Design & Decoration S02 ep15 : Gerard Vaughan, NGV Gallery,[Melbourne]
Interview with Gerard Vaughan
At Oxford University, where Vaughan researched a doctorate on neo-classical taste, he was offered a job in the vice-chancellor's office that turned into a $1 billion fund-raising campaign. It led to a job running the British Museum's development trust for five years from 1994, then the NGV top job, which has included opening a second complex, the Ian Potter Centre, at Federation Square in 2002. Despite being responsible for a collection that is already huge, with more than 70,000 artworks, and worth about $3.5 billion, Vaughan is eager to buy more. ''For the first 50 years [after the Alfred Felton bequest in 1904], we were one of the major acquiring institutions in the world,'' he says. But during the 1950s, the NGV's buying power declined as the bequest income stagnated under a conservative investment policy and prices shot up in the international art market. Now, with the support of private-sector philanthropy, Vaughan believes the NGV is again punching above its weight. ''We are regularly buying the kind of great masterpieces that were common in the early years of the Felton bequest.'' Indeed, one of his favourite quotes about the importance of money comes from the diary of Fenton, the wealthy Melbourne entrepreneur whose bequest has bought more than 15,000 of the NGV's works: ''Money? What's the point? Get it spent, do something useful.''
Vaughan: We do tend to organise ourselves more and more like a great corporation but at the end
of the day we do have to keep reminding ourselves that we are a not for profit arts agency.
Vaughan: I went to university, I read them all and I studied art history on the side and gradually, as
time went on, I became very absorbed, almost obsessed, with the art history and made a decision to
switch and I went into the world of art history into academia. I had a long, a very long spell, 12
years in fact overseas at Oxford, having taught at the University of Melbourne.
What exactly were you doing in Oxford?
Vaughan: I did my Doctorate.
Vaughan: I mean every period has a you know, you talk about the Battle of the Styles, in fact the
whole history of taste and culture is about that very process of one thing you know succeeding
another and the challenges that are made. Then of course there was the local art market and what
people admired and bought, and that tended to be conservative painting, very much the style
promoted by the National Gallery of Victoria because we had our own School of Art from the
1860’s right through until the 1990’s when it shifted across to the Victorian College of the Arts,
but the dominant style of the National Gallery School and generations of artists were trained in this
style, through much of the 20th Century was a kind of tonal realism, and then Eric Westbrook
arrived who was the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, he came in ’56, I became very
aware of him just over a decade later when I was a schoolboy, Westbrook was a big figure in
Melbourne and in 1968 this building here, in St Kilda Road, opened, it was a big event for
Australia. There was a huge debate about what the opening exhibition should be, should it be a
kind of general survey of Australian art, should it be the Heidelberg School, maybe an Arthur
Streeton an exclusive exhibition about Sir Arthur Streeton? But Eric Westbrook in fact decided to
have an extraordinary exhibition called The Field and it was a group of
Vaughan: The Field, The Field, and what it was, it was a group of young Australian artists who for
the first time since this institution and the Art School here had been established, everybody when
they went overseas went to Europe and they went to Paris and they went to London and suddenly
by the end of the 1960’s you have the first group of young Australians who had headed off to New
York and they were absorbing the principals of the New York School, and this is colour filled
painting, this is abstract expressionism, this is that minimalism look. And you had a whole
generation of very young Australian artists who really knocked the socks off the Melbourne public
because people couldn’t understand this art. This was the first time Melbourne had confronted the
New York School and the recent 1960’s manifestations of that, a lot of people thought it was
rubbish, not what Australian art was all about, there were all sorts of you know xenophobic sort of
attitudes because you know a good Australian painting must have a gum tree in it and that kind of
thing. But it’s now gone down as a kind of an iconic exhibition because it made a point, that the
young, the bright young artists were now going to New York.
Vaughan: My first year at university in ’72 a very bright young Australian had just come back after
spending a number of years in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, and he gave some riveting
lectures on contemporary American painting, absolutely enthralling. His name’s Patrick
McCaughey and he went on later to become the Director of this institution. So he again, with Eric
Westbrook, having the courage to actually introduce this kind of art with McCaughey then in the
early to mid 70’s at the University teaching contemporary American art as opposed to a lot of
other things, I think that there was a bit of a shift in taste and Melbourne was beginning to wake up
and realise that other things were happening.
