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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

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The story of us

by Penelope Grist, 19 January 2022

Marcia Langton
Marcia Langton, 2009 Brook Andrew, Trent Walter. © Brook Andrew

Almost 30 years ago, two young assistant curators from Melbourne sat next to each other on a plane flying to Canberra. Colleagues at the National Gallery of Victoria, one worked in the fashion and textile department, the other in international art. Their boss, James Mollison, had sent his junior curators on a professional development trip to check out the exhibitions at the National Gallery of Australia. Now directors of the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria respectively, Karen Quinlan am and Tony Ellwood am have been friends ever since.

Recently, I caught up with Karen and Tony via Zoom. Light filtered through the trees in the windows behind both Karen in her Canberra living room and Tony in his Melbourne kitchen. The length and warmth of their friendship defied the distance as they moved seamlessly and synchronously through all of my questions. When you catch up with an old friend, it is like no time has passed – something that is palpable even to an outside observer on a video conference.

The NPG’s curatorial team Joanna Gilmour, Rebecca Ray and I have been working on Who Are You: Australian Portraiture alongside the NGV’s curators including Sophie Gerhard, Dr Angela Hesson, David Hurlston, Hannah Presley, Beckett Rozentals and Myles Russell-Cook. Launching at the NGV in March before coming to Canberra, Who Are You is the biggest exhibition of Australian portraiture ever mounted by either institution, and the first time the two galleries have worked collaboratively on such a large-scale project. Featuring more than 200 works by Australian artists including Patricia Piccinini, Atong Atem, Nora Heysen, Howard Arkley and Tracey Moffatt, and featuring sitters such as Cate Blanchett, Albert Namatjira, Queen Elizabeth ii and Nicky Winmar, the exhibition will offer visitors an unprecedented insight into the genre and its place in Australian art history. I was intrigued to hear our directors’ recollections of how their story began and how it feels to bring this exhibition to fruition together.

1 Portrait of Cate Blanchett, 2008 David Rosetzky. © Commonwealth of Australia. 2 Adut, 2015 (printed 2019) from the Studio series Atong Atem. © Atong Atem, courtesy Mars Gallery, Melbourne. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2019.

After those early days at the NGV, Tony and Karen again worked together at Bendigo Art Gallery. ‘What really consolidated our working relationship and our respect and affection for each other was what we achieved during that time,’ Tony remembers. Their Bendigo team revolutionised the role of art in the community, growing the gallery’s impact, profile and attendance, engaging with artists, and redeveloping the building. They tell each other’s story from there: Karen narrates Tony’s transformative leadership of the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art and across several roles at the NGV, and his success in overseeing numerous record-breaking exhibitions that amplified these galleries’ prominence within local and global spheres. As his successor as director at Bendigo, Tony explains, Karen accomplished two more gallery redevelopments, multiple blockbuster exhibitions, and redefined what it meant to be a regional gallery director in Australia. Although following different paths over the ensuing decades, Tony and Karen never ceased to cheer each other on, finding inspiration and pride in the other’s achievements.

When Karen was appointed NPG Director in 2018, Tony immediately thought: ‘two phenomenal collections … Imagine what we could do together!’ He intimated that amid the tremendous flow of ideas that whirl ceaselessly within the NGV, this idea promised his team the excitement of a new collaboration. ‘Tony visited Canberra with a beautiful proposal under his arm,’ recalls Karen. ‘From there, we were able to build upon the ideas and start looking at our collection in a different way.’ Originally conceived with the working title ‘Seeing Ourselves’, as the concept evolved the title changed to mirror one of Brook Andrew’s works in the show.

As a curatorial team, we were lucky to fit in two in-person all-day meetings before late March 2020. We were already working across cities, collaborating over video conference, so it was, in some ways, the perfect exhibition to curate during a pandemic. Philanthropic funding had allowed the NGV to digitise much of their vast collection in recent years. Without high-quality electronic images to work with, the distance would have remained tyrannical. Both directors recognised the size disparity (the NPG has around 50 staff, the NGV has more than 300), but reflecting on their own institutional journeys, neither considered this a barrier to delivering a spectacular exhibition. For Tony, ‘it came down to quality of people and the teams, and … it just felt like a truly equal union’. Here, there is some vigorous nodding from Karen. ‘For us to be able to unite Canberra’s portraits and Melbourne’s portraits,’ reflects Tony, ‘it’s a unique moment-in-time, based on true friendship and trust.’

At this particular moment, as the country emerges from the lockdowns and separations unimaginable when this exhibition idea began, Karen considers that ‘the blending of these collections is very timely in terms of analysing Australian identity. I am excited about the content, really excited about the catalogue and the layout. And the themes are so strong’. Here, there is some vigorous nodding from Tony. The exhibitions’ themes deliberately churn chronology, media, conventional categories and collections. From a strong grounding in person and place to a recasting of icons and identities via an encounter with the artist, an inquiry into intimacy, and recognition of our inner worlds, the selected works juxtapose and complement each other.

‘What really matters in our sector,’ observes Tony, ‘is relationships above everything else. If there’s real honesty and trust, we can support each other and we can interpret collections and take opportunities that are otherwise unachievable.’ Karen agrees. ‘I think collaboration is the key in this world now. If we can work across collections and share the love, I think that’s going to go a long way to really pushing the visual language of Australia out there.’

In considering how visitors might respond to Who Are You, the directors speculate about the effect of combining two collections accumulated on such different curatorial rationales. Will visitors’ expectations in each city be shaped by the emphasis most familiar to them, on artist or sitter? The NPG collects work of identified sitters and actively tells the stories of Australian achievers through the best of Australian portraiture. Tony comments: ‘You straddle a very interesting agenda – fine art and beyond … I find that really stimulating and it reflects an honest and diverse representation of the country.’ The NGV collects exemplary work of Australian artists, including portraits, which may be of known or unknown sitters. Karen loves ‘that blending of the two approaches’ to portraiture in the exhibition.

1 Nick Cave, 1999 Howard Arkley. © Estate of Howard Arkley. Licensed by Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art. 2 Lauren, 2003 from the Lauren series Petrina Hicks . © Petrina Hicks. Courtesy of Michael Reid, Sydney; and This Is No Fantasy, Melbourne. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds arranged by Loti Smorgon for Contemporary Australian Photography, 2006.

And which works can they not wait to see within each other’s walls? The portrait of Marcia Langton by Brook Andrew for Tony. ‘That would be one of my all-time favourite pictures in Australia or anywhere … two such strong characters came together to do that work, and do it so successfully.’ Tony is also looking forward to seeing Nick Cave by Howard Arkley coming home to Melbourne, the artist’s and sitter’s city. For Karen, Lauren by Petrina Hicks, and Naomi Hobson’s portraits of Peter Liddy and Dallas Harold from her 2018 series A warrior without a weapon sprang to mind. It is fair to say, both of them are pretty thrilled about all of it!

1 Peter Liddy, 2018 from the A warrior without a weapon series. 2 Dallas Harold, 2018 from the A warrior without a weapon series. Both Naomi Hobson. © Naomi Hobson National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Linda Herd, 2019

I asked Karen and Tony what the two young curators sitting on the plane to Canberra in the early 1990s would have thought if they could hear this conversation now. After having a laugh at my admittedly corny question, Tony’s reply was: ‘I think we’d be very proud of each other’, and Karen’s: ‘You can never imagine what the future holds. I’m really so pleased that this is what happened, that this is the story of us.’


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