Opening of the McClelland Gallery Centre 5 Exhibition – by Adrian Collette

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Speeches and Opinions
Nov 12, 2022
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We gather on the land of the Bunurong, and I want to acknowledge their Elders, Past, Present and Emerging, and pay my respects to all First Nations people present.

Investment in, and advocacy of Indigenous arts and culture is fundamental to the purpose of the Australia Council. Tellingly, it has been so ever since the Australia Council was created in the 1960’s (not so long after the abolition of the White Australia Policy!) and invested in by the Whitlam government in the early 70’s – such a vital time for a kind of efflorescence of arts and culture in Australia. Investment in and advocacy of First Nations arts and culture was central to our work then, and it was a commitment that was re-stated and confirmed under the New Australia Council Act, introduced in 2013 under legislation that was led by Minister Simon Crean.

It is work that has a renewed resonance now, as the Albanese government has promised a referendum on a First Nations voice to parliament.

For someone whose professional background is, for better or worse, in writing, publishing, music and the performing arts, I am about to sound quite knowledgeable about the visual arts – or modern sculpture, in particular.

I must confess that this is only because the Executive Director of McClelland, Lisa Byrne, not only asked me to say a few words at this opening, she then provided me with insightful and detailed speech notes! (In the way of such invitations, this is both unusual and remarkably generous.)

Some of you will share Lisa’s deep knowledge of this fascinating and important period in Australian sculpture. But others, like me, will be grateful for her insights, and your experience of the exhibition will be richer because of them.

So, with due acknowledgement and gratitude, let me ‘borrow’ some of Lisa’s words.

Julius Kane, Inge King, Clifford Last, Lenton Parr, Norma Redpath, Vincas Jomantas, Teisutis Zikaras:

2022 marks sixty years since Centre Five began. It’s also forty-nine years—almost to the day—since Prof. Margaret Plant opened McClelland’s first—and, to date, only—Centre Five survey exhibition on 11 November 1973. Thirty-eight years have passed since the last Centre Five survey, held in 1984 at the Heide Museum of Modern Art. An entire generation has since grown up with little idea as to what Centre Five represented and what their work looked like as a group. 

Expertly researched and curated by the University of Melbourne’s Dr Jane Eckett, ‘Bridging the gap’ is an opportunity for audiences not only to observe some of the finest examples of each artists’ work, but also reflect on the great impact Centre Five has had on sculpture in Australia through their determined promotion. 

The exhibition focuses on those years in which Centre Five were most active, from 1962 to 1973. The earliest work in the exhibition is Jullius Kane’s Equestrienne from 1952, which he first showed at the Victorian Sculptors’ Society’s annual exhibition alongside work by four other future members of Centre Five. That exhibition marked a turning point, as the critic Alan McCulloch recognised at the time, finding the show: ‘much more alive than any of its predecessors. For the first time sculpture has become a living art, understanding and acknowledging its European origins, and aware of itself as art’. (That’s a complex insight, which I will allude to later.) 

Centre Five was largely comprised of post-war European migrants. With five of its seven members coming from Europe and England, Centre Five were crucial in bringing European ideas, craftmanship and professionalism to Australia’s under-capitalised cultural landscape. 

Three of the group’s members were refugees who experienced the hardships of living in so-called Displaced Persons camps in Europe after the war, and a further three years indentured labour in Australia. Julius Kane also survived five years in concentration camps in Poland. Inge King barely escaped Berlin and survived a precarious decade as a refugee in Britain until becoming a naturalised British citizen and eventually — by dint of marrying Australian painter-printmaker Grahame King – an Australian citizen. 

World War Two marked a traumatic hiatus in the lives of all the group—rendering them either stateless or, in the case of Clifford Last and Lenton Parr, serving with the Allied forces. Only the youngest member of the group, Norma Redpath, living in Melbourne at the time, was sheltered from the war. This was a generation marked by trauma and a sense of urgency when it came to rebuilding their lives post-war and resuming the earlier advances of interwar modernism. 

