Transcript

Art at La Trobe

Vince Alessi
Email: v.alessi@latrobe.edu.au

Audio

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 12.5MB].

iTunes

Visit this channel at La Trobe on iTunesU.

Transcript

Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University Podcast with myself, Matt Smith. And joining me today is Dr. Vincent Alessi, artistic director of LUMA, the La Trobe University Museum of Art. Thank you for joining me, Vince.

Vince Alessi:

Thanks, Matt.

Matt Smith:

Tell me a bit about LUMA. When was it started here at La Trobe?

Vince Alessi:

La Trobe has the great honour of being, to my knowledge, the only Australian university that had an art collection before it had any buildings. And that was part of the original vision by our original master architect, Roy Simpson, who believed that if we were going to not only have students graduate with their qualification but actually leave the university as better citizens, that they actually should then study and live in an environment where they're surrounded by art.

So, the university had originally commissioned three artists to document the site before and during building works of the first few buildings. And then, subsequently from there, the university just continued to build on art collection. So, our art collection is very much an art collection that was built as an art collection rather than an art collection that started out as teaching collection and became an art collection. So, it has a very, very clear focus. The actual university that had a museum for the first 20-odd years of its existence. So, it was really just about the collection being around public spaces and commissioning sculpture work for around the campus.

Matt Smith:

As far as being, I suppose, the art guru of La Trobe University, what does your scope cover? I see sculptures around the place, paintings that people might see that are on the walls.

Vince Alessi:

As a director, my responsibilities are the university's art collection, the public Sculpture Park at Bundoora. So, we have just over 20 public sculptures. And then, the graphic collection, which consists of approximately 500 objects from mainly Papua New Guinea but also some objects from Africa.

The Dunmoochin Foundation Art Collection, a collection which is on long-term loan to the university from the Dunmoochin Foundation, which was a foundation established by the late Australian artist, Clifton Pugh. And that collection consists of works by Pugh but also his peers that worked with him and at Dunmoochin. And there's roughly about 500 objects in that collection.

And we have also taken over the management of a Chinese propaganda poster collection, which the University owns, which was built by Stewart Fraser. He was an academic in the education department. It's one of the largest collections of such posters outside of China. We have close to a thousand propaganda posters dating roughly from the '60s through to the '80s.

So, it's an immensely important collection. And one of the reasons this came across to us is for conservation reasons. So, we can look after it but also for us to use in exhibition programs. So, we've already created one exhibition, which looked at images of children in these posters, a collection which over the next 5 to 10 years we'll continue to do research on and the outcome of that research will be both publications and exhibitions. So, that's essentially what we're responsible in looking after.

Matt Smith:

What are some of the most significant pieces of artwork that are in your collection?

Vince Alessi:

Well, we have some really important and significant sculptures around the Bundoora campus. People who have studied at La Trobe or worked at La Trobe will be familiar with the large glass screen that sits out at the front of the library. That's the only work of that scale by Allen David, who now lives in New York.

We have three very important Inge King sculptures. The major one of those three is the Dialogue of Circles, which is a large seven metre tall sculpture that sits in the moat at the bottom of the amphitheater. And that's considered one of her really important works.

We also have an art collection of Charles Robb's work called Landmark, which is more affectionately known as the Upside Down Charles La Trobe, a really important work. I mean, it's obviously based on the person we're named after. But it's a challenging work because La Trobe is standing on his head and it's a full-sized sculpture. So, it shows La Trobe at full scale, including a fake marble plinth. So, that's really important work for our collection because I think it needs to be at La Trobe.

And we also have Len French's Four Seasons, which are four separate glassworks, which grace the entrance of the university. So, really significant sculptures are now at Bundoora campus.

In the actual collection, we have some significant works by major Australian artists. So, we have Fred Williams, Len French's Legend of Sinbad Series, the complete series, which used to grace a cafe in Bourke Street. More contemporary artists, we have some really significant works by young artists like Juan Ford and Sam Lynch and Darren Mordell.

So, the great thing about the collection is that we have been able to continue to map contemporary practice. And our focus really has been in the last five or six years to concentrate on acquiring significant works by contemporary artists. So, we're quite happy to acquire less works but really important works, which will stand the test of time.

Matt Smith:

I take it that you get art donations as well as chasing a few works of art as well by the sounds of it.

Vince Alessi:

We acquire works by purchasing. But we're extremely well supported through donations of artworks, mainly through the government's Culture Gifts Program. And that really is the main avenue for us to acquire works. I think what that really demonstrates is the outside world's commitment to La Trobe in this area and the support of having a philosophy at this university where we don't collect for collecting's sake.

But we actually collect to share it with units and staff. A lot of that really appeals to them because I know that they're going to donate a work and it's going to be seen by a lot of people. And hopefully, we continue Roy Simpson's mission, which is people in the library are surrounded by artwork. We don't expect them to stand in front of it and ponder and think. But the fact that they're living with artwork in their space, subconsciously they will continue to do that once they leave university. Their study and work environment is a lot more pleasant than just having bland walls. And so, that philosophy I think is one of the main reasons why we're continually supported by donors.

Matt Smith:

How often is art rotated around the university? And what does that process involve?

Vince Alessi:

It really depends on the work. So, works that are more robust, paintings, we would leave out for a couple of years. And works on paper, we try and rotate every 12 months. When the new library opens, we will have a dedicated wall space in the library for us to bring out more of the permanent collection in a designated space. At this stage, we're looking at sort of rotating that every six months.

