MORE THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS: A DECADE OF WYNDHAM ART GALLERY
It feels slightly crass to reduce an art gallery to an essence. Especially an institution that has shown such a diversity of work over a decade of exhibitions. Yet, if an algorithm did exist that could distil the tenor of Wyndham Art Gallery into a soundbite, the chances are it would emphasise community, diversity, and a kind of art practice distinctly underwhelmed by the status quo. While these imperatives are very much key drivers of the Wyndham Art Gallery curatorial program, they are not in themselves remarkable. You could mount an argument that this approach is slightly atypical for an outer suburban/regional council-run art gallery, but community and diversity have become staple drivers of local government cultural policy the world over. The soundbite rings true, but it’s missing that ingredient X – the complex layers, both tangible and intangible, which have given Wyndham Art Gallery it’s genuinely unique flavour.
In trying to put a finger on what makes the gallery so special – and get many more to broadcast this statement with some clarity: ‘Wyndham Art Gallery is a jewel in the Australian arts ecology’ – I would speculate that the curators in tandem with the cultural managers have collectively found an audacious recipe that drills much deeper into the rhetoric of ‘community engagement’ and the need for diversity. They have built a method for exhibition-making that brings together a commitment to radical alterity or difference and an ethos that art should function as an instrument for change, while never losing sight of the diversity of riches manifest in contemporary art aesthetics. Local artists (and art-interested folk) have always been front-and-centre at the very heart of this approach. With the courage of their convictions, the gallery has forged a vision that is less popular or populist in orientation and instead predicated on the idea that local audiences want to be challenged, nudged or coaxed in unexpected ways. It is a delicious paradox that this strategy has proven to be as popular as it has.
This is not a straightforward standpoint to instigate, let alone sustain, for more than a decade, but the energy and urgency of the exhibition program has simply never let-up. Even a cursory glance across the assorted projects from the last ten years points to a key factor in the gallery’s importance not just to the City of Wyndham, but regionally and nationally. Stated simply, the gallery has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to tap into the key issues of our time and to frame these issues in complex, thought-provoking and stimulating ways.
Fundamental to this is the representation of different voices – artists who, for one reason or another, were not visible in the wider Melbourne art scene; at Wyndham Art Gallery, they have been given a supportive platform to show their work. A sequence of four exhibitions from 2014, for example, begins with South African artist Zanele Muholi’s photographic and video examinations of the realities of LGBTI life in Africa, VISUAL ACTIVISM. Followed by FONOFALE, the sculptural works of Samoan born Fono McCarthy. Next was a show by Eritrean-born Michael Adonai who showed paintings that depicted his life as a freedom fighter in the war with Ethiopia; this was followed by PATTERNS OF LIFE, an exhibition of contemporary woven tapestries by Karen refugee women. These four exhibitions each showed us a remarkably different perspective of what we might understand as Australian art. That this felt significant is both a testimony to the curatorial vision of Maree Clarke and megan evans and a reflection on other galleries that are simply less committed to showcasing these perspectives.
Alongside the gallery’s commitment to new voices is a sustained and complex focus on Indigenous art, bringing to the fore both local and national practitioners in a mixture of solo and group exhibitions. Beginning with RESPECT 2011, featuring artists based in Melbourne’s west, the gallery has presented emerging, mid-career and senior artists including Julie Gough, Brian Martin and Vicki West over the last decade. For many artists, especially those emerging, the Wyndham Art Gallery shows have been springboards to greater prominence. These shows have been buttressed by a series of landmark exhibitions such as the RACE exhibition and its important public forum, the landmark showing of STOLEN/WEALTH 2018 and, more recently, TREATY 2021, curated by Paola Balla, featuring six artists for whom sovereignty is fundamental to their creative practices.
In addition to these complex thematically focused exhibitions, the gallery founded the Wyndham Art Prize in 2015, open to artists across Australia. While attracting leading practitioners from around the country to submit their work, the prize was especially clever in linking national artists to local artists, and exhibiting their work side by side. In addition to the main prize, the gallery instigated the Local Emerging Art Prize for local artists. This has recently been expanded to include TREAT, a prize for a temporary public artwork that creates opportunities for social engagement through a diversity of potential gallery and public outcomes, while supporting a broad range of artistic practices. Although it may seem obvious, the evolution of the Wyndham Art Prize points to the care with which the gallery has sought to bring together local and national practices and position them in equal dialogue.
This commitment to taking art outside the gallery and into the community highlights Wyndham Art Gallery’s role as an incubator for ideas, as a hub from which interesting ideas can spin out into unexpected locations. The TREATMENT project, co-conceived by the gallery and Deakin University, is an example of a place-based art project that seeks to commission artworks in response to unique locations and people and demonstrate the role that art can play in building local knowledge and shifting perceptions. Located at the Western Treatment Plant in Werribee, Melbourne, two previous iterations of this project 2015 and 2017 and the forthcoming 2022 version, have and will, reconfigure the negative associations of the plant as ‘the poo farm’ and pointed to the remarkable ecology, sustainable technologies and extraordinary cultural history of the 10,000-hectare civic facility. Including a forthcoming edition in 2022, around thirty artists will have been commissioned to make new contemporary artworks across a range of sites at the plant, all of which seek to draw local and regional audiences to reflect on, marvel at, even celebrate this remarkable, if misunderstood, place.
Considering the impact of Wyndham Art Gallery and its reputation as an important institution within the Australian art world, it’s hard to believe it has only been a decade in the making. In such a short time, the gallery has developed a leading profile built on a combination of quality, diversity and – perhaps just as importantly – audacious programming. Indeed, the ethos that artists should be encouraged to push the envelope, speak truth to power and push the outer limits of creative expression has driven the gallery’s success. Even more than this, the gallery is committed to its community in a profound and powerful way. It aims to give voice to the stunning diversity that is the Wyndham demographic and to make art a powerful force for building and sustaining community resilience.