The Vizard Foundation
Art Collection of the 1990s
Australian Art and Artists from the Decade

Naomi Cass

Vizard's Ark: a purposeful collection

Making a collection of contemporary art is akin to creating a vessel to ferry a selection of art and ideas from the present to the future. As there are no hard and fast rules governing the policy or process of collecting art, there are many types of vessel that Steve Vizard could have constructed. In the end, the vessel—the Vizard Foundation Art Collection of the 1990s—as much as its contents reflects the beliefs and value system of the collector and gives the collection its particular character. Whether such beliefs are a clearly stated policy or simply guide the process, they are important to consider when appraising the collection. The advisors with whom the patron chose to work in creating the collection are also crucial to the outcome.

The range of options open to a patron for supporting contemporary culture are many, and in the expanding market of the early 1990s, so too were the options for collecting art. Should a philanthropist, like a government arts agency, fund projects or make cash grants to artists? Or should art works be purchased? If art works were collected, would they be held privately—held in a home or displayed semi-publicly in offices—or made accessible to a wide audience? Fundamentally, the patron must ask who is to benefit and how this benefit is achieved.

Private collections usually achieve their distinctiveness and cohesion through the personal taste of the patron, who, unencumbered by public accountability, moves freely though the market purchasing and selling at will. Public collections, on the other hand, are bound by policies and by the formal requirements of accountability. As historical archives, public collections set benchmarks for particular epochs in art. They are subject to the demands of a range of interests in society, while private collections are appraised in terms of a patron's taste and initiative—a personal rather than public vision.

Since 1993, the Vizard Foundation has operated at the forefront of arts philanthropy in Australia, becoming involved at a number of levels of the sector; in particular, assisting artists by purchasing their work and supporting scholars in their teaching and research. In retrospect, this might seem like an obvious pathway for the support of contemporary culture. However, the decision to create a collection arose through a genuine process of consultation and through an unusual cooperation between different parties across the sector.

The characters instrumental in shaping this decision and process from 1993 to 2001 came from three distinct fields: a university art museum, represented by the Director, Frances Lindsay, and Assistant Director, Merryn Gates (until 1995); an academic department led by Professor Margaret Manion and including academics Dr Alison Inglis, Dr Chris McAuliffe and Dr Roger Benjamin (from 1995 to 1999); and the Vizard Family Foundation, represented by Steve Vizard.

In choosing to work with this cluster of advisors, Steve Vizard set the tone for this 'ark'. It is clear he was not seeking to be mirrored through the collection, nor to embark on a project of personal discovery, but to make a major contribution to contemporary Australian art and scholarship. Cooperation between these three distinct groups—philanthropist, academics and museum professionals—is both unusual and significant to this story and the character of the collection.

The philanthropist

The Vizard Foundation already had a track record of highly effective yet sotto voce philanthropy in welfare and agriculture, providing tangible public benefit. Even less publicised was a range of smaller, ad hoc philanthropic projects in the arts, ranging from a teaching collection of antiquities on loan to the University of Melbourne, to a collection of Australian Colonial Silver and support for the teaching of photography. Steve Vizard had taken a personal interest in these activities, often initiating particular acquisitions.

Commencing three years after the establishment of the Foundation, the collection is consistent with an overall philanthropic approach. The Vizard Foundation supports targeted interventions at the level of primary producer (support for artists and photographers through acquisitions and awards), documentation of art (academic and curatorial programs), and the preservation and presentation of work (support for the Ian Potter Museum of Art and publishing). The Vizard Foundation support commences with asking questions within the field and shows a preference for longer-term major activities rather than one-off grants.

Through his close relationship with Margaret Manion, then Herald Professor in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Melbourne (his alma mater), Vizard became interested in a more systematic and ambitious engagement with contemporary art and scholarship, one that would benefit a range of parties.

The professor and academics

In the early 1990s, Professor Margaret Manion was in entrepreneurial mode. Her ambition was to bring the department and the University art gallery together, to improve the University's ability to represent contemporary art and to enhance teaching through the art collection. While teaching collections are a time-honoured tradition expected of established universities, here was a distinguished scholar of medieval manuscripts championing the contemporary. Professor Manion was responding to calls from students across the University for more contemporary content in their courses. She was also navigating the new financial imperatives and autonomy expected of university departments following federal government reforms of the sector. In Steve Vizard, Professor Manion found a patron willing to take risks and interested in a range of measures to enhance contemporary visual culture.