Matt Smith:

I don't think people sometimes realize how much work that involves to rotate paintings. I've been involved in carrying a huge painting up to level 3 of the David Myers Building.

Vince Alessi:

Yeah. That's one of the other things too. So, we try and plan the work a lot because it is a major task. And that's sort of added on to curating on the shows and doing all the things around the university. Moving one work can take a couple of hours, depending on the scale of the work. It's a fine balance between the conservation needs of artworks, the resourcing needs of actually moving things around, and also ensuring that we share this collection with the university community and the public.

Matt Smith:

What is the artwork that gets the most comments from people? For me, it would be the painting of Peter Garrett, whose eyes follow me around every time I go past him.

Vince Alessi:

Yeah. For me, undoubtedly both positive and negative responses undoubtedly the Charles Robb sculpture of Charles La Trobe on his head. That varies from people who really love it and like the fact that it's turned on its head. And people's view is, as a university, that's what we should be doing. That's really what research is about. It's about looking at things differently. To the real vitriolic including when we first installed it, it actually received a number of letters suggesting that I resign for acquiring such work. So, I'm quite happy for people to respond in any way because it means that they're actually engaging.

Matt Smith:

Have you ever been tempted to label a light switch and claim it as a modern art installation?

Vince Alessi:

No, I haven't been tempted to do that. But we run a prize every two years with the City of Darabond. And we did actually include in one of those prices a very old penguin book, which was put up against the wall with a brick. And I really just liked that because I knew it would challenge people from an aesthetic point of view. It looked really interesting. And the fact that it sat on the floor, people weren't quite sure whether it was an artwork or not.

Those works have the capacity to prompt discussion more so than a painting does, for instance. I'll just concentrate on curating and writing about art and not sort of claim anything myself.

Matt Smith:

How far do you plan ahead? Do you have any art in mind for La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science, for example?

Vince Alessi:

Well, I suppose there's two aspects. When it comes to our exhibition program, we work roughly 12 to 18 months in advance. And that really is just logistically in that sort of time frame. With a lot of the building works happening around the university, it presents an amazing opportunity for us to get more work into public spaces.

We would like in those buildings, for instance, the Molecular Science building and the AgroBio Science Centre, what we would like to do is actually have works in public spaces in those buildings which relate to what is happening in those buildings. So, with the science buildings we actually have the medical or science field to the works that are in there.

Matt Smith:

Can you tell me a bit about the process of the chancellors' portraits that are over in John Scott Meeting House.

Vince Alessi:

Yeah. It's a tradition of not only this university but for other universities to commission a portrait of the chancellor and the vice-chancellor. We've actually just commissioned a portrait of the existing chancellor, Sylvia Walton. And that process has only started this week. And we will have her portrait completed by March next year.

And what's really interesting about those is my view is that the portraits should actually capture not only the person but also the role. When you're looking at a portrait of a chancellor, that person has an understanding of what the chancellor's role is as well as understanding having a sense of who the person is.

In my time at La Trobe, I have only known one chancellor and two vice-chancellors. So, my link with our history in those positions is through these paintings. And so, they are a really important aspect, I think, of our collection because for staff and for future students, they get to know a little bit about these people through the paintings.

It's a very old tradition, you know, and I've often thought what would happen if we commissioned a photograph of a chancellor or a vice-chancellor rather than a painting and how that would be viewed because it would be a slightly disjointed approach to the traditional painting or portrait. In some ways, it's an antiquated tradition but by the same time, I think it's a really important tradition that we need to continue because it is a link to these people who have played a fundamental role in shaping the university.

Matt Smith:

Who is painting Sylvia? Can you say?

Vince Alessi:

Yeah. It's Juan Ford, who is a fantastic young Melbourne-based artist. We are lucky enough to have work by Juan in our collection. It's one of those works that gets a lot of feedback. It's in the vice-chancellor's area, as you walk towards the vice-chancellor's office. It's a skull that is embedded in a group of gum trees. He's an amazingly talented painter but also an amazing conceptual artist. So, I think we're going to get a really amazing portrait of Sylvia, who is a very much a fan of realist painters. So, you'll easily identify that it's the chancellor. But I think the way that he'll be able to bring out Sylvia's personality will be really fantastic because he is an artist that has that capacity.

Matt Smith:

To you, what would the university be like without art?

Vince Alessi:

I've fully subscribed to Roy Simpson's view and the founders of the university's view that if we are serious about not only producing graduates but producing better citizens who are going to make a difference to the world they live in, you can't achieve that without having them live in a cultural world. By no means do I ever expect that people should stand in front of a work and ponder for hours, although that can be satisfying. I just think by being in a university, which is a place of learning, the one thing that has captured our history from early cave paintings to works from Victorian England or more contemporary works, art has the capacity to reflect and respond to what's happening in the world and to its society.

If you're in a university and part of the brief is to educate people but also to give them knowledge base which they can take out to the world but I think part of that knowledge base should be the cultural aspect. And I think if we can instill that in our graduates, I think we've gone a long way in achieving our aim. I mean, I just think universities without art museums and without art collections in a way are sort of void. It becomes a very one-dimensional experience.

Matt Smith:

Well, that's all the time we've got for the podcast today. If you've got any questions, comments or feedback, email it to podcast@latrobe.edu.au. And Dr. Vincent Alessi, thank you for your time today.

Vince Alessi:

Thanks, Matt.

No results found. Try searching again:

Search for ...

Find an expert

Search our experts database.