University of Melbourne Magazine

Contemporary art gains new ground in Melbourne

  • National Gallery of Victoria

    National Gallery of Victoria

    The positive public reception of Melbourne Now and NEW14 reveals a growing appetite for contemporary art, which is currently being nurtured by the extraordinary contributions of VCA alumni and staff.

    Ross Coulter (Master of Fine Art (Visual Art), 2013) is coming up for air after his involvement in the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV)’s Melbourne Now exhibition.

    “I definitely see a shift,” says the University of Melbourne alumnus, whose photographic series (Aftermath #1, #2, #3) featured as part of the blockbuster show. “The success of Melbourne Now has shed light on the diversity of local contemporary practice, it’s been a really positive response.”

    Coulter, who first came to public attention in 2011 when he launched 10,000 paper planes in the State Library, is representative of a cohort of VCA graduates who rather than focusing on one discipline prefer to work conceptually across a range of media.

    This year marked an important turning point in Melbourne’s cultural history as the NGV, headed by Tony Ellwood, made a concerted effort to realise the contemporary zeitgeist. The resulting exhibition offered an extraordinary prism into the city’s diverse practices, bringing together over 400 creative practitioners, including 85 VCA alumni and 18 staff.

    Jan Murray, head of the VCA’s School of Art, credits Artist Run Initiatives for laying much of the groundwork but says the NGV did wonders in placing contemporary art in the limelight. “Melbourne Now engaged with so many people on the ground and it was a great gesture by the NGV to the local community to make it Melbourne focused.”

    While the NGV challenged the expectations around what a gallery was, VCA graduates revealed what it was like to be a contemporary artist in Melbourne. As a project-based artist, alumnus Ash Keating (Bachelor of Fine Art (Honours), 2006) works with different collaborators spanning diverse fields from film to dance. “I am able to create my conceptually based projects with people who have more fluency in their specific disciplines,” Keating says with humility. “I think that is pretty reflective of a lot of artists that have ambitious ideas – they realise they need other people to make these big ideas happen.”

    Over at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), the NEW14 exhibition featured the work of alumni Taree Mackenzie (Bachelor of Fine Art, 2008), Andrew Hazewinkel (Master of Fine Art, 2001), and Kenny Pittock (Bachelor of Fine Art (Honours), 2013). The show’s curator Kyla McFarlane says high attendance at both NEW14 and Melbourne Now is evidence of the city’s interest in contemporary art as well as the breadth of local talent. “Both shows reveal a lot about the density on the ground,” she says.

    Murray believes VCA graduates are paving their own way and making things happen on their own terms. “I think there was a time when you waited to be discovered,” she says, reflecting on 1970s art scene. “In those days you were being presumptuous if you wanted to show your work before your thirties.” Murray says it’s taken commercial galleries a while to understand what’s happening — that the city wants to be exposed to more contemporary art — and importantly, it’s these artists who show us what’s relevant in Melbourne now.