Vaughan: Some of the great collectors of contemporary art are absolutely cutting edge, so I don’t
want to over-emphasise that point, think of Sacci collection, here is a person, a leading figure in
the British, you know the British business world.
Yeah but isn’t that ironic that an advertising agency promotes artists.
Vaughan: And what is new.
Yeah and also, in some respects
Vaughan: And creates reputations is what you’re trying to say.
See this is where the whole notion of art … changing.
Vaughan: Can I tell you something, time fixes everything and I think that’s really important and I
can think back, I don’t want to mention any names but I can think back to the 70’s and the 80’s and
the 90’s and I lived in Britain through the 80’s and 90’s and I can think of the really hot artists,
some of them whose exhibitions were instantly sold out in London, you know the day before the
opening party who have pretty much dive bombed and we don’t really know who they are any
more, we’ve forgotten them. And other people, who we didn’t know much about at the time with a
couple of decade’s perspective, we’re beginning to realise were extremely interesting and were
doing things that we didn’t really know about.
Vaughan: In the Australian context, the National Gallery of Victoria must be the pre-eminent
collection. We’re the oldest collection in Australia, there’s no doubt about that, we were founded
in 1861 and in 1904 we acquired the F… Bequest and that was a very wealthy businessman in
Melbourne who died and left a great fortune, half of the income went to charity, worthy charities
to do with women and children, and half was available to this institution for the purchase of works
What sort of money are we talking about?
Vaughan: Well we’re talking about a capital sum of £380,000 but the interest on that
When was this?
Vaughan: Back in 1904, that was a huge sum of money, that’s the equivalent today of maybe
$100M or more and what it meant was that in those, in the 1910’s, the 1920’s and 1930’s and 40’s,
up to the 50’s really, when it began to decline, but in those decades we were like the Getty is
today, because we would go and outbid the great museums of Europe, we would outbid the London
National Gallery, we would outbid the Wrights Museum, they wanted to buy our early Rembrandt,
but we had more money.
Vaughan: One of the reasons for having a museum and in our case a museum of art, is that we can
tell the history of art and the story of art and therefore I think that the great moments in the history
of art do need to be told.
Vaughan: It just so happens that as an Art Historian, I have dedicated my life to unfashionable
artists and one of the things we can do with limited budgets is buy the very best art that we can
find that is credible in an art historical sense, that at a moment in time happens to be
unfashionable. We’ve just bought a late 14th Century Italian painting, a Madonna and Child with
sets of exceptional quality, I believe that early Italian painting relative to the value of other
schools of art, at this moment, relatively, is at the lowest it’s been in maybe 100 years. We’re
doing the same for antiquities, the Greek and Roman antiquities, I believe that the relativities as
such that Greek and Roman art is at the cheapest it’s been for a very, very long time. And the other
great gap we’re trying to fill, and it’s a taste gap, is we’re buying great 19th Century French
Vaughan: Art is visual culture, in other words it is something that you can see that has been made
by man, so it’s a product of mankind whether it’s prehistoric, you know a 50,000 year old
aboriginal rock painting up in the Kimberleys for me is art.
Why is it that one picture is a piece of art, and another picture is just background colour?
Vaughan: Well it’s to do with the artistic intent I suppose and you know it’s easy to make those
judgements once you get to the 19th Century. Because once you get to the 19th Century we have the
romantic concept of the artist as genius, people chose to be artists, to suffer, to create, to live in
garrets, to cut their ears off and all that stuff, but you know before that and even after the
Renaissance, a lot of people we would talk today, think of as great artists, they were more artisans
than artists, these were people, these were craftspeople.
Vaughan: We have many objects and items, particularly objects, in this museum that of course we
say they’re art, because they are displayed in a museum of art and so we’re reading the whole
intellectual and aesthetic apparatus of defining a work of art to it and yet the people who made
these objects would never have thought of them as fine art or high art, many of them are practical
utilitarian objects that had to be there to get through the day. Whether it’s the sip gong from … in
Vanuatu, this amazing sort of oceanic object which for me has powerful aesthetic values, but you
know the person who made it was just making another drum you know for a whole ritual sort of
approach in a particular village on a particular island in the Pacific.
