Bass Coast council to vote on incredible art offer

THE people of Wonthaggi have been offered a $1.25 million art collection, numbering 606 works, owned by little known Victorian art historian, Robert Smith.
And it will be one of the final tasks of the out-going Bass Coast Shire Council, at its meeting on Wednesday next week, to vote on formally accepting the offer, which comes with a set-up cost of $38,321 and on-going curatorial and storage expenses.
The shire has already spent $24,400 having art expert, Rodney James of the LMH Consulting Group assess, value and advise on costs associated with accepting the gift.
According to Mr James: “A major strength of The Robert Smith Social Realism Collection is the emphasis on Australian social realist artists and their use of graphic media (linocuts, screen prints, lithographs and posters) to critique social, political and economic inequities and advance alternative visions of society.”
As well as 86 works by Australian social realist painter, Noel Counihan, second only in size and significance to the collection in the Australian National Gallery in Canberra, the cache of artworks incredibly includes pieces by some of the world’s most famous artists including Rembrandt, Goya, the celebrated English Romanticist landscape painter J M W Turner and Picasso.
There are also works by William Dobell, Lionel Lindsay, Elizabeth Durack, William Hogath, the Flemish Baroque master Anthony Van Dyck, Clifton Pugh and Samuel Thomas Gill, the artist and social commentator who captured colonial life in Australia in the 1800s.
But it’s not a done deal.
Council has before it a recommendation that it: “1. Accepts The Robert Smith Social Realism Collection and authorises the Chief Executive Officer to commence negotiations with Mr Smith or his nominated agents; 2. Notes the financial and management implications; 3. Thanks Mr Robert Smith for his most generous offer; and 4. Thanks Wendy and John Crellin for presenting this opportunity to the Bass Coast community.”
It could however amend or even vote down the recommendation at the September 21 meeting, the day it goes into Caretaker Mode before the October elections.
Chair of the Bass Coast Arts and Cultural Forum, and President of the SCM Rescue Station Arts Cooperative, Wendy Crellin, a friend of 88 year old Mr Smith of Geelong, and believes the collection represents an enormous opportunity for the area, boosting its chances of attracting funding for a major regional art gallery.
In their report to council next week, shire officers support this view: “Should council in the future determine to build such a facility, the significance of the Collection will add considerable weight to any application for capital funding (State, Federal or Philanthropic).”
Talk of the impact of Tasmania’s MONA gallery, with its 2500 visitors a day and $720 million annual impact on the State’s economy might be premature, but Mrs Crellin believes jobs, the chance to build a nationally significant collection and, more importantly, to develop Wonthaggi’s unique identity are among the opportunities being offered.
“Bob would be giving these works to the people of Wonthaggi as a gift in perpetuity, not to be sold, but to remain here for future generations,” she said.
Controversially, though, Mrs Crellin believes the Wonthaggi Centennial Centre or next best, the Old Post Office building, should be used to house and exhibit the works in the short to medium term, while funding for a regional gallery can be sought.
But without waiting for the art expert’s report or the decision of council on the Collection, the shire has given the Wonthaggi Business and Tourism Association, ArtSpace Wonthaggi and the visitor information centre volunteers the inside running on the Centennial Centre.
Although the WBTA is set to review this position at a special meeting tonight, Tuesday, September 13 at the Wonthaggi Workmen’s Club at 6pm.
Mrs Crellin believes the Collection and the visitor information volunteers are the best option for the centre.
She explained why Wonthaggi had been chosen as the ideal home for the Collection and why it was a perfect fit for the town and region.
“When the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra found out that we’d been offered these works, they wanted to know ‘how on earth did a country town like Wonthaggi come to be offered a Counihan collection to rival our own’,” Mrs Crellin said this week.
“It’s all to do with the fact that Noel Counihan made such a strong connection with Wonthaggi when he came here as a relatively young artist during the war, between March and April of 1944, to witness the work of our black coal miners.
“He didn’t just come here to draw them, he wanted to experience it for himself. He lived with the Webb family in Wonthaggi North, became quite a popular figure and there was a great to-do about him wanting to go down into the mines with the men.
“The mine bosses wouldn’t allow it until the miners threatened to strike.”
He was ultimately allowed down into the mines and the result was a stunning set of six lino-cuts, now famously known as ‘The Miners’ series, depicting not only the iconic work ‘The Miner’ but also the health effects of the mines in ‘The Cough’ and its impact on the families ‘In the shadows of disaster… the wife’.
Unbeknown to most people in the community, the Bass Coast Shire Council already owns a set of original lino-cut prints, dated and signed in pencil by the artist, purchased at the time of Wonthaggi’s centenary in 2010 but not arriving in time to form part of the celebrations.
They are hidden away in the shire’s vaults, yet to be seen by the general public.
“The works helped make Counihan’s mark as a social realist artist, and the Wonthaggi Miners Women’s Auxiliary donated seven guineas to help send Noel to Europe to study.
“Bob was a guest speaker at the Rescue Station’s AGM in 2007 and he’s strongly of the view that Wonthaggi is the right place for the Collection, given Noel Counihan’s connection with the area.
“It’s a staggering collection that could form the nucleus in terms of putting us on the map as a national centre of excellence, featuring social realist art, for education, culture and exhibition.
“Social realism art, featuring as it does working class people, and in our case coal mining people, in a new regional gallery, touches the very heart of Wonthaggi and could become a great source of local pride as well as being the catalyst for an on-going boost to the local economy.”