A major rehang and redistribution of artworks within the Art Gallery of Ballarat is underway, as new director Louise Tegart looks for new ways to tell the stories contained within the collection, and within the building itself.
Taking the motto of the Art Gallery of Ballarat Association – not for self but for all – as inspiration, Ms Tegart says the most immediate change that the public can see is the salon hang above the stairs at the entrance.
The portraits on display help tell the story of the gallery in Ballarat: a picture of James Oddie, the driving energy behind the creation of what was once called the Fine Art Gallery, sits next to a contemporary work by Ballarat Indigenous artist Deanne Gilson; significant donors such as Blair Ritchie and George Crouch sit alongside an Archibald-winning portrait of Barry Humphries by Louise Hearman.
“For me, before I took the role of director, rehanging the staircase was one of my top priorities,” says Ms Tegart.
“I didn't feel that a hang of gold-framed, Nineteenth Century European landscapes represented this gallery. I had seen people come in and were quite intimidated, and don’t go up the stairs. Since we’ve done this (rehang), we were watching this morning, every single person coming in the door was going ‘Wow! and walking straight up.”
There has been some criticism of the rehang. Social media attracted some commentary arguing that the salon hang treated the works ‘like wallpaper’; others said iconic large works like Solomon Joseph Solomon’s Ajax and Cassandra (1886) should return to the site. Ms Tegart disagrees.
She argues the message and the context of academy and narrative works such as Solomon’s and other Victorian painters needs to be better explained to the public. In the case of Ajax and Cassandra, she also feels that its depiction of rape is not suitable as the opening image of the gallery.
Curator Julie McLaren says the physical challenge of mounting so many works at a height meant a lot of measuring and remeasuring – and a certain amount of overcoming a fear of heights.
“It was quite daunting,” says Ms McLaren.
“Our installers and exhibition designer Ben Cox did a great job, because you’re looking down to the ground floor.”
Ms Tegart says the rehang is just the start for her.
“The gallery is the performance of the stuff in the collection, not the collection per se; it’s easy to confuse an excellent collection with an excellent gallery,” says Ms Tegart, quoting the director of the Milanese Pinacoteca di Brera, James Bradburne.
“We’ve only got maybe five per cent of our collection of over 10,000 works out. There’s a wealth of stories and artists to be brought out.”