TarraWarra on the Yarra
Posted: 15 Jan 2009 | By: Jeremy Eccles
TarraWarra Museum of Art (TWMA) is extolled by its director, the legendary Maudie Palmer, as "the first significant museum in the country funded by private individuals". This, of course, is in contradistinction to those who have built fine collections and donated them to public galleries - the Smorgons to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, for instance, and John Kaldor to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In the near future, we'll see David Walsh's Museum of Old and New Art outside Hobart and Judith Neilson's Contemporary Chinese collection at a newly completed artspace in inner Sydney's Chippendale.
But the Besens - Eva and Marc, who built the Sussan chain of fashion stores - were in there from the moment the Howard government changed the philanthropy laws in 1999 to allow averaging of such gifts over five tax years and did much to take the capital gains issue out of contemporary art. Also in there from that time was Maudie Palmer - happy to move on from the Heide Gallery in Melbourne to the green field site in the Yarra Valley where the Besens already had a winery.
So, in a sense, the TWMA is as much Palmer's dream as her patrons' - who continue to add paintings to the 117 they donated in 1999 - 77 at last count. Housed in the Allan Powell, designed long, low building that has a distinct Tuscan flavour in the evening light of the Valley, the museum is 90 minutes out of Melbourne. That may sound pretty rural to potential visitors, with the nearest public transport at Lilydale. But Palmer argues that TWMA is a cultural hub in the one segment of Melbourne's hinterland that doesn't have a good regional gallery, and so dominates an area that draws plenty of visitors for the wine, a restful weekend or even a long lunch. And the museum is attached to the TarraWarra winery's restaurant and tasting room.
But will they see the same 200 artworks on every visit? "Of course not," says Palmer, who assures visitors that there is always a selection of Besen works on show (and on-screen images of the whole shebang), but there may also be the TarraWarra Biennial - now twice as successful as Melbourne's single attempt at the genre - or a touring show like works from the Gabrielle Pizzi Collection, Melbourne, which will be at TWMA over the coming summer.
You may have noticed the predominance of the word 'painting' in describing the collection. "The Besens began collecting in the 1950s," says Palmer, "when commercial galleries were just opening up in Australia." Names such as Koman, Purves and Skinner became their friends and mentors, and so did the main artists of that era. Their Christmas parties for the art world were legendary. So their collection was built around Arthur Boyd and Nolan, Drysdale, Dobell and Dickerson, Olsen and Fred Williams, Tucker and Tuckson. And they were pretty set in their ways when both Indigenous and postmodern art came on the scene. "Since 2006, we've had a policy of adding a little of both - though not too much, as it would destroy the homogeneity of the collection."
And a case can certainly be made, as Eva and Marc Besen argue in their forward to the TWMA booklet, that the collection "illustrates the evolution of Australian art during the second half of the 20th century, demonstrating the distinctiveness of Australian modernism".
The TarraWarra Biennial
Lost and Found, curated by Charlotte Day, runs until 9 November 2008. And Aboriginal desert art from the Pizzi Collection, under the mysterious title of Mythology & Reality, opens on 25 November 2008, running until the end of summer.
For further information visit www.twma.com.au
Images from top:
TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville. Photograph by John Gollings.
TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, foreground (L-R) John Olsen, Clarendon Bedtime Stories, 1981, and Fred Williams, Guthega I, 1975-1976; background (L-R) Robert Jacks, Red Painting, 1968, and Dale Hickey, Untitled, 1986. Photograph by John Gollings.
Boxer Milner, Rainstorms and Rainbows at Oolaign, Sturt Creek, 2000, synthetic polymer paint on Belgian linen, 180 x 120cm. Courtesy the artist and Gabrielle Pizzi Collection, Melbourne.