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Celebrating 130 years of the Bendigo Art Gallery

Louise Weaver, 'Auk

Louise Weaver, 'Auk', courtesy of Bendigo Art Gallery

In 1887, the city of Bendigo was known as Sandhurst, a mighty Victorian outpost grown rich on thirty years of gold rush fortune. Having built streets lined with grand European architecture, fine parks and gardens, a school and civic buildings, the town turned its attention to the finer things in life. An art gallery was mooted — 'It would be a credit to the city to have such a place to show visitors!' declared the Bendigo Advertiser — and the Bendigo Art Gallery was born.

One of the oldest and largest regional galleries in Australia, Bendigo Art Gallery celebrates its 130th anniversary in 2017. From humble beginnings, through the changing tides and tastes of the 20th century, to an explosion of popularity in recent years, the Gallery has remained true to the ambition of its founders. From Australian contemporary art through the ages to blockbuster exhibitions, it places visual art and culture at the square centre of community life.

To mark this prestigious birthday, Bendigo Art Gallery presents Collective vision: 130 years, an exhibition that dives deep into the gallery' own singular collection. Through the objects presented, from colonial landscapes to contemporary sculpture, the exhibition tracks social, artistic and community change in Bendigo as well as the evolution of the gallery itself.

We spoke with curator Tansy Curtain about the treasures amassed over 130 years.

What are your favourite works in Collective vision?

I love some of the decorative arts in the collection because a lot of these objects came from people who lived in Bendigo and they tell us a lot about how these people lived and the things that were of interest to them. You can imagine what their houses would have been like. One collector gave us something like thirty sets of lustres, which are those very ornate Victorian glass vases. They don't really have any use, other than being decorative. Did they have them all on display?! It gives you a little bit of insight into the minds of incredibly passionate people who lived in the Bendigo community.

What are the public favourites?

We have our visitors' books from the late nineteenth century and it shows that our favourite works now were the favourites from the day they arrived, still very much beloved. Too Late is a very large classic Victorian narrative (painting) about Victorian athletes, representing ancient Greek and Roman stories, so there's this wonderful sense of gravitas and empathy and emotion in the work. People can really connect with those elements. At the same time, there are contemporary works that people really love, like Young Family by Patricia Puccinini. In fact, it's one of those works that people love or really don't like at all! But that's great, you don't have to love it all, as long as it provokes a response.

How has the Bendigo Art Gallery collection evolved over the years?

Bendigo Art Gallery's collection is not encyclopaedic. We're not trying to be like the National Gallery of Victoria or the Art Gallery of Australia and represent every single movement in art internationally and at home. We simply didn't have the funds to do that. But the Gallery has always collected contemporary art. They were buying contemporary works in the nineteenth century from the Royal Academy or works from international exhibitions. They weren't looking back at the Great Masters — there are no Goyas or Rembrandts — but they did collect the artists of the day, which then reflects fashions of the day. That makes us a little bit different; there aren't many galleries that have strong narrative of? works of the nineteenth century.

The exhibition is arranged in themes, rather than representing different eras. Why?

It's much more about creating connections, creating interesting conversations around different works from different eras, and getting people to engage with works in a freer way.

We can actually have some playful interactions with works, we can do sections that are interested in looking at animals and quirky fun things, bringing out some of the objects that don't necessarily fit within the collection but reveal great stories about the city and the region.

We've learned a lot by doing the exhibition and really exploring the collection. It has showed us that there is a great deal of wonderful stuff there and there is a lot more that we can be doing with it. Our international exhibitions have been very successful and they've brought a lot of tourism to the region and really revitalised the area. But we also have a very strong permanent collection and this exhibition has really given us the chance to embrace that and engage with it.

What do the next 130 years hold for Bendigo Art Gallery?

We're looking at a collection database online, to make the collection more accessible to scholars and researchers and interested parties. It's in development!

Otherwise, I think we just keep going. The gallery has gone from a visitation of fewer than 20,000 about 20 years ago, to close to 300,000 visitors in recent years, which shows us that there is a real love of this gallery out there in the community.

Collective vision: 130 years is open until 28 May. 

Visit the Bendigo Art Gallery website for details