Few Australians would realize how close recent bushfires have come to destroying one of the country’s most valuable art collections.
During Australia’s devastating black summer of 2020, flames came within a mile of Arthur Boyd’s historic residence, threatening a collection of the artist’s works as well as those of Sidney Nolan, John Percival, Charles Blackman and others – many created by the prodigious Boyd clan – whose value is estimated at over $40 million.
Some 3,800 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, ceramics and archival photographs, were evacuated from Bundanon – in the Shoalhaven region of New South Wales – between November 2019 and January 2020. Since , they remained in a secure location in Sydney.
Now, over the next few weeks, the collection will be quietly repatriated. But he will return to a radically different habitat.
On March 5, the new Bundanon Art Museum officially opens to the public: a $36 million gallery that becomes one of eight federally recognized National Collecting Institutions (NCIs).
Six of these eight institutions are located in the nation’s capital, including the Australian National Gallery and the Australian National Museum. Bundanon is the only NCI in regional Australia.
Perched on the banks of the River Shoalhaven, with Morton National Park as a backdrop, the Federal Government (which contributed $22.5 million) and NSW ($10.3 million) are keenly hoping that Bundanon will become a regional tourist destination. (Visitors traveling to Bundanon via Sydney can enjoy another new regional gallery on the way: the Ben Quilty-established Ngununggulaa converted heritage-listed dairy which opened in Bowral in the southern highlands last October.)
Rachel Kent has left her position as longtime chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art to run the Bundanon business.
“I think that makes a really bold statement about this particular area; this is a serious investment in the South Coast and Shoalhaven Illawarra region,” she said. “What it will do is offer a new vision of destination tourism.”
Kent draws an ambitious comparison between Bundanon and world-renowned art destinations such as the Dia Beacon in upstate New York and Japan’s art island cluster in the Seto Inland Sea, where the art and architecture are integrated into the landscape.
In the case of Bundanon, it is literally an integrated art space: a partly underground gallery carved out of concrete in a mound on Boyd’s 1,000 hectare bush estate, which the artist and his wife Yvonne bequeathed to the Australian people in 1993.
The bequest includes the 1866 Bundanon Homestead 9 km from the Art Museum, the home of the artist and his family since the early 1980s. In keeping with Boyd’s desire to ensure that Bundanon “is accessible to all Australian whose life can be enriched by interaction with creative Australian artists”, the farm – as well as the studio in which the artist painted during the last two decades of his life – is open to the public every Sundays.
Only the facade of the Kerstin Thompson Architects-designed building is visible, a key to its ability not only to withstand extreme weather, flooding and fire, but also to provide thermal stability. Thermal cooling rods embedded 150 meters into the ground add to the building’s relatively low carbon footprint, whose air conditioning requirements claim to be 60% less than a standard art museum.
“Art museums are among the worst offenders of the environment,” Kent says. “Of course you have to have temperature control to protect the collection, but that means they’re burning a lot of fossil fuels.”
The adjoining structure of the 165-meter bridge – which includes premium accommodation for 64 people in 32 bedrooms, multiple dining areas and flexible learning and meeting space – has avoided air conditioning altogether. (Packages, which include two nights of accommodation, fine dining and a comprehensive tour, start from $1,320 for one person and $1,650 for two.)
Constructed from locally sourced black end-grain timber, the bridge utilizes a cross-ventilated roof system, sliding louvers and shutters, natural breezeways, and ceiling fans. Solar panels run the length of the structure’s roof, which is also deeply grooved to capture enough rainwater to service the entire building.
Boyd himself, an environmentalist ahead of his time, would have endorsed Bundanon’s net zero energy goal.
The artist said that no man can ever own a landscape, and his mission was to foster an understanding and appreciation of landscape in relation to art.
The art museum’s first exhibit, however, will not include any of Boyd’s famous Shoalhaven paintings.
From Impulse to Action delves into the artist’s creative period in the 1960s, including his sets and costumes for a production by Elektra’s Robert Helpmann, which was critically acclaimed when staged at Sadler’s Wells Theater in London in 1963.
“[The works] they look like they were made yesterday,” Kent says. “We’ve already brought in a few people who are real Boyd fans and they’re pretty blown away to see this quite different dimension to the artist’s practice.”
The exhibition – the first of what is expected to be a total of three in any given year – also includes contemporary works by other Australian artists, including Shan Turner-Carroll and Dean Cross, in collaboration with local elders from Shoalhaven, Uncle Steve Russell and Aunty Phyllis. Stewarts.
Spaciously hung in four large spaces flooded with natural light, curator Sophie O’Brien has delivered an exhibition that seems to make a seamless transition between contemporary works and those by Boyd from more than five decades ago. Dance artist Jo Lloyd, for example, used a seven-meter-high reproduction of Boyd’s central backdrop for Elektra as the backdrop for the video installation Death Role, while Rochelle Haley’s installation Dance on a Couch by an Open Window (After Boyd) was inspired by the vibrant colors Boyd used in his 1960s ink drawings.
From Impulse to Action runs until June 12.