitions, if there was ever a problem with an exhibition that was too slow to get out of the country, an exhibition was coming in and there was going to be an overlap with indemnification, Bob always solved the problem to our mutual benefit. When I was the director of the National Gallery, one of the most exciting exhibitions that we mounted was an exhibition from AEA, and that was Matisse. I think at this point I should hand across to Caroline, because Caroline was the curator of that exhibition.

CAROLINE TURNER: Thank you, Betty. Can I first say what an honour it is to be asked to speak both in this tribute to Bob Edwards but also on a panel with Betty Churcher who, as Neil and others have pointed out, is also one of the great mentors and art figures from that era, a particularly important era for museums. Others have spoken about Bob’s extraordinary contribution to Australian museums in terms of his extensive work with the South Australian Museum, the Museum of Victoria, the National Museum of Australia, and the National Portrait Gallery.

But I did want to reiterate what others have also said that Bob’s contribution to the world of museums in Australia in taking Australian museums into a whole new professional era and in training a whole generation of younger museum curators and staff is an immense contribution to museums and museology in this country. Bob was also a mentor to me when I started at the Queensland Art Gallery in the very late 1970s and early 1980s and I express my personal thanks to him.

I will mention the Queensland Art Gallery at this point because it’s a very interesting example of how Bob worked and also how important Bob’s activities at AEA were to an institution like the Queensland Art Gallery. It is very hard to remember the era of the 1970s and early 1980s when Australian art museums were in a very different situation. The National Gallery [in Canberra] did not open until 1982. It was only in the 1970s, as Bernice Murphy and others have pointed out, that the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Victoria were transformed by new buildings and new staff, so we are talking of quite a short period of transition. One of the transformative factors was without any question international exhibitions.

The 1970s was an era when the great international exhibitions came to Australia. Modern Masters: Manet to Matisse came in the mid-1970s and then the great Chinese archaeological exhibition in 1977. The enormous success of those exhibitions made us realise that Australia needed to embark on a path where there needed to be much more professionalism in the museums and much more management on a national level to manage and mount these great international exhibitions. These have been transformative for Australian museums because without any question that era of the great international exhibitions and the blockbusters, which you were also involved with, Betty, at the National Gallery as a key protagonist, completely changed the nature of Australian museums. They certainly increased the professionalism of Australian museums and also they completely transformed the museums’ relationships with our audiences and in many ways changed our relationships with our own state governments and boards of trustees.

As Bernice Murphy has said in an article written last year, before the time of the great international exhibitions, Australian state galleries were locked into a public service mode of operation where directors had great difficulty travelling overseas, even at the great museums such as the NGV or the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and certainly for the Queensland Art Gallery it was very difficult to break out of this public service mentality. What was very important for us was that, by having these international exhibitions, the status of the directors, the curators and other staff was raised, and that was a critical process and as well our relationships with audiences was changed.

A personal comment from the perspective of the Queensland Art Gallery: I very much enjoyed working with Bob on the Matisse exhibition, that Betty mentioned, in the mid-1990s. It’s an interesting example. The Queensland Art Gallery had been offered a small exhibition of the works of Matisse in the early to mid-1980s, and then I personally spent quite a number of years trying not to do an exhibition of the works of Matisse from the Matisse Museum in Nice [Brisbane’s sister city] because, although it’s a fine collection, Australia had never had a major Matisse exhibition. I think we all felt that it should be a far more comprehensive and far more significant exhibition than such an exhibition could have been coming only from the Musée Matisse in Nice.

It was Bob Edwards’ personal support and the support of AEA that made Matisse happen. In the end there were over 200 loans from 50 collections worldwide. Negotiating loans with Bob, seeing him in action in the negotiation field, has also been a wonderful experience. Others have remarked today that Bob is very much at home in a Land Rover but he is also very much at home in the offices of directors of major museums, as Neil MacGregor has pointed out, and at home as well in the Paris drawing room of Matisse’s grandson Claude Duthuit. It was absolutely vital that we obtained Claude Duthuit’s sympathetic involvement in the exhibition to do the sort of exhibition which we thought Australia needed to have.

