Art Gallery of Ballarat director Gordon Morrison talks regional art and its never-ending ambition (part 1)

The Archibald holds a special place in within the art history of Australia, and looking at the images through the history of the prize shows that portraiture has moved from the plain, white man to a fascinating array of subject and ideas on all sorts of mediums.

Earlier this month the ‘Archies’ were displayed at the Art Gallery of Ballarat as part of the exhibition’s tour around Australia and saw a huge number of people either making the trek north of Melbourne to explore one of regional Victoria’s valued prizes.

Gordon Morrison, director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat, was kind enough to chat about regional art, the future vision of Ballarat’s premier art gallery and the idea of an objective in art exhibiting.

Here is the first part of our interview here on Arts at the AU.

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The art space is large enough to encompass large events like the Archibald and allow for large amounts of people to come through the door as I saw this morning.

Yes, 700 people came to pre-book for today, which means we could touch on 1500, likely 2000 over this weekend. That’s an immense number of visitors to come to a regional gallery in Victoria. It just about stretches a gallery like this to its capacity. Of course, these buildings weren’t constructed with large visitation in mind – we had to pre-plan and think through everything. It comes down to even how much our toilets get cleaned. It’s rock bottom basic practicalities to make it work.

In terms to how this exhibition appears compared to its showing in Sydney, it’s interesting. The main exhibition shows the Wynne and the Sulman – although the Sulman also changes in how it works – and while we just have a smaller space, we have the luxury to reset all the temporary galleries on the north side. This gives us more space than Archie itself occupies in Sydney. Inevitably that means we can allow the paintings to breathe. Then it’s critical to the visitor experience.

Personally, I hate going to shows where I get claustrophobic and getting that feeling of being digested and spat out.

Isn’t it amazing that a portrait prize that’s been going for 95 years has this cache and this power to attract? There’s a lovely thrill in the controversies that are attached to the myth of the Archie. It’s the art equivalent of the Melbourne Cup.

It’s an exhibition that for people who haven’t come through a door for a couple years standing, is always saying “Have you seen the Archie’s this year?”

It’s got a different feel to most art exhibitions, isn’t it?

There’s this big move with galleries that say that they need to be entrepreneurial, they’ve got to put on blockbuster shows. Well, you need to ensure that you’re using the Archibald as a yardstick. We have it for two years and I know the visitation won’t be the same, but we consider that when it happens.

Winner of the 2016 Archibald Prize - 'Barry' by Louise Herman
Winner of the 2016 Archibald Prize – ‘Barry’ by Louise Herman

What stood out for you in this year’s exhibition?

I didn’t see it in Sydney unfortunately, so I only saw the works in the catalogue and in the promotional material. I only saw them when we got unpacking. I was really surprised when you see it all in the flesh. It’s an utterly different experience. The thing that you may have brushed past as an image in a media release just speaks to you in the flesh.

This year, there is a greater number of things I’m enthusiastic about. It’s also true to say it was a selection of works by a group of people. A selection that is dictated to a degree by the Archibald rules where you must feature people who are of note in society. Any person would be lying if they said they’d love everything in the show.

I always say to people when I’m introducing them to the show to hate, loathe and despise a fair number of works in the show. You will not care for things, but that’s totally fine. That’s art.

What do you see the direction of the gallery after the exhibition?

This gallery sees itself as belonging to a different tradition to any other gallery in Australia. Largely that is dictated by the quality of the permanent collection here.

I’m not kidding or being boastful when I say that when a visitor comes here to this collection, they’ll be blown over by the quality of the Australian collection. It isn’t one example of the Heidelberg School or the Sydney Modernists or what have you. We represent Australian art in depth across from the 18th century to the present day.

We’re the only regional gallery that has a serious collection of Indigenous Australian art too. Coming here is the equivalence of seeing the main state galleries like Perth or Adelaide. It’s that level of quality in this collection.

That changes the way we think of ourselves in comparison to Geelong or Newcastle or Bendigo or any other equivalent regional city. Some of those cities have great galleries, but not quite to this depth.

What that has meant in terms of our large-scale show that we do – that if we put on a big large scale exhibition, it should have a connection to the permanent collection.

Any examples of anything upcoming?

Perhaps the example that I will use that will speak to this is the Spring show that will come in the next year called Romance in the Skull. This exhibition looks at the image of the skull and skeleton in contemporary art. It will also go into history and consider how that has appeared in things like Christian art and art from South and Central America.

This will be quite an ambitious project. There’ll be some major works from overseas collections and the like. It will also have some foundations from the works that are held in this collection too. We noticed 10 to 12 years ago that skulls and skeletons were appearing everywhere and we started collecting.

There is a painting by Sam Leach, there are negotiations for a commissioned work from Fiona Hall as well. This is the kind of show that Ballarat will probably do into the future. If shows offer themselves from outside that are also pre-packaged, we’ll seize onto it too, but they need to be of worth.

Again, regional galleries should be careful to not tread on each other’s patches. It’s pointless to compete with other galleries in Victoria. We are too close together for us to all be clones of each other programming wise. It’d be a bad thing if something like that comes up.

So, do you strive for identity with each exhibition?

The thing I do strongly champion is that each regional gallery develops its own patch. Regionalism, difference and passion are what makes us special.

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Gordon Morrison is the director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat. The gallery’s current main exhibition is The Rennie Ellis Show, showing works from the iconic Australian photographer taken through his career. For more information, head here.

This interview was able to be conducted with help from Visit Ballarat.