Saturday, April 20, 2013

Is Textile Art in Australia Mature Enough for -
A Dedicated Museum?
Opinion Piece on Art

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Australia has a rich history in growing and making fibers. For example, in 1788 the First Fleet brought sheep to Australian shores. In 1797 John Macarthur and Samuel Marsden acquired Spanish merinos from South Africa. In 1800 Governor King saw Australia’s potential for producing wool and shipped fleeces from Macarthur’s and other flocks to England for appraisal. In November of 1807 the Reverend Samuel Marsden arrived in England with a barrel of Australian wool for sale, thereby initiating Australia’s first "European" export to the world.

The face of an Australian merino ram.

The history of cotton in Australia parallels that of wool. The First Fleet brought cottonseeds to Australia and in 1830 three bags of cotton were exported to England for sale. Australia also produces synthetic fibers such as viscose rayon staple fibers etc. Hence in the case of raw materials that are required to create textiles - Australia is one of the leading lights in the world.

Should the driest continent in the world use its water resources to grow cotton?
Farmer Andrew Parkes and wife Vanessa, with children Sam and Sarah, on one of his company's six cotton farms near Moree in NSW.
Photograph: Peter Lorimer.
Source: The Australian

Some uses of textiles are obvious (e.g. wall hangings, quilts, felts, weaves, ArtCloth, clothing, curtains, towels, carpets etc.), whereas other uses are embedded and so less visible (e.g. furnishings, air-conditioning filters, shade cloths etc.) Australia manufactures or creates items in all of these areas.

Margo Lewers’ ArtCloth Wall Hanging – Orange and Red (1975).

It is clear that in producing wearable art Australia has a breadth and depth of creativity far beyond its relatively small population. Jenny Kee, Linda Jackson and Deborah Leser are all world renowned for their wearable art and fabrics. At the top end of fashion – that is at the haute couture level – Australia has some leading fashion designers such as Alex Perry, Collette Dinnigan and Alannah Hill etc.

The Wearable Art of Jenny Kee.

In the art of weaving there were Larry and Mary Beeston and of course, the Australian Tapestry Workshop (formerly Victorian Tapestry Workshop) that produced art of magnificence in both size and quality. Quilting has a long tradition in Australia and there are none better than Dijanne Cevaal, Carolyn Sullivan and Judy Hooworth etc. - just to name few!

The Reception Hall Tapestry – Detailed View.
Note: The design depicts a landscape at Shoal Haven NSW (Australia) and it now hangs in the Reception Hall in Parliament House, Canberra (Australia).
Designer: Authur Boyd.
Interpretation: Leonie Bessant.
Weavers: Leonie Bessant, Sue Carstairs, Irene Creedon, Robyn Daw, Owen Hammond, Kate Hutchinson, Pam Joyce, Peta Meredith, Robyn Mountcastle, Joy Smith, Jennifer Sharp, Irja West.
Size: 9.18 x 19.90 meters.

In the area of ArtCloth – my passion – there are a number of outstanding Australian artists, some of whom were showcased in the exhibition I curated – ArtCloth: Engaging New Visions. The longest continuing ArtCloth practice in Australia is that due to the batik ArtCloth of Ernabella. Their journey in ArtCloth started in 1971 and has remained unabated to this day.

Tjunkaya Tapaya: Untitled.
ArtCloth: Engaging New Visions.

So who collects textiles in Australia? There is no better collection of Aboriginal ArtCloth in the world than in the National Gallery of Victoria. However, textiles are just one thin sliver of their artworks. On the other hand, the Power House Museum (NSW) has in its collection some excellent wearable art. It has over 100,679 objects collected from 1880 to the present day from steam engines to fine glassware to postage stamps to robot dogs - hardly a dedicated textile museum. The National Gallery of Australia has an excellent collection of costumes from the Ballets Russes etc. Nonetheless, it is less occupied with these art objects than with the many others in its collection. The National Museum of Australia in Canberra collects quilts as part of its collection to reflect Australian history.

Does regional Australia come to the rescue? There is a National Wool Museum in Geelong. Narrabri in New South Wales hosts a major cotton exhibition once a year namely, the Australian Cotton Fibre Expo. Orange Regional Gallery (NSW), Fairfield City Museum and Gallery (NSW), and Wangaratta Art Gallery (Victoria) have textile collections. Tamworth Regional Gallery has the largest collection of textiles in Australia and holds the Tamworth Textile Triennial Exhibition. The only Gallery in Australia that is specifically earmarked for promoting and supporting contemporary textile art is Ararat Regional Art Gallery (Victoria). Its main focus is on embroidery and soft sculpture etc. Moreover, to put its activities into perspective, its 2011/2012 budget was $271,000 or ca. 1.3 cents per head of population. With its limited budget it can barely cover all aspects of textiles within Australia. It is clear for a population of 21 million we barely scratch the surface of Australian’s interest in the production, functionality and creative aspects of textiles.