Bob and Claude Duthuit have been friends for many years since that exhibition and I know are working on another exhibition of Matisse’s works on paper for Australia later this year. For the Queensland Art Gallery also, much earlier than that in the early 1980s, the very first exhibition that we got from AEA was an exhibition of Chinese paintings. Bob and I were reminiscing about this. This was an exhibition in the gallery’s temporary premises [while our new building was under construction], the [MIM] Mt Isa Mines building in the middle of the city of Brisbane. The exhibition looked quite beautiful in what was really an office building. However, there were logistical difficulties. If too many people came up in the lifts at the same time, one could have a bottleneck and queues down the block. I don’t know if Bob remembers that, but we did on occasion have that happen. It was a wonderful thing that we had moved out of the gallery’s old building, which sounds rather like the description we have heard earlier today about the South Australian Museum. Betty, you would remember the old Queensland Art Gallery building on Gregory Terrace where the roof leaked and it was also a fire trap. In a way the MIM building was quite a significant change for the better until we moved again to the new Queensland Art Gallery on the South Bank. The other exhibitions we were working on with Bob at that time were major exhibitions for 1982 when the new Queensland Art Gallery building opened and then later for the Commonwealth Games. And, yes, Bob did manage a visit by the Queen to the Queensland Art Gallery that year as well.

I am using the Queensland Art Gallery as an example because we came from a situation where there was a handful of staff and we went in a year to 100 staff. There is no way that the gallery could have organised all the major international exhibitions with which we began our program in the way that we did without Bob’s personal support and that of AEA. In fact, it was the accepted wisdom back in 1982 that the Queensland Art Gallery – I am sure Doug Hall will also comment on this from a later era - would never be able to fill that building on the South Bank and that we needed to put enormous focus on temporary exhibitions in order to meet the expectations of our public. Well, that is another story and probably Doug Hall will take that up.

I do want to make a point about AEA. AEA grew out of that period in the 1970s. The Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council was a key early player and the Australian Gallery Directors Council was also important in developing the early international exhibitions which came to Australia before AEA was established. There are many figures who should be mentioned in these pioneer developments, but I don’t have time to do so. It is also important to remember there had been two previous organisations set up to organise international exhibitions and they hadn’t been able to proceed. So when Bob put together the vision for AEA and became its first director, it wasn’t altogether a certainty that his new organisation would be able to succeed where others had not. I know Bob has told me that he was given a million dollars by the then Fraser government but told never to come back. I don’t think you did - perhaps once but you didn’t get any further funding. My point about all this is that it was Bob’s vision and creativity and the way he has developed AEA - a vision followed by Carol Henry since as executive director - that has been so important to museums in Australia.

It is not just smaller institutions like the Queensland Art Gallery that benefited, because every museum in Australia has benefited enormously from Bob’s vision. I have a few other things to say but I wanted to ask you, Betty, because you were so involved in developing international exhibitions yourself and also were on the board of AEA for many years, if you wanted to comment on why these international exhibitions have been so important to Australia.

BETTY CHURCHER: I think they have been crucially important and that is why I made such a focus on it myself, mainly because Australian collections formed so late. We formed without the benefit of large princely or aristocratic collections to form a nucleus. Many of those collections starting from scratch. The Queensland Art Gallery started with the Evicted by Blandford Fletcher … and that was their first purchase. Consequently, it’s incredibly important for us to borrow pictures. What we can’t buy, and there’s an awful lot in this world we can’t buy, we can borrow. When we can borrow the very best and bring those to the Australian people, that is one of the things that really drove me when I was the director of the National Gallery because I remembered how vitally important it was to me as a small child when I was taken to the Queensland Art Gallery on Gregory Terrace. I loved it.

