Comment: Dianne Dempsey

Funded by the rate payers of the City of Greater Bendigo, the Bendigo Art Gallery has flourished under the direction of Karen Quinlan.

Such has been her impact that within curatorial and regional gallery circles, her influence has been known as “the Bendigo Effect”Ms Quinlan’s successful policy has indelibly placed our gallery on the national and international arts map.

Blockbuster exhibitions which have been instrumental in establishing our gallery’s reputation include the The White Wedding Dress (2011), Grace Kelly (2012), the Golden Age of Couture (2009), two big fashion shows from LA and London (2014), Marilyn Monroe and Maticevski (2016), Edith Head (2017) as well as the current Marimekko exhibition.

The exhibitions have attracted thousands of tourists, the city’s coffers have overflowed and civic hearts have swelled with pride.

In the face of this success it’s hard to find fault, but the gallery’s program has not been without criticism, muted though it may be.

Fearful of going against the tide of popular opinion, criticism has largely been expressed at clandestine dinners in underground bunkers, where artists living and working in the region have been commenting for several years that the gallery’s focus on fashion and related memorabilia is at the expense of other mediums, other artists and more adventuresome horizons.

In this context the gallery has been referred to as “the frock shop” and Ms Quinlan “the material girl”.

Ms Quinlan herself holds firm to an official line. “People are entitled to have an opinion,” she told the Weekly.

“The Bendigo Art Gallery is a collecting institution first and foremost and the care of its collection is the priority for Bendigo and the region.

“The City of Greater Bendigo has invested in the gallery over the past two decades and the gallery delivers a diverse exhibition schedule annually that targets exhibitions of local and international significance whilst highlighting the permanent collection, a collection of national significance.

“If you look at the exhibitions over the past two decades, even prior to 2008 (Golden Age of Couture) the curators have highlighted Australian art and International art exploring all media.”

When asked what her personal favourite was of the gallery’s exhibitions, Ms Quinlan’s response was a diplomatic “all of them”.

One of the few artists willing to go on the record for this piece was Woodvale resident Stanley Farley.

“I’m no strong critic of the gallery. What the gallery has achieved is excellent. I don’t mind the fashion, it gets people in one way or another.

“However I see an area which could be stronger. We’re a rural city, surrounded by native bush, agriculture. Apart from the colonial and goldrush eras, the gallery doesn’t reflect that ongoing historical progress. And a lot of people don’t find anything relevant in abstract and conceptual art – it doesn’t reflect their lives.

“The gallery could visit artists working in the region. Commission exhibitions that talk about a sense of place and have a broad emphasis of where we are .

“There is a suggestion that unless the art is done by a known name then it can’t be any good. Obviously our culture is different to the city but the Bendigo gallery doesn’t reflect that difference. In Europe a lot of galleries are proud of the people who work in their area and feature their art.

“The Going Solo program is excellent and each year provides a single central Victorian artist with the opportunity to be curated by the Bendigo Art Gallery.

“Perhaps we could see more of that type of support,” Mr Farley said.

Another local artist Steve Turpie offered a varied opinion pushing for more cutting edge work.

“We need to funk it up a bit. Have more energy. I think the pressure is on the LAI now to fill the gap,” he said.

“And I don’t think galleries should be beholden to public taste.

“Exhibitions should be challenging the status quo. I’m thinking for example of the Experimenta Playground exhibition which was run in 2009.

“I think our gallery could let some of the curators fly a little more.

“NGV director Tony Ellwood’s policy was to bring people into the gallery and then to challenge them,” Turpie added.

One Bendigo arts patron, Anne Power, referred to the gallery’s program as a “dilemma”.

“The gallery is obviously a phenomenal success and if you criticise the program you’re seen as a naysayer,” Ms Power said.

“I often take visitors to the fashion exhibitions who just love them, the latest Marimekko for example. Many of these visitors wouldn’t normally venture into a gallery.

“At the same time I would love to see more contemporary and local artists – I am always tantalised by what is there already. I would love to see more contemporary Australian artists – Brett Whitely for example.

“My other criticism is that I think the standard of the production of the fashion shows is not as good as it could be.

“We see the same display cases and sometimes, as in the Edith Head exhibition, the garments and memorabilia are distinctly under-whelming.”

Obviously the Bendigo gallery has hosted a plethora of exhibitions outside the fashion/celebrity category, however there is clearly a perception that the blockbusters have come at the expense of other artists, mediums and concepts.

Given Ms Quinlan is now the director of the recently restructured LAI (formerly the Visual Arts Centre) while maintaining her position as director of Bendigo Art Gallery, there can be no disputing her power as an arbiter of taste in Bendigo.

Ms Quinlan says she has not discussed selection criteria with critics of the gallery.

There is every reason however for her curatorial decisions to be open to opinion and discussion.

Indeed one would assume that feedback from our community, including regional practising artists, should be more than tolerated, but rather welcomed.