ART Gallery of Ballarat Director Gordon Morrison will have almost 12 months to plan leisure activities after he announced his retirement last week, which will begin in June, next year.
Cr Mark Harris, Chair of the Gallery Board and Deputy Mayor of Ballarat said Mr Morrison had spoken about retirement, so the official announcement did not come as a surprise. “Council would have liked for him to stay longer but we now have to look far and wide for a new Director,” he said. “Gordon’s time here, and certainly in my own estimation, has increased
the vibrancy in the gallery. “I think the best thing he has done is the space is more vibrant, the schools program is fantastic and the coffee place out front is buzzing.”
Gordon took up his post in the Ballarat gallery in 2004, coming from the National Gallery of Victoria. Gordon speaks candidly about the changes he initially tried to implement. “I came in thinking I’ll just come in and wave my magic wand and it will be free entry in the next week and how naïve was I because I didn’t realise how complex the funding, revenue, the relationship with the Gallery Association was,” he said. He credits that free entry with a significant rise in visitor numbers over the years.
“In my first year there were about 44, 500 visitors and this year it looks like we will top 230,000. Being free entry means people don’t feel like they are making this very, very special holy trip to the altar of art, it means you do it on a more casual basis,” he said. “Rate payers don’t pay for the art but they do pay for the upkeep of the building and the salaries of the people who make this extraordinary collection interpreted and look after it and there should be a sense of ownership, which involves just being able to walk straight in. “That being said once you have got free entry you can add to the equation the occasional paid show, which will be something a little more special.” The other change was dropping the word ‘Fine’. “We were the Fine Art Gallery and that was something that I felt strongly about. Fine Art was a very specific technical term, a term that meant paint ings, sculpture and drawings, as against pottery or glassware or fashion, or what have you,” Gordon explained.
That original meaning had been lost and people started to think, really over the last 50 years, that fine art meant something a little bit snobby, a bit ‘Toorak Private Gallery’ connotation ,which we didn’t want to be radiating, and we collect a whole lot of things that aren’t technically fine art.”
Mr Morrison feels the gallery is ‘extraordinary’ is quite rightly proud of what is housed within its walls.
“Some would call it a burden but it’s also a privilege,” he said.
“It’s always been an extraordinarily high quality collection and you can’t let the team down by departing from that. It’s kind of an inheritance that we have and the thought that a city with just over 100,000 people have instant free access to a collection that would be the envy of many state galleries – this collection is bigger than Hobart, its bigger than Perth, we are up there in the top 5 or 6 of Australian collections in the country.”
During his time at the gallery Gordon has ‘beefed up’ the indigenous collection and added other notable pieces.
“I have always been conscious of the fact that although we have reasonable funds for acquisitions, they are not endless and I had to become quite canny,” he said. It is hard for Gordon to pick a ‘best’ art work that he has brought into the collection, nominating a social realism collection from the 30s and 40s and a collection of Australian cartoons amongst the lot. The other coup was bringing the Archibald Prize to Ballarat.
“I knew people at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, including the person who manages the exhibition program, pretty well and I spoke to her within a couple of years of coming here and said if in the time it was possible for the Archie’s to come to Ballarat we would be incredibly delighted,” Gordon explained.
“Last year we actually acquired two paintings from the Archibald and you won’t actually see them on the walls until September when last year’s Archibald finishes its tour one came as a gift and the other was purchased as a bequest.” The housing of the Eureka Flag at MADE (Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka) was also done in Gordon’s time.
“We absolutely feel the way the flag is displayed there is beautiful and probably presented better than it was here but the gallery remains its custodians,” he said.
“The gallery has a key responsibility to ensure the flag is carefully looked after and we also retain a responsibility to collect imagery that relates to the Eureka story and I can assure everybody that we’ve been absolutely assiduous in continuing to collect historical images and we will continue to do that.”
As for his own art Gordon laughs when asked whether he ‘dabbles’ and says, “I have painted icons in the past and I might do a little of that when I retire, but I call that more an intellectual exercise, more than trying to be a great artist – that’s for me to learn more about the process of art I’m making, I describe more intellectual than emotional.”
Now that he has decided to move on Gordon reflects on his time as Director. “The old cliché about never a dull moment certainly applies,” he said. “I can’t say enough how much a privilege it has been to work here because it is one of Australia’s great collections but when you are custodian of a collection like this you get an opportunity to mold its direction.
“I have had an extraordinary wonderful team of people to work with over that time, some really, really talented people; people who can do extraordinary things have contributed to how the gallery is today. “If there is one thing I would say to the public – use it.”
Retirement will bring time to spend in Cape Otway and his garden. “I have some wonderful soil in my place in Mount Pleasant so I am planning on doing a lot of gardening still. I love cold climate gardening and you certainly get plenty of that in Ballarat,” he laughed. “I thank the people of Ballarat for allowing me to be the custodian of your collection.”