The experience of Professor Manion's staff lay primarily in the formal, academic sphere. While they taught, wrote on and even collected contemporary art, Dr Alison Inglis, Dr Chris McAuliffe and Dr Roger Benjamin were now asked to think of the future as much as the past and to write acquisition reports in non-academic language. Although all had purchased art from time to time as individuals, and had a historical understanding of collecting practices, advising a private collection with aspirations akin to a public collection was a new task for the academics. As Chris McAuliffe recalled, 'We had to set aside the “natural” authority of the academy and reflect on the future, without the safety net of history.'1

Academic concerns meant that the collection, which began as a private initiative, was informed by historical and intellectual agendas. The curatorial committee regularly reflected on, and modified, its goals. Roger Benjamin was invited to join the committee in 1995 following informal advice he gave to Professor Manion on remote Indigenous art.

I was teaching a course on the area and argued that if the collection was to be representative of the 1990s, then they needed to acquire beyond the urban indigenous work, which was already well represented.2

In practice, committee members developed brief seminar-style presentations for Steve Vizard, usually in front of the art work under consideration. While Vizard ceded a remarkable amount of territory to members, he was actively engaged and never a pushover.3 As Roger Benjamin comments:

Difficult work was sometimes knocked back at the initial meeting and accepted at subsequent meetings. I'm not sure if Steve Vizard was initially dissatisfied with our account or whether he needed time to consider the issues and the work. He was open about being educated through the process.4

The gallery director

Universities often have both a visual arts department and an exhibiting gallery, but these can be separated by divergent priorities and demands, as well as differing physical and administrative locations. For decades the gallery and the department at the University of Melbourne were parallel entities rather than direct partners. At the beginning of the 1990s, under the direction of Frances Lindsay, the then University Gallery was ably juggling the competing demands of an historical collection (largely acquired through bequest and gift to the University), an important program of changing exhibitions drawn from the collection and external sources, and a very limited acquisitions budget for contemporary art. Perhaps wishing to discipline a diverse university collection, Lindsay brought a strong commitment to acquisitions policy, to the significance of contemporary art within a university museum context and to building productive links between the gallery and the department.

Lindsay's commitment to professionalising the acquisition process, especially when spending private funds, is linked to a commitment to the notion of museum-standard acquisitions, guarding against a collection that might lose credibility over time. She also brought a curator's tactile engagement with the performance of collections in the exhibition context: the collection had to be effective in exhibition as well as 'on paper'.

The question

The Vizard Foundation Art Collection of the 1990s began with a question posed in 1992 by Steve Vizard to Margaret Manion and Frances Lindsay. Vizard wanted to assist contemporary artists in some way, without prescribing what this might be. A focus group of emerging local contemporary artists was convened, with the view to understanding what form of philanthropic support from the Foundation would be most beneficial. Margaret Manion recalls that Steve Vizard had recently returned from Barcelona where he observed a successful artist-in-residence program in operation.5 Options canvassed at the meeting were residencies, provision of studio space, travel grants, prizes and, finally, the purchase of art.

There was measured excitement as artists joined Steve Vizard for a lunch meeting hosted by Frances Lindsay in the basement of the nineteenth-century Old Physics building that housed the University Gallery. Anticipation arose not just at the prospect of meeting a highly visible media personality, but at the novelty of actually being consulted about what would make a difference to their lives as practising artists. The question over lunch was genuine: What would be the best way to support contemporary art? Resounding support was voiced for the purchase of art, and the aim of the collection was formulated: 'To support Australian artists through acquisition, display and educational promotion of their work.6

The policy

Frances Lindsay set the initial policy focus in 1993, which was to represent major developments in Australian art during the 1990s, with a particular focus on artists working in Melbourne. It would include artists of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent; achieve a gender balance; consider all forms of contemporary practice; purchase only works of museum quality, namely, those technically stable and those that contribute to cultural heritage; contain a core of artists who would be represented by a number of seminal works over the decade and a further broader selection of artists represented by single works; and, finally, represent artists in three categories: senior, mid-career and emerging.7 Of primary importance at this initial phase was to view individual works for their ability to perform in a range of interpretations rather than as singular statements.8

Lindsay declared that this collection would be distinguished through the strong academic focus of the curatorial committee as well as their 'local knowledge', permitting significant acquisitions from studios prior to works going to exhibition. Great value was placed on documentation, research and publishing arising from the committee's strengths. Further key decisions giving character to the collection were that there would be no commissions and no purchases from the secondary market, and the collection would be visible from the start, being used for teaching, research and exhibition. Vizard wanted a collection that would perform in theory and practice the way a public collection does, representing the period in a rigorous way as opposed to representing his own personal taste.

