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.
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.
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?
A. This exhibition will be dynamic and rich in content. There are many parallels between these two artists that I think our audience will greatly enjoy. Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei share similar engagement with media and communications, and have radically transformed the role of ‘the artist’.
Their work can be seen to explore the relationships between art, politics, economy and celebrity; and also the documentation of everyday life. There are obvious synergies and also some real surprises.
It is a very large exhibition, our largest international contemporary show ever in fact, and is accompanied by a publication full of engaging content. I think this exhibition will have very broad appeal.
We have additionally been fortunate to work closely with Ai Weiwei and his studio and will premiere five new commissions as part of this project.
Q. The Winter Masterpieces Degas: A New Vision will be a special and very exciting show in 2016. Degas was reputedly such a complex person himself, how will the choices in subject matter contribute to giving us an overall picture of who he was as a man and as an artist? Will we be able to ‘see more than perhaps he wanted us to see’?
A. The curator we commissioned for this exhibition, Henri Loyrette, is considered the world authority on Degas and he is passionate about exploring his full practice and personality.
I think he has achieved this brilliantly.
The exhibition will delve into the beauty of the ballet but also the underbelly of Parisian nightlife, portraiture, the nude, horse racing and everyday scenes of work and leisure.
It is also a personal glimpse into Degas’ social world through his photography and drawing.
We have not compromised on securing the best works we could find anywhere in the world and we look forward to sharing these works with visitors come June 2016.
Q. Operating within what some people may classify as a rarefied atmosphere, do you have many opportunities to be out there on the floor so you can talk to children, teens, young adults and seniors benefiting from special programs about their experiences at the NGV? Would you consider it important for you to have that experience now and then first hand?
A. Absolutely – this is critical. I try to walk through NGV International or NGV Australia at least once a day. I am also often a visitor on the weekends so that I can experience and observe the interaction of our diverse audiences.
Q. When viewing portraits in the exhibition Catherine the Great, such as that of woodcarver Grinling Gibbons by Godfrey Kneller, I couldn’t help but ache to see one of his great works in wood such as his ‘lace cravat’ nearby so people would understand his great achievements in this discipline. Do you actively encourage the use of decorative arts in exhibitions mainly based on paintings and sculpture to help people put them into social and historical context?
A. We are increasingly integrating displays.
The notion of purely painting galleries is quite old fashioned and doesn’t reflect the way that the NGV has developed its collection.
We recently integrated furniture and decorative arts throughout our 16th to 19th century galleries. We have had very positive feedback from both general public and scholars in relation to this approach.
Q. Most people fear change…yet it is one thing that is sure, constant and inevitable if we are to progress. How do assist NGV volunteers to know how to deal with such rapid change on a daily basis and how do you constantly inspire staff to communicate with each other effectively to assist the best possible outcome for everyone.
A. I think we have developed some strong internal processes to ensure that staff is aware of new directions and also contributing to the debate. The same applies to our strong volunteer base.
We work hard to rotate our collection displays and make our exhibition program as rich and as interesting as possible; this is not only inevitable change but also exciting change!
Q. Recently you announced the NGV Triennial (2017); a large-scale celebration of the best contemporary international design, establishing a department of Contemporary Design and Architecture to help create an inspiring future: enriching our understanding of art and life”. How is the project proceeding?
A. The Triennial is extremely exciting. We have been visiting and working with artists and curators from all over the world. We are gaining access to some brilliant people and the outcomes will be stunning.
We can’t wait to share this new triennial for Australia with a wide audience.
It is also refreshing to be including architecture and design as an equal voice within the exhibition.
Q. How hard is it to hold fast to what you know in your heart and believe in when today’s societal culture is all about living life at the edge? Do you have a philosophy of life that is perhaps reflected in one favourite work of art or design you admire chosen from around the world, which not only appeals but also provides you with an insight into the ‘art of life’?
A. In this context I think of an artist such as van Gogh. To me his work has great integrity and honesty.
To inspect a drawing by van Gogh is one of the most emotional experiences I have ever had.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015