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Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV – Transforming Melbourne Now

Tony Ellwood

Director Tony Ellwood, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria

Today art in all its forms is fast becoming a desirable and very expansive component of the Australian lifestyle.

Recently I had the pleasure of talking to the very accomplished Tony Ellwood, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), about his journey in the arts past, present and future.

Since his arrival at the NGV in August 2012 after already forging an outstanding career to date, Tony Elwood has not rested on his laurels. He happily admits he has extended himself way beyond what he thought he would achieve in every way.

Helping people from all walks of life and backgrounds to both know and understand art involves answering copious emails daily. His amazing energy, commitment to excellence and having the courage of his convictions are all qualities to admire.

At the ‘Circle’ we are deeply appreciative of his contribution.

Q.  Hello Tony, thank you for talking with me. Would you be able to offer our readers a brief background to your choice in careers that has led to you being the Director in charge of what many would regard as Australia’s finest art institution, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).  Do you believe there was a defining influence, incident or perhaps a person in your childhood that started, inspired or fostered the growth of your interest in the arts per se?

Has it been a challenging journey?

A.  I was always interested in the arts from a young age and I had a very supportive mother who assisted me to pursue this at tertiary level.  The defining moment for me was a visit I made from the country as a young child to the NGV. It is still embedded in my memory.

I knew at that time that I wanted to work with fine art.  I am lucky to have known for such a long time what I wanted to do so that has made my journey an enjoyable one.

Ellwood & Artists

Tony Ellwood and Artists, Melbourne Now Exhibition 2013-2014, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria

 Q.  The exhibition Melbourne Now in Summer (2013-2014) was a ‘watershed’ show for you following your arrival at the NGV. It highlighted the fact those who lead public institutions today have a big responsibility for ensuring considered cross-cultural as well as in house institutional conversations happen. It’s not a case of either or but both and. Do you feel this keenly?

A.  Melbourne Now was about having multiple dialogues – with both fine artists, designers (a new initiative for us) and a wide range of curators (including some external ones).  I found this a liberating way for the NGV to work.

This process extended us and we gained a lot of new skills and contacts.


The Man of Sorrows in the arms of the Virgin, (1475) {or (1479), Hans MEMLING, oil and gold leaf on wood panel, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1924

Q.  At a time when life is so hectic when you look back at some of the extraordinary paintings, superb sculptures and great decorative art pieces achieved by our ancestors do you sometime feel overwhelmed by the skill and craftsmanship that produced them? Can you name a few favourite pieces in the NGV Collection?

A.  I often feel like that. The beauty of collections is that we can develop a relationship with objects over time and really delve into their history.

I have many favourites from a simple but exquisite bowl by Austrian-English artist Lucie Rie from the 1960s, to our stunning Hans Memling painting ‘The Man of Sorrows in the arms of the Virgin’, c. 1475.

Q.  You will be launching the Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, your very cool hot Summer Exhibition soon. What can visitors expect?

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Degas: A New Vision – Voyeuristic Glamour at NGV, June 2016

Degas 8

Edgar Degas The Arabesque 1877 oil and essence, pastel on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Lemoisne 418 (RF 4040) © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais /Patrice Schmidt

“Voyeuristic glamour” is how Tony Ellwood, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) described the exciting and most complex Winter Masterpieces 2016 Exhibition to date, which will be held 24 June to 18 September, 2016.

In a city of continuing creativity and renewal the show Degas: A New Vision is a wonderful coup for a remarkable team at the NGV in Melbourne under Tony Ellwood’s great guidance.

Networking with The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston where the exhibition will travel in October following its time here, the NGV team of curators and specialists in their fields have created a unique display, one all Australians will be able to enjoy first.

Special Minister of State for the Victorian government Gavin Jennings recently officially launched the exhibition stating that over 200 works of art will be assembled from institutions in 41 cities and 13 countries around the globe.

This display will be a rich experience and another fine example of the strong French connection between the French and Australian, peoples, whose history is firmly anchored in its state of Victoria, first called Terre Napoleon.

The show will honour the French people and their great artists. Both Jennings and Ellwood expressed their grief at the shocking news stemming from the city of light and love over this past week.

Over the centuries Paris has been a home for artists to be inspired by. It has become renowned as an amazing centre for cultural studies, which Melbourne in Australia is today.

A bevvy of beautiful ballerinas on hand were from the Australian Ballet and the Australian Ballet School.

Australian Ballet Students detail

L-R: The Australian Ballet School students Tizana Saunders, Evie Ferris, Georgia Scott Hunter with Edgar Degas’ A cotton office in New Orleans 1873 and Rehearsal hall at the Opera, rue Le Peletier 1872, Photo: Tobias Titz courtesy National Gallery of Victoria

They posed and pirouetted prettily against a backdrop of two of Degas wonderful works observing the ballet at Paris and a cotton office in New Orleans during the age of modernity.

A restless innovator, a versatile technician and most prolific explorer of the fine language of art, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) gradually became renowned as an extraordinary draftsman.

Working in multiple mediums this French painter, sculptor and printmaker explored portraiture with laundresses, cabaret singers, milliners, prostitutes and ballet dancers featuring prominently.

His mastery of movement in his images of the ballet represent more than half his works partly because they sold well. Above all they helped to keep food on the table, which was hard for artists in Degas day as well as our own.

Recorded at play, at the opera, the ballet or the horse races, at home, in their gardens, their bedrooms and from under their beds, whether undressing, dressing or, buck naked in their bath and much more, Degas is today considered one of the greatest of artists of his day and ours.

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