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Art of the country

It may be Australia’s cultural hub, but beyond Melbourne’s city limits lies a vibrant and flourishing arts scene, where regional Victorian galleries are pulling off big creative coups and nurturing unbridled originality, writes Gabriella Coslovich.

By Gabriella Coslovich
Melbourne is often described as Australia's arts capital, the heart of all things cultural. But that status is now being challenged: from the gold-rush towns of the Western District, to the coastal expanses of the Mornington Peninsula in the east, the rolling hills of the Yarra Valley, even to far-flung Gippsland, a new breed of gallery directors is proving that regional need not mean tame, traditional and unassuming.
Today, Victoria's network of 20 regional galleries collectively hold more than $300 million worth of art. In the past 10 years their steady growth has become a surge, driven by enterprising directors, willing audiences, art-loving philanthropists, and state and local governments attuned to the social and economic benefits of cultural tourism.
This renaissance has been in large part led by the 126-year-old Bendigo Art Gallery. Under a succession of talented directors, backed by a keen local council and with state government support, it has shown the extent of what is possible. The gallery's now famed fashion extravaganzas prompted the sort of round-the-block queues that are usually the preserve of big-city museums and art festivals.
"Increasingly, local councils and communities are realising the potential of galleries to attract cultural tourism and all the benefits it brings to local business," says Victorian minister for the arts, Heidi Victoria. "Bendigo has obviously been at the forefront of this."
Philanthropists have also been integral to the boom, constructing ambitious new galleries such as the Yarra Valley's Allan Powell-designed TarraWarra Museum of Art. The publicly owned and privately funded gallery opened in 2003, a gift of retail giants Marc and Eva Besen, who also donated the museum's permanent collection of Australian art from the 1950s to today - a gesture worth $25 million in total. Director Victoria Lynn is marking the museum's 10th anniversary by launching the inaugural TarraWarra International, showing the work of contemporary Australian artists alongside that of their international peers. The first of these shows, Animate/Inanimate, runs until 6 October and explores the effects of global economic and climatic change on our natural environments.
The year 2003 was also when the Mornington Peninsula's McClelland Gallery + Sculpture Park launched Australia's most important and lucrative outdoor sculpture prize, the biennial McClelland Sculpture Survey and Award, with $195,000 in prize money, of which $100,000 goes to the winner. Finalists' works are exhibited in the park, with the next sculpture survey scheduled for November 2014.
Smaller-scale initiatives, such as the privately run annual Montalto Sculpture Prize, also launched in 2003 by Montalto Vineyard & Olive Grove on the Mornington Peninsula, have ensured cultural tourism is the glittering thread in the fabric of regional Victoria. In 10 years, owners John and Wendy Mitchell have increased the prize money from $8000 to $30,000, and their property is dotted with winning sculptures, as well as others that took their fancy, such as Roh Singh's 2011 By the Night's Sky (Constellation), a dreamy light installation of a rowboat that flickers to life at dusk.
While the past decade has seen a flurry of regional cultural activity, Bendigo Art Gallery was aiming high back in 1997 under director Tony Ellwood, who now heads the National Gallery of Victoria. Ellwood made it his mission to quash stereotypes about the regions: he oversaw a multimilliondollar redevelopment of the gallery by renowned Melbourne architects Fender Katsilidis, and began to collect art and program exhibitions with a daring and contemporary edge.
But it was Ellwood's successor, Karen Quinlan, who raised Bendigo's profile to stratospheric heights. Quinlan flew to London and persuaded the Victoria and Albert Museum to choose Bendigo as the exclusive Australian site for the fashion show The Golden Age of Couture: Paris & London 1947-1957, opened in 2008.
"When I think about it, it was very courageous of me. Who has ever heard of Bendigo?" Quinlan says.
