Art Gallery of Ballarat director Gordon Morrsion talks Ballarat’s artistic vision (part 2)

Yesterday we published part one of an interview with the director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat, Gordon Morrison. In that first half, we heard his vision for the gallery and what its place will be for future exhibitions stemming from the gallery’s recent exhibition of the touring Archibald Prize artworks.

For those art lovers heading up to Ballarat for the prize, they would have seen a treasure in a town that is slowly blooming into an art haven, with a tonne of many other galleries opening up. In this second half of our interview, Gordon talks about regional art in Australia, and what art makers and lovers can do to keep it thriving.

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You mention ambition. How ambitious do galleries in regional areas must be to further keep their standing in Australia’s art world?

They need to not only be ambitious, they need to be creative. They need to be inhabited by passionate people.

Another thing that is important to be stressed is that it shouldn’t be about bums on seats or dollars. It should be about doing things that are challenging. It would be very very easy to settle into a groove of “We’ll do a particular type of show and we will guarantee that there’ll be numbers.” That get stale very quickly.

You can be creative and challenging and quite often you can do well out of it. A few years ago, we put on an exhibition of botanical art. You may think this is all ‘little old lady prints’ or what-have-you but those images are beautiful. Beautiful in a contemporary way. We did incredibly well because we merchandised them carefully. They were all out of copyright and we could use that imagery that we couldn’t normally with other exhibitions.

Sometimes you can find things do well for you financially but also have a bold vision that aims high.

Carla Fletcher here is a local artist that was shown at this Archie’s and has been shown twice previously. She has gained success with many other major works as well. Is it important for you as a gallery to champion local artists from this area?

Yes, it certainly is. For decades, the Art Gallery of Ballarat has ensured that local artists of standing have had an opportunity to show their work here.

At the same time, one must be careful there because there is art and ‘art.’ There are artists and ‘artists.’ There are a lot of people out there who are practising for their own enjoyment. They are not to museum standard.

We are fortunate in that there is an agency that allows for more community art-type shows to happen. In fact, that happens in the space called Backspace behind the gallery. It allows a wider group of artists to display.

You can’t be everything to everybody. It’s also incredibly difficult to let people down gently about the quality of their work.

Part of my time here in Ballarat has seen me in other galleries as well. I went to the Lost Ones Gallery who seem to aim for experimentation but also look at local artistry. What do you think of other galleries exhibiting here that look towards different genres and styles?

Those guys would also have the same issue as we do with the quality thing much like we do. They exhibit interesting work, but part of the time. They are going to be turning away people who think they have an automatic right to display there. They have set themselves a brief of wanting to be cutting edge.

It’s highly likely when we put on Romance in the Skull (exhibiting in Spring 2017) that Lost Ones will put on work that will be too hot for a public gallery to handle. That is fantastic; you can explore a theme where we are a masthead for exhibitions while satellite shows explore being edgier at the same time.

We are bound by the fact that we are a public gallery. That means everybody from toddlers and hundred-year-olds is visiting us all the time. We’re publically funded and that means that if members of the public find themselves outraged by what’s on display here, well I and my board should answer for that. That does clip one’s wings a little bit in terms of what is possible in a gallery. That’s reality.

You are obviously aware that people visit these galleries. These galleries wouldn’t exist if art lovers or makers of all demographics weren’t plentiful in this area. Where does Ballarat stand on its taste in art?

Bearing in mind that Ballarat is 100,000 people and that we are an hour and 15 minutes from the big smoke… certainly, when I came here 12 years ago, you got a sense that Ballarat was a second or third rate art town. There weren’t any private galleries operating here. If that, they’d appear one year and then go next year. You felt that only that if you were only in the city, you were any good.

That’s very much changed today. There is this sense that as an artist you can do good things here. Some people would say, at a cultural level, Ballarat has been a slice of Melbourne in terms of what it can achieve. There are two ways of looking at that – they all end up resolving that there is good stuff happening here.

I should say, there are still galleries at the back of shops and hidden away in a small, low-key, capacity – in fact, there is a fantastic gallery at the old mall centre of Ballarat that is above a grocery. It’s a great small contemporary space there. I walked into it for the first time and I felt like I was in Fitzroy, really. That feeling didn’t exist 10 to 12 years ago.

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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.