Monday, 26 August 2013

Trip to Ballarat - 23-08-13

Myself and Jason admiring the lovely gallery space at Ballarat 
Visited Ballarat Art Gallery today with staff to assess the exhibition space in anticpation of the University’s 2014 touring exhibition of prints: ‘Radicals, Slayers and Villains’.

I was interested to learn that Ballarat Gallery is actually modelled on Wolverhampton Art Gallery, which the founder, fairly, regarded as the exemplar regional gallery! The inclusion of a John Bratby work in their 20th century rooms also caught my eye, representing a connection with the University of Birmingham.

Other excitements included a retrospective of Robert Clinch’s jaw-droppingly detailed representations of urban Melbourne and a moving exhibition responding to the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, by Doc Ross.

CCMC - 21-08-13

The conservation project was one of the aspects of the award that I have been most looking forward to, since its an area that I presently have very limited experience of. Today was my first day at the University’s Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation (CCMC), and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
One of the labs at CCMC

The conservation labs are exciting places in themselves: characterised by an uncommon mix of artist materials and scientific apparatus. Pigments and potions, swaps, brushes, and specialist machinery are scattered around upturned oil paintings and other dilapidated treasures. The array of materials reflects the impressive scope of the conservators’ skills and knowledge.

My previous experiences of handling artworks and artefacts have focused on the preventative side of conservation, which generally means keeping the objects in stable conditions and minimising physical contact with them. It was therefore amazing to see the conservators confronting (albeit with utmost care) traditional no-go areas, such as paint surface. At the same time, a respect for the original is central to their work. I saw, for example, how any painted restorations were separated from the original paintwork with a layer of soluble varnish.

I was also fortunate enough to accompany the team to a research seminar hosted at the University, which demonstrated how science and conservation issues can directly inform art historical understanding. One paper on Sidney Nolan’s use of commercial paints skilfully compiled  biographical information, archival research and chemical and material analysis of Nolan’s paints into a fascinating account of the artist’s use of and relationship with his medium. Another showed how synchrotron technology had been used to reveal an underpainting beneath the National Gallery of Victoria’s Degas work, Portrait of a woman (c.1876 – 80) in astonishing detail and colour! Using elemental maps this incredible technique revealed a work that the artist would have presumed we’d never see – excellent news for the prying art historian!

 Also this week: Attended a number of events from the student arts festival, Mudfest, including a (deliberately) disorientating and slightly traumatic performance called Blindness, based on Jose Saramago’s novel of the same name.

First days in Melbourne - 20-08-2013

My first four days in Melbourne have been experienced as a series of introductions: to the city, the University, and to some of the staff that I’m going to be working with over the coming weeks. Each continues to add to my increasing sense of excitement and gratitude for the award. 

The facade of an old bank is preserved on campus, due to be
incorporated into the new architecture building
 for the second time
The day after my arrival in Melbourne happened to be the University’s Open Day, which presented a great opportunity to preview the campus and some it’s collections. I was immediately struck by a number of similarities between this campus and Birmingham’s. There is the same close juxtaposition of grand, nineteenth-century architecture against the more pragmatic modernist buildings, as well as striking examples of twenty-first century design - a physical manifestation of the fact that despite being built on historic foundations, both Universities are incredibly forward-thinking!

The same can be said of both Melbourne’s and Birmingham’s attitudes to their collections. They seem to share a concern that these historic collections be utilised today as well as preserved for the future. However, I have also been able to observe some differences between the ways that the two universities use and manage their holdings. For example, Melbourne is endowed with a fantastically well equipped and well staffed conservation department, which can be called upon to administer special attention to any objects, paintings or papers in need.  Another difference results from the fact that each of Melbourne’s thirty collections is run and managed separately, although they are  required to comply with university wide policy and minimum standards for their care,  and are all supported in this by the Cultural Collections team.

On the afternoon of my first day, we observed the British tradition of afternoon tea. It was wonderful to be introduced to a number of staff members who work with the collections in various ways. One of the things I have always found exciting about cultural collections, and in particular, those housed in universities, is that they often form a point around which a variety of different people, practices and approaches can meet and communicate. It seems that the projects I’m going to be working on whilst I’m in Melbourne will really see this in action.