What would freak you out is when you put something out there and people just get it, they feel it,
they don’t just look at it. Is that
Vaughan: Well the impressionist exhibition last year, I think there were moments of epiphany for a
lot of very ordinary people who normally wouldn’t come into an exhibition and who wouldn’t look
at art, because of almost the abstracting qualities of impressionism, post-impressionism, the
strength of the colour for example, the way light is used by the artist, I did find that very
interesting watching people who clearly are not used to going into museums standing transfixed in
front of something like Van Gogh’s Starry Night or you know a great Monet landscape or whatever
it might be. That happens less with the Dutch Masters exhibition because it’s a different style, a
different approach and these paintings are much more documents of a society and a moment in
history in fact.
Vaughan: We had this very debate when we were in the lead up to the reopening of this building.
What will we give the Melbourne public in the first year of operating of being opened after four
and a half years of closure? We decided that the opening exhibition should be absolutely
contemporary, a kind of homage to that Field exhibition of 1968 when the building opened, so that
we could establish our credentials, our street cred, that this is an institution, yes we have these
great historic collections, but we are interested in culture now, in art now, in what is happening.
And so we had an exhibition called World Rush, and we invited four fairly young but very
significant international artists, already with great reputations, a couple of them working in video
for example, to participate in this exhibition.
But who were they?
Vaughan: Well Sarah Zee who’s an American artist living in New York and we actually acquired
the work that she produced. Li Bull, a Korean artist who makes sculptures and three dimensional
objects but in an amazing way, and again you’re so blown away by her installation for Melbourne
that we purchased it, we had to save up and raise the money, but we purchased it. Doug Aitken
who is a video artist in fact, California based, and Analisa Artevo who was again mainly a video
artist who was Finnish, but again who has a very big international reputations. And one of the
conditions was that all the artists should come to Melbourne and they should actually install their
work and be available to meet artists in Melbourne to talk to the press.
Vaughan: At the same time, we did an exhibition on Mario Bellini, the architect of our building, it
was a kind of multi media show, everything you see around you here, this is one of Bellini’s
greatest works. We’re sitting on Bellini chairs, this is a Bellini table, Bellini designed this room.
How do you get on with artists?
Vaughan: I really like it in fact and it’s one of the best parts of my job to actually know both major
contemporary artists in Australia, but also as many overseas as we can manage to meet and get to
know and particularly when they’re visiting Australia, we like to invite them in and
Well how do you actually meet the artist? Is it through exhibitions in other galleries that you hear
about them and you contact them or
Vaughan: Yeah, I mean if we have an interest in buying a work of a particular artist, then it’s not
such a difficult thing in fact to meet them and get in touch with them through their dealers. A good
example for me, it was very interesting, one of the great contemporary British abstract artists or
essentially abstract not exclusively, is Howard Hodgkin. Now the very first work I bought after,
major work, after arriving here at the NGV was a Howard Hodgkin and I bought it through his
dealer in London Anthony Dofey and he said look if you need to meet Howard, come and visit the
studio you can talk about this painting, see some others and whatever, and it was quite bizarre
because I went to his studio and found that the door to his studio was less than 100 yards from the
office I inhabited in London for six years. I’d walked past 10,000 times and had not idea behind
that door, this office at the British Museum was the studio of one of the world’s most important
Vaughan: One of the comments that the Director of the Wrights Museum made to me on the night
of the opening of the exhibition, there was a huge crowd here in the National Gallery of Victoria,
and we wandered through this great surging crowd meeting lots of people, I introduced him to
them, but he said to me afterwards, he said, do you realise that you’ve just introduced me to at
least a dozen people and you described them as this is one of Australia’s greatest print makers, one
of Australia’s greatest sculptors and he said that never happens in my museum because practising
artists don’t come and we don’t know them in the way that you know them because in Holland
other institutions look after contemporary art, which is quite proper, the Wrights Museum does old
master painting and he said he found it tremendously refreshing, that here was an institution that
had great Rembrandts in our permanent collection and a lot of other great 17th Century Dutchmen
and things and out of every period, but he said that he rather envied the engagement that we had an
institution and that I had, as a Director of the NGV, with all of the artists who are sort of making
their contribution to the contemporary scene.
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Gerard Vaughan, NGV Gallery, Melbourne