The University of Wollongong Art Collection (UOWAC) is a much-loved part of the fabric of the University, enhancing and challenging the natural and built environment. Nearly five decades into its development, Jen Waters finds it has reached a critical point in size and significance.
Across UOW’s many campuses, art is infused in the everyday; it is an anchor, a reflection and a conversation point. From Bert Flugelman’s iconic sculpture Gateway to Mount Keira, which provides a unique entryway to the main campus and a leaning post for students meeting between classes, to the paintings, sculptures and works on paper that adorn the walls and corridors of almost every building on campus, art is deeply embedded in UOW’s environment and culture.
While many other universities and public institutions have developed strong art collections, few could claim the level of accessibility enjoyed at UOW; at any given time around 80 per cent of the collection’s 5000 works are on display, in contrast to the one or two per cent seen in most public collections. Professor Amanda Lawson, who has been director of UOWAC since 2005, says this unusual accessibility, evident from the very beginnings of the collection, underpins the affinity and affection it engenders.
“Because we don’t have a permanent gallery space, we operate on a different model to many other university collections, and UOW is unusually committed to having art widely on display across all its campuses,” explains Prof Lawson.
“It’s almost a concept of a dispersed gallery. In some areas, we’ll have a selection of works that might relate to some of the teaching themes of that area; for example, in the corridors of the law school you’ll see a number of works that deal with issues like Aboriginal land rights and other socio-legal contexts. In other cases it might be about what works aesthetically in a space.
The UOWAC began in the late 1970s through a combination of acquisition opportunities and unsolicited but welcome gifts, and a concerted focus on accumulating interesting work produced by graduating students. Formalised in the late 1980s, the collection grew in scale and significance under founding director John Eveleigh. Prodigious Australian artist Guy Warren took over the directorial reins in 1992, and in the ensuing 14 years played an instrumental role in shaping and professionalising the collection.
“Guy Warren opened up a lot of doors, because he was such a well-connected and unique person in the art world,” recalls Prof Lawson. “He had a great passion for works on paper, and this established a strong foundation for growing major specialisations in this area.”
Today, the multimillion-dollar UOWAC has an astonishing breadth and diversity; it is of national and international significance, and aspects of its holdings rival those of major Australian galleries. Although there are certainly some star pieces and influential artists represented – among them Lloyd Rees, James Gleeson, Judy Watson and Emily Kngwarreye – Prof Lawson says that the collection’s core strength lies in the combination of works in some key areas, including in its remarkable collection of more than 2000 Indigenous works on paper.
“The Aboriginal works on paper collection reflects some very important presses, and certainly there is some rarity within this sub-collection. Another strength is posters that are not widely available elsewhere. In particular, the late Michael Callaghan – who founded the influential Wollongong-based Redback Graphix artists’ initiative – made some major gifts of political posters and screenprints with a very strong and unusual aesthetic, and these works are of national and indeed international significance.”
Warren began building the collection of Indigenous works on paper in earnest in 1998 while visiting master printer Basil Hall at the Northern Editions print workshop in Darwin. Glenn Barkley, who served as curator of the UOW Art Collection between 1996 and 2008, took up the mantle, forging links with master printers and Indigenous artists including Franck Gohier of Redhand Print. The strength and prominence of the collection grew.
A considerable gift by Melbourne scientist and collector Dr Douglas Kagi in 2004, comprising 70 prints by eminent mid-20th century English artists with a combined value of around $200,000, established another key specialisation of the collection. The gift included works by the likes of Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake and Paula Rego, and according to Barkley it marked a transition to the international sphere.
It is a key asset and resource for the University, and a distinctive part of our identity.
“We had something that was very national, very much an Australian collection of works on paper,” he recalls. “When that gift came in with such an important collection, it provided a window into an international world. Guy made a trip to the UK soon after and purchased a number of works to extend the collection, and suddenly we were collecting internationally.
“A gift like that is generous, not just in the artworks themselves but also in the sort of opportunities that it creates. The whole landscape of what you’re doing changes completely.”
Connection to the Illawarra and UOW is another major theme of the collection. This aspect of the collection includes works by artists who live and/or work in the Illawarra, and works that reflect the region’s distinctive landscape and rich history, from John Eveleigh’s Wollongong Steel Works BHP to Frank Nowlan’s exploration of Indigenous land rights issues in Thirroul Sub-Division. Staff past and present are also represented, including the unique textiles of Emeritus Professor Diana Wood Conroy and the photography of Dr Jacky Redgate and Associate Professor Derek Kreckler.
As the campus continues to expand, so too does UOWAC’s role in shaping the University’s identity through making art accessible. Acquiring and commissioning artworks has become an integral part of campus development; for example, in planning Building 24, a three-storey teaching facility opened in 2011, then curator Phillippa Webb oversaw the commissioning of three disparate Australian artists – Sydney painter Paul Gilsenan, Adelaide glass artist Tom Moore, and Melbourne street artist Yvette Bacina, known as ‘Vexta’ – to create site-specific works that respond to and enhance each level. The result is a building that tells three very different and striking stories through its art.
With UOWAC at a pivotal stage in its size and significance, Prof Lawson says that there is a real tension point in ensuring optimal care of precious works while maintaining accessibility.
“That’s really the biggest challenge: how we balance the place that the collection has in the University community with the important functions of conservation and documentation, and with the possibilities for using it more intensively in our research and teaching,” she says. “It is a key asset and resource for the University, and a distinctive part of our identity.”
Artworks from top:
Gateway to Mount Keira
1985 | stainless steel | 8 x 4m | Gift of the artist, 1987
Wollongong Steel Works BHP
c. 1986 | charcoal on paper | 57 x 76.5cm
Michael Callaghan and Mary Callaghan
1981 | screenprint | 86 x 65cm |purchased 2006
2005 | oil on canvas | 25.5 x 30cm | Purchased 2005
Diana Wood Conroy
Naming: Lake Mungo
2000 | linen, tapestry, with gouache and gesso | on canvas |120 x 120cm | Gift of the artist, through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2010
Prof Amanda Lawson
Bachelor of Arts (Hons) (English), 1993
Bachelor of Creative Arts (Visual Arts & Design), 1993