‘Bridging the gap’ between artist and public was Centre 5’s primary goal. As a collective, they aimed to foster closer relationships with architects and lobbied for the inclusion of sculpture in diverse architectural projects. The artists of Centre 5 aimed to make art that was accessible and relevant to the broader community, to show the commitment of the artist to his or her public. We see Inge King’s sculpture, Euridice, at BHP Clayton Laboratory; Clifford Last’s work at the Christ Church in Mitcham; Lenton Parr’s sculpture at the Chadstone Shopping Centre and Vincas Jomantas’s Sculptural Screen at the Australian Embassy in Washington, among many examples. 

So, the objectives of Centre 5 were not intended merely to benefit its seven members, but for Australian sculpture and sculptors generally.

As I read Lisa’s notes, and Jane Eckett’s absorbing introduction to the accompanying catalogue to this show (which is available from McClelland’s Design Store) I couldn’t but reflect on the broader resonance of these talented, vital, if traumatised, creative lives.

Our Federal Government is committed to creating a new cultural policy for Australia – taking up where Creative Australia, again under the leadership of Simon Crean as Minister for the Arts – left off in 2013. Together with others, the Australia Council is closely advising our Arts Minister, Tony Burke – so, in my obsessive way, I cannot help viewing everything I see at the moment through the critical lens of cultural policy development.

For example, I note that our gifted sculptors also had to have ‘day jobs’ (ever the plight of individually gifted artists!). Between them their regular work included working in the Carlton and United Breweries, in a chaff mill in Sydenham; as a house painter in Beechworth or a timber Mill near Margaret River; not to mention as a window dresser in Foy and Gibson’s department store, or a draftsman for the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission in Frankston. As with so many of our most talented artists, ‘needs must….’

From a cultural development perspective, the history and current role of Mclelland itself is instructive. McClelland was the legacy of a local family through their last remaining descendant, Annie May McClelland, a gift to its community. In 1965, the support of its major patron, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, anchored McClelland’s collection, and future, in sculpture. Philanthropic beginnings – this is so often the way ambitious ventures are founded and funded – a culture of giving, if you like, which inspires our broader cultural life.

Then, McClelland’s vital role here, in a bushland setting in the outer south east of Melbourne, which enriches its local community and is enriched by its local community. McClelland is the first experience of art, sculpture and a gallery for so many who come here with their families or with kindergarten or school visits. And it is this very sense of place, its local community and its bushland setting that informs McClelland’s international identity, and its network of sculpture parks with galleries like the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, or the Kroller Mueller in Netherlands. For anyone thinking about cultural policy, the relationship between what is intensely local, nationally important and internationally engaged is vital.

But the most telling influence in the individual and collective stories of Centre 5 was and is the vital influence of post-war migration on Australian creative practice and, ultimately, on Australia’s emerging identity.

This, indeed, is the stuff of cultural policy.

If asked why we need a cultural policy, I would say: because we are building a nation. We should never stop building a nation – particularly one as complex as contemporary Australia.

I can think of no better reckoning for the promise and the necessity of a cultural policy than Noel Pearson’s generous declaration of where we are, or, perhaps, where we might be, with our ‘Indigenous heritage; our British inheritance and our multi-cultural triumph.’

As troubled as were the lives of its creators, this exhibition provides an eloquent insight into vital parts of Pearson’s magnificent narrative – or three grand narratives – that frame the extraordinary promise of Australia’s contemporary identity.

My thanks to Lisa; my gratitude to Simon Crean who did such important work as Australia’s Minister for the Arts – work that now provides a foundation for our new Cultural Policy, and my congratulations to Mclelland, and most particularly to Dr Jane Eckett for mounting this exhibition.

Adrian Collette AM
Chief Executive Officer
Australia Council for the Arts