University art exhibitions are the home of the brave, review finds

Emilee Geist

“Our exhibitions are very much ideas-driven, spaces to explore things that are not necessarily front of mind for our public and regional galleries. Universities are places of ideas, scholarship, pushing boundaries, new knowledge. That is the realm in which we are operating; we need to be brave.” The Chau Chak […]

“Our exhibitions are very much ideas-driven, spaces to explore things that are not necessarily front of mind for our public and regional galleries. Universities are places of ideas, scholarship, pushing boundaries, new knowledge. That is the realm in which we are operating; we need to be brave.”

The Chau Chak Wing Museum at The University of Sydney brings together three collections of art and antiquities.

The Chau Chak Wing Museum at The University of Sydney brings together three collections of art and antiquities.Credit:Anthony Fretwell

Salmon argues university art museums often feature work by artists who haven’t otherwise been represented, including women (especially those mid-career) and Indigenous artists.

Thanks to their setting, they can also invest and investigate across disciplines. Art is used to explore and develop empathy in medical students, for example, as well as broader health sciences programs.

It is also used to help develop observation skills in students. At Flinders, contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander works are used to explore the settler experience and the impact of colonialism. Reading about frontier topics involves unsettling, difficult subject matter, she says.

“Looking at it through artwork is more powerful because the subject matter can be broken down in ways that are more compelling, [including] the role of the artist’s hand. There’s something there that’s very powerful about the very act of engaging with the visual stimulus.”

Fiona Salmon, director of Flinders University Museum of Art and outgoing chair of UAMA.

Fiona Salmon, director of Flinders University Museum of Art and outgoing chair of UAMA.Credit:Brianna Speight

Significant investment in university art museums is under way at several campuses around the country. A new, dedicated gallery space at the University of Wollongong opens on Wednesday, part of a four-storey, multi-purpose creative arts and social sciences building.

In November, the massive Chau Chak Wing Museum will open at Sydney University. Over four levels at the Camperdown campus, it will bring the university’s three collections under one roof, housing 8000 historical and contemporary works and tripling previous exhibition space.

In Darwin, the Charles Darwin University Art Gallery will move to a purpose-built ground floor space at the university’s new city campus. In the early stages of development, the new gallery is scheduled to open in 2024.

Having served four years (two terms) as chair of UAMA, Salmon stepped down last week and Angela Goddard, director at Griffith University Art Museum, was elected. The organisation meets twice a year.

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According to the Australian Public Galleries Snapshot 2020, the estimated total number of works at university museums and galleries represents 30 per cent of art collections held in Australia’s small-to-medium gallery sector.

At this point, the impact of COVID-19 on the sector is unknown.

“Universities are reviewing their budgets, some experiencing greater challenges than others, and we need to wait and see what that means for university art museums,” says Salmon. “We need to be prepared for potential change.”

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