NGV director Tony Ellwood serves his community through art.
La Trobe University alumnus Tony Ellwood AM remembers clearly his first encounter with a major artwork. As a child, he travelled from regional Victoria with his mother to see The Banquet of Cleopatra by Tiepolo at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). The painting spans over three and a half metres wide and, to a young boy, its magnitude was astounding.
As a little kid, you’re walking around the corner and your parents are saying, 'Now, this is the most special painting in the whole of Melbourne'. By the time you get there, you’re just completely blown away.
Fast-forward to 2018 and that very special painting hangs only a few hundred metres from Tony's desk. As director of the NGV, he’s now the custodian of Australia’s most significant art collection – including, of course, the Tiepolo from his childhood.
Under his leadership, audiences to NGV have tripled, with over 3.3 million people visiting the gallery in 2017-2018. Visitors have delighted in his cutting-edge exhibitions, from Warhol – WeiWei, Melbourne Now and The Triennial, to the NGV’s current blockbuster, Escher X nendo | Between Two Worlds.
And while Tony is proud of his bold programming, taking creative risks is only one part of his approach to people’s experience of art. From his perspective, creative excellence means little for audience engagement if it’s not coupled with social inclusion.
It’s an approach that recognises art’s power to make a positive impact on people’s lives: not only for artists, whose work galleries exhibit and buy, but also for the communities who view the work and, ideally, see their culture and values reflected back in an imaginative way.
For Tony, it’s meant championing community access, engaging regional and culturally diverse audiences, and increasing what’s on offer for children and families.
"It’s about being very sensitive to audiences who have not been reflected," he said.
"With The Triennial, for example, we had very conscious positioning of Muslim faith near the entrance. We saw an immediate impact and a lot of that audience has stayed with us. Once we opened the door and said, 'You’re welcome here,' they said, 'Great! We’re staying.'"
It’s also involved advocating for equal spending across different audience segments.
"The same budgets we apply to adult experiences need to be applied to children’s experiences. It shows that there’s a genuine respect for those audiences, and for their parents and grandparents," he said.
Tony's vision is underpinned by the idea that the NGV is a safe place to experience art, no matter who you are, or where you’re from.
As children become young teenagers, if they’re not in the mainstream they can come here and feel safe. Those kind of values are not lost on us – they’re something we’re very protective of.
Indeed, looking back on his time at La Trobe, feeling safe was an important factor in Tony's decision to stay in regional Victoria.
"I was accepted into universities in Melbourne, but I enjoyed living in the country. It was affordable, and comfortable," he said.
"But having also gone through a bit of a personal health crisis, choosing to study in Bendigo was a way for me to stay anchored when I wasn’t mentally prepared to move."
Tony explains that, as a young man, he experienced facial disfigurements from a medical condition. Before university, he took a year out to work with other young people with physical disabilities. He says the work helped him connect with his lived experience of being physically different and "closed the loop" on a difficult chapter in his life.
Soon after, Tony started his Bachelor of Fine Art at La Trobe’s Bendigo campus – a course he describes as "the most exciting thing in the world!"
"I loved that La Trobe had big painting studios. The fine art section was a relatively new part of campus and the lecturers were very well regarded in the community," he said.
By balancing art theory with art-making, the degree also gave Tony a point of difference.
I learnt well from the course, both from an art theory and a practical point of view. I felt that I could contribute something that someone who’d done pure art history potentially couldn’t.
After graduating, Tony worked in curatorial roles that would later shape his approach to running the NGV.
He launched his career as an Aboriginal Art Coordinator at Waringarri Aboriginal Arts in Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region. In such a small community, he says, 'You’d get immediate feedback, whether you got it right or wrong.'"
It was through these direct reactions that Tony developed a strong sense of social responsibility to artists and audiences.
"It taught me a lot about the immediate impact of a work of art on a person and on a community," he said.
"In a smaller institution like Waringarri, you’re much more aware of the responsibility of what you display through an exhibition or publishing program. In the outback, it’s about empowering artists and making sure you’re providing comfortable, safe environments for the process of making art."
Later, he returned to regional Victoria as Director of Bendigo Art Gallery. Here, too, inclusive excellence became top-of-mind.
"In Bendigo it was about ensuring that the program was responsible and forward-looking," he said.
"It worried me that kids were only being fed a diet of the Goldfields in the 1850s and that there was a lack of multicultural exposure in the program and collection. And I knew that by shifting that, it would have a positive impact that I could measure just by being engaged in a small community."
Today, even Tony's creative risks have an element of artistic inclusion. In Escher X nendo | Between Two Worlds, the NGV is showcasing an artist who has historically been shunned by art museums.
"When you delve into the story of Escher, his process and production, and his ability to engage and innovate, it’s the perfect recipe for a successful artist," he said.
"Yet the museum sector turned its back on him. He did something so out of kilter with what was considered the norm for his generation that they couldn’t categorise him. That’s the kind of person we like to champion."
At the same time, Tony is making sure those more familiar with Escher’s work will still be surprised. It’s these kinds of influential first encounters that characterise his relationship with art.
"Once they’ve found the pieces they’re comfortable with, then it’s that journey of 'What else can you fall in love with?'," he said.
"Through nendo, we’re introducing Melbourne audiences to someone very current, to a name they probably don’t know, which I love. And he’s designed a beautifully unexpected articulated space throughout the whole exhibition. It’s spectacular."
It’s this simple act of serving a community through art that Tony likes most about his job. With the NGV’s audience growing bigger each year, that’s a whole lot of chances to be astounded.
Last updated: 16th February 2021