CAROLINE TURNER: Did you take a torch as one of our colleagues had to at another Australian museum in that era?

BETTY CHURCHER: I didn’t take a torch, no. I really loved it. That was my first contact with a real painting, and I will never ever forget it. It was just as if the whole of Brisbane suddenly melted away, my seven-year-old childhood melted away, everything melted away, and I could just step in to another world. That was the world of Blandford Fletcher, which I don’t particularly want to step into now. But I kept thinking when these exhibitions came to Australia that I hope some mothers bring their children so that they can have that amazing experience, because it was absolutely amazing. My problem was that I couldn’t get there. I was only eight when I was first taken there so I had no way of getting there myself and I had to get my father to keep driving me. He was a rather irascible Scot and he was saying, ‘No, we’ve been there, we’ve seen that.’ On this particular Saturday I was so desperate to see this picture, I don’t think I have ever been so desperate to see a picture since, that I invented this incredible lie. I said to him, ‘No, Dad, you haven’t because there is a big exhibition of war art on.’ I was in the car and I was desperately trying to formulate a plan, because he had a bad temper, my Dad. I thought: What’s going to happen? There will be a terrible explosion. How can I deal with this? When I got there it was one of those extraordinary conundrums that face children from time to time: there was an exhibition of war art on and they had taken down Evicted to make room for the war art. I thought I had pulled some black magic and that God was trying to tell me something very important. It was the lie and I was thinking of all the sorts of things it was. I don’t think I even looked at the war art, I was so baffled by it.

For a child that is so important. For the rest of my life I have felt all the time I have been teaching, directing galleries and making television programs, those sorts of things have all been to try to make available things that wouldn’t otherwise be available, to encourage people to come to a gallery that may not even think of coming to a gallery. Then having come to the gallery to see Matisse, they stay at the gallery - in this case it was at the National Gallery - to see the rest of the collection and then they often become regular museum goers. So many people have said this to me that it introduced them to the whole thing of museums. No little child has come up to me and told me that yet. I might have to wait a little longer for that. I think they have been crucially important.

The great thing about Bob, too, was that his vision was so catholic; it was really so broad; it wasn’t just focused on the major artists of Europe. I remember in Western Australia one of the first exhibitions I put on was the Gold of the Pharaohs. What a gift to give an incoming director. Wow! The people of Western Australia thought this was marvellous. We had incredible record numbers, but it came from Bob.

We have mentioned the Chinese warriors. Neil’s book so brilliantly shows us why you can read about history, you can know about history, you can learn about history, but it’s only when you are brought emotionally in contact with the people who made that history by picking up an object - Neil says it might be something that was dropped in a mammoth hunt, just a spearhead that was dropped and in the heat of the hunt wasn’t retrieved – but that has come down to us and that to my mind puts you immediately in touch with a time and a place that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. It’s on a very human emotional level that that happens. Neil’s book The History of the World in 100 Objects is a brilliant book. I have been trying to get the wretched book, but every bookseller says, ‘It’s a very popular book,’ and I am on so many long lists. But I finally got it, by the way. That book goes into this very beautifully. But Bob has had that same effect on Australian art in bringing to us such a wide variety of art, whether it’s from the ancient warriors of Xian. It was an extraordinary experience to see those warriors. I think Neil had that exhibition in London at the British Museum. It was only the second time in my life where I have actually been in tears. The first time was when I was 16 looking at what I thought was my first Rembrandt, and it wasn’t - it was a fake. The second time was when I stood in Xian and looked at those warriors. You realised that time just went like that and you were there, they were there, and the space between you didn’t exist. Bob, thank you for that, because it’s been through the museum shows as well as the gallery shows and the library shows that you have been able to educate Australia. Sorry, that was rather too long. [applause]