It is important to note that the committee did not purchase work on the secondary market, nor did it commission new work; instead. it recognised artists for what they already do. As Steve Vizard commented during the process:

Artists and performers are best rewarded ... not by doing something other than that which they want to do ... Not by being paid to do some commission for something which is totally unrelated to where they see themselves, but rather by people paying them for precisely what they want to do in their artistic realm.9

The question remains why the collection should focus on art of the present. In a discussion paper written in the second year of the project, Lindsay invoked the significance of the fin-de-siècle and the role artists play in resonating issues of the day. She pointed towards the Heidelberg School's response to patriotic sentiment generated by the 1888 centennial year and the move towards Federation, exemplified by Tom Roberts' Shearing the rams. Lindsay argued for the ability of art to reflect complex current issues such as 'the remarkable developments effecting the way we see the world and our position',10 citing recognition of Indigenous rights, the discussion of a republic and a shift away from a Euro-American focus towards Asia in particular. Artists such as Gordon Bennett, Constanze Zikos, Linda Marrinon and Caroline Williams, already purchased for the collection, were noted for their ability to represent a range of current artistic and social issues.

As the decade progressed and more art works were purchased, the discussion on the nature of contemporary Australian art practice continued through acquisition and planning meetings, reports, acquisition proposals and appraisals of the collection's journey. In 1994, as the committee reflected on its recent activities, Chris McAuliffe wrote an appraisal reiterating the initial aims but expanding the collection's focus and therefore importance beyond Melbourne to Australia itself. In his characteristically expansive manner, McAuliffe articulates the character of the collection under the headings Breadth, Focus, Depth, Quality and Integrity, Energy and Communication.11

The purpose of a contemporary art collection was again considered, and McAuliffe restated the aim of participation, not just accumulation. Collecting art 'is a vote of confidence in a new generation'.12 Lindsay's argument for the ability of art to engage with issues of the day was expanded by McAuliffe with three further arguments. The first was that the 1990s represents a period of shifting cultural conditions, particularly new technologies which impact on the art. The second was that art is about an expanded field of practitioners, curators, critics and historians who are invoked as fellow participants and beneficiaries of collecting art of the present. In the final argument, McAuliffe stated that:

The challenges of the 1990s will also be reflected in changing conceptions of history and museums. A contemporary Collection will explore innovative presentations of the story of Australian culture: new methods of presentation and display, new experiences of art works.13

In practice, genre priorities were determined to guide purchases in order to achieve the collection objectives. In July 1995, works from a wide range of artists under the following categories were earmarked: abstraction, three-dimensional works, HIV-AIDS related and non-urban Aboriginal.

Five years into the decade, the collection was again appraised against the original aims in a report to the committee by Frances Lindsay. This report was more confident in asserting the major developments in Australian art of the 1990s, including the observation that 'many of the works collected display a self conscious engagement with the styles and conventions of art history, an attitude typical of 1990s postmodernism.'14 The collection is classified under a range of 'contemporary concerns' such as issues of identity, social issues, art, mass culture and suburbanism, abstractionism, engagement with art history and landscape/narrative. The collection is acknowledged for its flexibility and the scope of issues it raises, resulting in a range of potential organising principals for display. As Lindsay comments, 'The Vizard Foundation Collection should provide cogent evidence of the multi-layering of styles and influences which characterise art practice today.'15

The limitations of the collection were acknowledged, including the underrepresentation of collaborative work, three-dimensional work, new technologies and ephemeral practices such as performance and installation. Without travel funds or interstate committee members it was difficult to fully achieve the revised national focus. To the extent that it was achieved, the national focus was contingent upon local commercial galleries exhibiting interstate artists. Documentation, future exhibition and publication were issues raised throughout the decade.

The process

'Scouting' and consultation by committee members generated proposals for purchase that were presented at formal meetings. Wherever possible, the art work under consideration was brought to the meeting. Acquisition reports balanced a measured analysis and enthusiastic advocacy for the work in question. Each report outlined the artist's background, the art work's historical context, and its relevance to the policy and existing contents of the collection.

Not all works proposed were accepted and members recall behaving nobly in the face of defeat, tackling Vizard or accepting the vote with graciousness. Members balanced their own vision for the collection with that of the curatorial committee: as Benjamin comments, 'there were certainly struggles about the canon.'16 Vizard clearly enjoyed such rigorous encounters, sometimes playing the Devil's advocate, sometimes outdoing the enthusiasm of the art world insiders on the committee.17

In practice, Vizard's collection favoured emerging artists. Collecting policy supported this, and the more established artists were becoming too expensive. Roger Benjamin recalls pushing hard for the 'big ticket items'. Both museum professionals and academics were pitching their own ability to predict the future significance of art and artists. During this period, Vizard became increasingly prominent in public issues, adopting the voice of 'the everyman' in public debate.

