By Angela Goddard and Fiona Salmon
Since their establishment in the 1970s, University Art Museums (UAMs) have housed, managed and displayed university collections of art; served their institutions as resources for teaching, learning and research; and enhanced the cultural milieu of their campuses. In recent decades, as universities have increasingly pursued community engagement agendas, UAMs have also evolved into dynamic and sophisticated connectors between their host institutions and the wider world.
The most visible medium for external engagement is the exhibition. The 24 UAMs across Australia each produce 5-12 shows annually, amounting to approximately 250 exhibitions each year. As Ted Snell has highlighted: ‘The curated exhibition is clearly a tool we can use to present the work of the university to a wider audience. Its ability to present open-ended propositions and multiple readings can both showcase research while providing an environment and resources for teaching and learning.’
These exhibitions can range in approach, method and format from historical to contemporary, group to solo, as well as artist surveys and retrospectives. Julie Ewington recently noted the increasing contribution of UAMs to research exhibitions of contemporary artists, especially women. Typically, UAMs do not showcase student works, but as seen in Quicksilver (Samstag Museum of Art, Uni SA, 2016) the work of prominent Alumni is welcomed, in that case by reflecting on the impact of Samstag Scholarships on contemporary Australian artists. UAMs are also important platforms for connecting their institutions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and their communities, and for engaging audiences more broadly with their experiences, practices and stories. For example, Vivien Johnson’s exhibition, Streets of Papunya (UNSW Galleries, 2015) was developed in close consultation with Papunya Tjupi Arts, its local artists and their families.
By commissioning the interests and expertise of their colleagues across the University, UAMs enable the development, presentation and dissemination of cross-disciplinary ideas, themes and issues. This is particularly evident in exhibitions at the nexus of art and science such as The Microscope Project (Flinders University Art Museum, 2013), and Morbis Artis: Diseases of the Arts (RMIT Gallery, currently showing), which present scientific concepts through speculative and propositional works by contemporary artists.
Notably, exhibitions are increasingly created in partnership with stakeholders outside the organisation with some UAMs touring their shows nationally and internationally, reaching audiences well beyond their immediate catchments and attracting attention from international arts communities, government agencies and philanthropic organisations. Concrete (Monash University Museum of Art, 2015), which toured to Istanbul in partnership with Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, was supported by the Australia Council, Creative Victoria and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
As seen in the publication accompanying Concrete and in many other examples, UAM catalogues document and extend exhibition projects. These can feature new scholarship by art historians, critics, curators, philosophers, theorists and other artists. UAMs also contribute to scholarship by publishing on their nationally significant collections, whether in print or online.
UAM exhibitions are augmented by public programs that constitute meaningful opportunities for other kinds of linkages beyond the institution, including with the visual arts and wider communities as well as schools and special interest groups. Such programs might entail floor talks, guided tours, symposia, conferences, forums, public lectures, artist talks and performances. Some UAMs, such as Lawrence Wilson Gallery (UWA) and UNSW Galleries, are also implementing programs to broaden access to their shows by including AUSLAN and live audio description tours.
By closely involving students in their programs, UAMs help develop new generations of museum professionals. The recent exhibition Quiddity (RMIT Gallery, 2016) was researched and designed with RMIT Master of Arts Management program participants, while The Patient (UNSW Galleries, 2016) involved UNSW Art & Design’s Master of Curating and Cultural Leadership students in the development and delivery of public programs. UAMs create student research opportunities and offer internships, as well as support volunteers and early-career employees, providing a launch pad into the arts and other industries.
UAMs are catalysts and agents in the generation and dissemination of new knowledge. They specialise in the communication of complex ideas to wide audiences, and they are highly networked and media savvy. For these reasons they are now vital and effective bridges from the academy to communities locally, nationally and internationally; and are therefore integral to Australia’s cultural life.
Angela Goddard is the Director of Griffith Artworks, responsible for the University’s art gallery and collection. She joined Griffith University in June 2015 after fifteen years at QAGOMA, with seven years as Curator, Australian Art. Her curatorial projects include ‘Jenny Watson: Chronicles’ 2016 and co-curator, ‘Brutal Truths: Vernon Ah Kee, Gordon Bennett, Destiny Deacon & Virginia Fraser’, 2015 at Griffith University Art Gallery; curator, ‘Sam Fullbrook: Delicate Beauty’, QAG, 2014, ‘Ian Fairweather: Late works 1953-74′, QAG, 2012-13; ‘Art, Love and Life: Ethel Carrick and E. Phillips Fox’, QAG, 2011; and co-curator, ‘The Same River Twice’ 2009, IMA, Brisbane.
Fiona Salmon is the Director of Flinders University Art Museum and current Chair of University Art Museums Australia. She has worked for twenty years in the Australian cultural sector including in previous management, research and curatorial roles with Museums Australia (Victoria), the Cunningham Dax Collection and Maningrida Arts & Culture. In her current position at Flinders, Fiona oversees the University’s art gallery and collection of 8000 works. She is a regular contributor to visual arts and museum studies programs at her institution and is currently leading OLT funded research on the power of art as a cross-disciplinary teaching tool.
 Julie Ewington, ‘In Praise: Anne Ferran, Judith Wright, Lindy Lee’, Eyeline, issue 84, 2016, pp.55-61.