CAROLINE TURNER: Betty has put it perfectly, but I know this is also Bob’s vision because we have talked about this. He has talked about how he had a passion - that word has been used quite a lot today - a passion to educate Australians but also to have them see the best in cultural heritage from around the world. But he has also pointed out he did not perceive a hierarchy with Western art on top. His vision was that every human culture should be presented on an equal basis, so enriching Australians’ experience and understanding of world cultures. Another area in which Bob had great skills is that he has played an extremely important role in Australia’s cultural diplomacy. Many of his exhibitions have also tied in with important diplomatic and economic policies and cultural connections that Australia needs to have with our region. With China, for example. We have talked about the Chinese exhibitions but, through those friendships and networks that Bob put in place in the 1980s with China, we were able to get exhibitions, as was said this morning, which other countries were not getting at that time. The Entombed Warriors is an example back in 1982. It was the first time that they had left China, and other museums around the world had asked for and did not receive exhibitions of the Warriors.

I hope Bob won’t mind if I tell a story he told me recently about negotiations in China. because it sums up Bob’s method of negotiation. By the way, I think there’s a huge continuity between his work in Aboriginal art and culture and his work on the world stage in his ways of negotiating with people with his great respect for other cultures. All of this is all part of how he’s able to achieve these exhibitions. It should be stated that this wasn’t the era when museums paid enormous fees, everything depended on the negotiation. You had to convince the directors and curators of the lending museums that the exhibition was worth while in a scholarly and artistic sense, that it would be properly looked after in Australia, that the Australian art museums were highly professional and also that the audiences would have education and other programs provided to explain the works. I certainly remember myself that many of the meetings we had with AEA about the large-scale international exhibitions were about education programs. That is a very important factor: this isn’t just buying in an exhibition; this is actually putting in place an exhibition where there is mutual respect in terms of the way that loans are negotiated and in terms of the way the exhibition is interpreted for the public.

But back to the Chinese story because I can’t resist telling it. Bob tells me that, during the course of one of his negotiations in China, they had a special banquet put on for him. A Chinese vice minister particularly pointed to one dish on the table which he said was in Bob’s honour and fit for an emperor. The special dish was a plate of fried scorpions. Well, Bob, you told me you did eat them and that they were delicious. But this perhaps indicates some of the heroic nature of the way that Bob conducted negotiations and the nerves of steel that were sometimes required. I would like to make a couple of remarks echoing points others have made – words like ‘generosity of spirit’ and ‘integrity’ have been used to describe Bob I would like to add another word. I was talking to Bob recently about two museums overseas and he remarked that one of them had soul. I think ‘soul’ is a word that really should be used in talking about Bob’s achievements and the way in which he went about all of his work, not just in the international exhibitions area or in the arena of museums but also in Aboriginal culture. His work has a great sense of soul in terms of his vision to create something that would be for the great benefit of all Australians. It’s not just about bringing in exhibitions that people might enjoy or that even, dare one say it, might make money for the museums.

BETTY CHURCHER: Yes, you dare.

CAROLINE TURNER: But it’s actually about exhibitions that do something very important in terms of enriching our Australian culture and also adding to the culture and the professionalism of museums. Perhaps I will tell another story that I think is very indicative of Bob’s work and that is that Bob doesn’t just mix with the directors of museums, he mixes with the staff at all levels: education officers, junior curators, registration staff, to whom he has given many opportunities. I am sure many people in this room have benefited from Bob’s generosity of spirit.

When we were in Paris once working on an exhibition, one of the very junior staff at the Musée d’Orsay discovered it was Bob’s birthday. I thought it was very touching and indicative of the man that a birthday party was arranged in the apartment of the curator, because Bob is someone who does always work with people at every level in a museum. Peter, I think you were going to suggest, unless Betty has more remarks, that maybe someone might like to make a comment.

PETER STANLEY: No, I am sorry, we have run out of time.

CAROLINE TURNER: Well there is much more that could be said and I am sure would be said on many occasions. [applause]

Date published: 12 May 2011