The benefit

Active participation in the marketplace of contemporary art and ideas was the primary aim of the collection. However, Vizard's ark could have proceeded in a number of ways. The choice of a university gallery and teaching department setting is significant, as this guarantees long-term engagement through informal means—staff and students are constantly surrounded by great art on the walls of corridors, lecture theatres and seminar rooms—through to formal and directed engagement via teaching and research. Consideration of the collection's value to a range of beneficiaries was an ongoing concern for the committee. In his 1994 paper for the committee, McAuliffe wrote, 'Art is about artists, but also curators, critics and historians. The Collection is a public educational resource allowing the next generation immediate access to new art, new ideas and current debates'.19

A well-administered collection provides a range of services for art—such as storage, care and conservation—which ultimately benefit the artists and the community. As a younger Melbourne artist commented:

Artists care about what happens to their work. To have someone looking after the work is fantastic. Context and interpretation are a blessing for an artist's work. It's great when work goes to go a home in the public arena.20

While there is an obvious financial benefit to the individual artist through acquisition of their work, the cultural capital of being represented in an excellent collection far outlasts the cash. An artist's reputation rests not only on the quality of the works selected but also on the access and engagement with art that a collection encourages. As Jan Nelson (who is represented in the collection) commented:

Buying our art has been the most effective form of engagement and support, particularly given the collection's profile ... Mid-career artists don't have the funds to produce the publications that the broader community require. As a teacher I find there is simply not enough documentation about contemporary Australian art.21

Successful collections keep the individual work and the artist's reputation in circulation, building through exhibition and publishing, presenting novel juxtapositions, interpretations and research.

The Vizard Foundation Art Collection of the 1990s now enters a new century, to be exhibited at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne. After nine years of discussion and the purchase of 124 works by 53 artists, the collection was completed. Given the broader philanthropic context of the Vizard Foundation, it is clear that this collecting of contemporary art was more than just an exercise in acquisition; it was a purposeful program to make structural improvements in the world of contemporary art and artists. The impact of practical support on artists could easily be seen, but more abstract concerns were always present. Comments Chris McAuliffe, 'I think for Vizard the stakeholders really were nation and posterity.'22

  1. Chris McAuliffe in conversation with the author, January 2003.
  2. Roger Benjamin in conversation with the author, January 2003.
  3. McAuliffe in conversation with the author, January 2003.
  4. Benjamin in conversation with the author, January 2003.
  5. Margaret Manion in conversation with the author, January 2001.
  6. Frances Lindsay, The Vizard Collection of Contemporary Art of the 1990s, December 1993, unpublished discussion paper, Vizard Foundation Collection files, Ian Potter Museum of Art.
  7. Lindsay, The Vizard Collection of Contemporary Art of the 1990s, December 1993.
  8. Frances Lindsay, The Vizard Foundation Collection of the 1990s, December 1995, unpublished report, Vizard Foundation Collection files, Ian Potter Museum of Art.
  9. Steve Vizard in an interview with Virginia Trioli, 'He didn't have to do that', The Age Metro 26 November 1996, p.3. 
  10. Lindsay, The Vizard Collection of Contemporary Art of the 1990s, December 1993. 
  11. Chris McAuliffe, Australian art of the 1990s: towards a collection, 1994, unpublished paper, Vizard Foundation Collection files, Ian Potter Museum of Art.
  12. McAuliffe, Australian art of the 1990s: towards a collection, 1994.
  13. McAuliffe, Australian art of the 1990s: towards a collection, 1994.
  14. Lindsay, The Vizard Collection of Contemporary Art of the 1990s, December 1993.
  15. Lindsay, The Vizard Foundation Collection of the 1990s, December 1995.
  16. Benjamin in conversation with the author, January 2003.
  17. McAuliffe in conversation with the author, January 2003.
  18. Benjamin in conversation with the author, January 2003.
  19. McAuliffe, Australian art of the 1990s: towards a collection, 1994.
  20. Artist Lyndal Walker in conversation with the author, January 2001.
  21. Jan Nelson in conversation with the author, January 2001.
  22. McAuliffe in conversation with the author, January 2001.

Curator and writer, Naomi Cass is Director of Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne (CCP). In 2005 she oversaw relocation of CCP to purpose designed premises. Her most recent exhibitions include the major photographic survey of Simryn Gill for the 2009 Melbourne Festival. In 2011 she curated In camera and in public, drawing on historical and contemporary photography, video and installation to explore the issue of transgression and intrigue in photography; and presented the first mid career survey of U.S. based photographer, Wendy Ewald, also for the Festival. In 2013 she co-curated the survey True Self: David Rosetzky Selected Works with Kyla McFarlane. In 2014 Naomi and Kyla curated The Sievers Project. Crossing paths with Vivian Maier celebrated the timely relevance of this reluctant artist, juxtaposing her work with contemporary Australian photography, performance and video.  In 2016 she curated The documentary take, which explored the seeping of documentary practice into contemporary art. Naomi is responsible for developing offsite, touring and public billboard projects, youth at risk education programs and presented two iterations of the National Indigenous Photo-Media Forum for the CCP.

In her work with the Grainger Museum, The University of Melbourne she produced two programs of contemporary art and music for the Melbourne International Festival, The Many Faces of Percy Grainger 1997 and Electric-Eye 1998.

Naomi is an Asialink Fellow.