At home with their collections
Two distinctive art galleries built by alumni are drawing international audiences.
By Raymond Gill (BA 1983, LLB 1984, Ormond College)
House museums appear to be back in vogue. Once a 19th century extravagance favoured by robber barons (the Frick in New York) or eccentrics (the Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris), they now have far more focused intent.
Consider two of the new crop – the Lyon Housemuseum and galleries, and the Justin Art House Museum (JAHM) – both designed and lived in by collectors who happen to be architects and who live in Melbourne.
The other major difference is that visitors are welcomed into these two 21st century versions of a house museum to view their owners’ collections while the owners still reside there.
In the case of the Justin Art House Museum, which opened in the city’s Prahran neighbourhood in 2016, owners and University of Melbourne alumni Charles and Leah Justin welcome their guests right into their kitchen.
“That was one of the drivers for us,” explains Leah. “We want people to feel they are guests in our house. People are very respectful, and I’m always touched by people saying how generous we are, when really we are just sharing our passion for art.”
The striking three-storey house, situated on a busy corner, was built on the front of a block of 1940s flats that were reworked into the fabric of the new building and wrapped in a skin of zinc. It houses a garage that converts into a visitor welcoming area on viewing days, a gallery and art storage spaces, and living rooms and bedrooms where visitors can wander at will and view the couple’s collection of striking contemporary art.
Charles (BArch 1972) is now retired from Synman Justin Bialek, the architecture and interiors practice he co-founded with Alan Synman (BArch 1966) and Michael Bialek (BArch 1974), while Leah (BA 1971, GDipLib&InfoSt(Gen) 1986) works as Community Education Coordinator at the Jewish Museum of Australia. The couple were inspired by the Lyon Housemuseum, which was designed by its architect-owner Corbett Lyon.
Lyon (BArch 1979, DArch 2016) is one of the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning’s most distinguished alumni. He and his wife Yueji built their ‘Housemuseum’ (a one-word term they coined) on the site of their old home in Kew which had been literally falling in on them.
Their idea for the new home that could also be a gallery was similarly inspired by the stately Frick Museum and Peggy Guggenheim’s museum in Venice. However, they were the first collectors – possibly in the world – to share their art collection with the public while still in residence. They have done so since 2010, drawing international acclaim, cited by Larry’s List as “one of the world’s 10 most exciting buildings of private museums”.
“We want people to feel they are guests in our house. People are very respectful, and I’m always touched by people saying how generous we are.” Leah Justin
This year, Corbett and Yueji Lyon radically increased the size of their collectors’ footprint by building the adjoining ‘Housemuseum Galleries’.
This new space is also designed by Lyon and is made up of a forecourt, a courtyard and five galleries all under 5.5 metre ceilings. It’s designed for their larger scale artworks and installations. The couple began collecting contemporary Australian art 30 years ago with the collection now numbering around 350 pieces by 50 artists, including Brook Andrew, Howard Arkley, Patricia Piccinini, Callum Morton, Shaun Gladwell, Daniel von Sturmer and Daniel Crooks.
“Being an architect, I designed the new building so the original Housemuseum and the Housemuseum Galleries can be joined together,’’ Lyon says. The couple plan to eventually gift the museum to the public through their foundation.
In August 2019, Corbett and Yueji Lyon and the University’s Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning announced they were teaming up as ‘knowledge partners’, in which they will collaborate on the exhibitions program of the Housemuseum Galleries for both Melbourne School of Design students and for the general public.
As well as taking a leaf from the Lyon Housemusuem book, the Justins were also inspired by the Maison Particuliere in Brussels, the Samlung Hoffmann in Berlin and, for sheer chutzpah, the approach of billionaire gambler David Walsh to his Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart.
The Justins’ museum is on a much smaller scale than the Lyon Housemuseum and the JAHM building was not designed by Charles himself, but his daughter, Elisa Justin, who runs her own firm, Justin Architecture.
For the past three years, her parents have opened their home for weekly tours of the house and its collection, with the couple conducting the tours personally. These have become so popular that in 2018 Lonely Planet included JAHM in its Top 8 attractions for visitors to Melbourne.
The appeal might be sticky-beaking into someone’s home and assessing their artistic taste, revealed through a private collection amassed over 40 years and which includes painting, sculpture, works on paper, and photography, with an emphasis on digital and video work.
“I think [digital art] is just part of the world we are experiencing here in the 21st century and if Rembrandt were alive today he’d probably be working as a video artist,” says Charles.
But as the couple have discovered, the heart of the appeal is in the conversations they have with their visitors about why and how they collect, and invariably about the meaning of art. These free-wheeling discussions are conducted as the group of 20 or so wander through the rooms before settling in the open kitchen and living room to chat over ginger tea and refreshments.
Most visitors do not appear to have any professional expertise of contemporary art, according to the Justins, but what they do have is open curiosity.
“Most visitors are ‘non-art’ people,” according to Leah, who says they come from all parts of Australia and overseas. “During the week, we mostly attract retirees and at weekends it tends to be younger people.
“Often people say, ‘Oh, I know nothing about art’, but they are always so insightful. We are learning from them all the time.”
Adds Charles: “You get the best responses from people you least expect, whereas ‘art people’ are perhaps more inhibited to talk so openly.”
The museum includes three permanent works that the couple commissioned for the house when it was built and which form part of its actual structure.
Tunni Kraus created a striped wall composition inspired by the striped canvas awnings of the Melbourne suburbs of the 1950s; Paul Snell has digitally ‘decomposed’ his photographs to create vibrant abstract images over a full wall; and Australian/Israeli artist Ilan El’s 39 Steps welcomes visitors at the entry as the staircase incorporates an “immersive lighting experience” as each step randomly changes colour as visitors climb it.
The JAHM exhibitions change annually and usually comprise about 40 pieces of art that the couple select from their own collection of 300 works or are drawn from other private collections.
The 2019 show Let There Be Light was drawn from their collection with a particular emphasis on their enthusiasm for immersive works that play with light, projections and optics.
The 2020 exhibition Country (running from late February to November) is from the private Arthur and Suzie Roe Collection of Contemporary Australian Art. It will include significant examples of Australian contemporary Indigenous and non-Indigenous art and fill the galleries and the private apartment.
Meanwhile, In Full View: Works from the Lyon Collection, featuring 60 artworks spanning 30 years, is on display in the Lyon Housemuseum Galleries until 26 January 2020. For its upcoming exhibition program, the Housemuseum says it is partnering with one of the world’s leading museums in art and design for a co-curated exhibition focusing on design and public life.