Her courage cemented Bendigo's place on the cultural map. The three-month exhibition attracted more than 75,000 visitors. Quinlan followed that coup with another V&A fashion spectacular, 2011's The White Wedding Dress: 200 Years of Wedding Fashion (also seen by similar numbers), and topped it with last year's Grace Kelly: Style Icon (also from the V&A), which drew 156,000 people and pumped $17 million into the local economy. (To put those numbers into perspective, in 2011-12 the neighbouring Art Gallery of Ballarat drew a total of 130,000 visitors for the entire year).
Bendigo Gallery's annual visitor numbers have leapt to more than 300,000 (up from 17,000 in 1995-96), prompting the need for a further $8.4 million expansion - with $3.77 million coming from the state, $3.62 million from the City of Greater Bendigo (which owns and operates the gallery), and the rest from fundraising.
"I talk at conferences and people want to know how Bendigo did it," says Quinlan. "There has been a realisation… that we don't have to sit quietly in the regional gallery sector and let the city take the attention."
Bendigo's next major exhibition, Modern Love: Fashion Visionaries from the FIDM Museum LA, opening 26 October, features the work of designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Miuccia Prada. Quinlan does not want Bendigo typecast as the "frock show" gallery, however.
Such is Bendigo's success that when the director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat, Gordon Morrison, travelled overseas in May, there were murmurs he was trying to emulate Quinlan and clinch a deal with a big-name London museum.
Not so, says Morrison. "The regional galleries are each following their own paths… We should not be clones of each other, nor should we be clones of metropolitan institutions… We are all doing it our own way, and let a hundred blossoms bloom is all I can say."
Morrison's analogy can't be incidental: Ballarat's most popular show last year was Capturing Flora: 300 Years of Australian Botanical Art, seen by almost 19,000 people. Next year's Auld Lang Syne: The Scots in Australia from First Fleet to Federation (12 April to end June) should also find a ready audience - one in five Australians have Scottish ancestry.
In November, Ballarat will, for the first time, host the Victorian Indigenous Art Awards, which seems fitting, given it was the first Victorian gallery to include an Aboriginal artwork in its collection - a watercolour by artist, storyteller and leader William Barak in 1932.
Small galleries such as the Gippsland Art Gallery in Sale are also punching impressively above their weight. Gippsland's home-grown show Nicholas Chevalier: Australian Odyssey, curated by the dynamic Simon Gregg, toured to the Geelong Art Gallery where it became that gallery's second most popular show of 2012, with 19,500 visitors. Gippsland's current show, New Horizons also curated by Gregg, is a survey of the past 10 years of landscape painting, featuring artists including Sam Leach, Stephen Bush, Kate Shaw and Tony Lloyd.
The Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery has forged a reputation for its intelligent, carefully curated shows, such as last year's Controversy, which explored art that has unsettled Australian audiences, from Jules Lefebvre's coy nudes to Juan Davila's not-so-coy statements on the treatment of refugees. The gallery's next major show, starting in December, is the second instalment of the popular Sea of Dreams exhibition, featuring artists whose works are closely associated with Port Phillip Bay, including Fred McCubbin, Arthur Streeton, Clarice Beckett and Sidney Nolan.
Even the freeways heading to the peninsula display works of art. The EastLink is home to enormous roadside sculptures, such as the modernist-inspired giant blackbird pecking at a big yellow worm by Emily Floyd, and Callum Morton's almost life-sized Hotel, which many mistake for the real thing. In another win for Australian sculptors, McClelland Gallery director Robert Lindsay has struck a partnership with Southern Way, manager of the new Peninsula Link freeway, to commission $250,000 sculptures every two years for the next 25 years, to be displayed at the exit points near the McClelland Gallery + Sculpture Park.
After their time on the freeway, the works become part of the McClelland Sculpture Park's permanent collection. Dean Colls's huge ram skull Rex Australis and Phil Price's futuristic Tree of Life are the first commissions on show on the Peninsula Link. "At the end of 25 years," says Lindsay, "there will be an ensemble of 14 works, which will be like a time capsule of the changing tastes of the first quarter of the century."
The sculptures will also be testament to a time when the critical mass of cultural activity moved irrevocably beyond the metropolitan boundary.