Ararat Art Gallery (Victoria).

Let us compare our efforts with Canada, a land of 34 million peoples, ranging in ethnic diversity not that much different from our own. Canada’s major textile museum is aptly named - The Textile Museum of Canada (TMC) and is located in Toronto – a major city in Canada. It is an engaging visual arts organization with more than 12,000 textile objects from more than 200 countries and regions. The TMC's permanent collection celebrates cultural diversity and includes traditional fabrics, garments, carpets and related artifacts such as beadwork and basketry. The Museum offers a broad variety of exhibitions including themed shows based on its permanent collection and contemporary exhibitions of the work of Canadian and international artists.

The Textile Museum Of Canada.

To put this comparison in better perspective, the Canadian dollar is nearly on parity with the Australian dollar. In 2010 the TMC revenue alone was $3,322,869 and its expenditure was $3,333,030. Its total assets were of the order of $15,759,512. Its mission is simple: “TMC engages the public by fostering knowledge, creativity and awareness. The Museum explores the continuum of textile work from antiquity to the present through all its activities including, exhibitions, collections, education programs, research and documentation.” Its vision is direct: “TMC promotes an understanding of human identity through textiles.” Its values are guided by four key personal and professional values namely: respect, excellence, education and innovation. On this one museum, Canadians are spending ca. 10 cents per head of population.

Where do we go from here? An umbrella organization such as the national committee of the Australian Textile & Surface Design Association (ATASDA) could ask members of embroiderers guilds, textile manufacturers, fashion designers, quilters, weavers, ArtCloth artists, growers of natural fibers etc. to sign a petition calling on the Federal Government for a dedicated textile museum similar to TMC. It could be a newly built museum or it may be an existing museum that must hold a wider brief (e.g. not just wool as in The Wool Museum in Geelong). It could involve a State competition for such a museum, with State Governments providing additional long term funding to secure the museum for their State.

So what do you think? Is Australian textile art mature enough to secure a dedicated museum?


Flora Fascinata said...

Another great post that always seems to tie in visually and with the script with what I am trying to do with Qld school syllabus! Most definitely warrants a dedicated museum, the Queensland Branch of the Embroiderers Guild alone has an amazing collection that is carefully archived and stored until the exhibits they hold at their premises. Thank you once again!

Sarah Louise Ricketts said...

Great post, Marie-Therese, about something very close to my heart. I think Australia (perhaps in each state, but certainly in Canberra) should have truly well-funded, dedicated and accessible textile museums. That's in the public domain. In the private domain, I believe that we are crying out for truly-dedicated, sophisticated textile art commercial galleries and ARIs. It is about time.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marie-Therese, another interesting subject. YES I most definitely think there should be a dedicated Textile Museum in Australia.
I would love to see more of the general gallerys taking textiles exhibitions on as well.
So for me the answer is YES to a dedicated textile gallery. Maz

Anonymous said...

Its a given how important this would be to a world wide base of textile savvy people and since most textile artisans I know provide pieces that are such a loud shout of uniqueness, it would prove we respect the talent of such people and processes.

Debra said...

Only one museum? And where would it be? I'm thinking that a larger profile of textile arts and more opportunities for exhibition in a number of locations could be of more service than only one museum. Just thinking aloud. Don't know ramifications.

Ararat Regional Art Gallery said...

Interesting idea, Marie-Therese. I agree that a museum broadly exploring Australia’s textile history has merit. One of the challenges though, unlike ceramics or glass, the terms textile art or fibre art cover a broad spectrum of practices. If you add utilitarian and commercial objects to the museum it becomes broader still.

In your article touch on the efforts of a number institutions which focus on textile/fibre art, and correctly state that none resemble the model of a national museum of textile art which you propose. This is true, but it would have been good if you had explored what it is that institutions like Ararat Regional Art Gallery contribute to the field rather than diminishing our efforts by focusing on our small scale and by misrepresenting our programming and collection focus, which I can assure you is broader that embroidery and soft sculpture.

We are regional gallery charged with delivering a broad exhibition program, but our focus remains firmly in the fibre art area. To this end we program exhibitions by contemporary artists working in textiles and fibre, but we are also one of the few institutions, along with Tamworth Regional Gallery, which curates exhibitions focused on recent (post1960s) historical fibre art. This is something that no major institution does to any acceptable degree. Exhibition history for the last four years can be found at Or for more recent news see our facebook page

Fashion is well represented now in major institutions and has proven to be a reliable audience drawcard. You also refer to artists working in quilting and the art cloth, suggesting that these practices need representation in a dedicated museum. I disagree. Contemporary artists across Australia are increasingly working with fibre and textiles in very interesting ways at present. Many of these artists are fully immersed in and accepted by the art world. On the margins of these practices are artists – many who came of age in the 1980s – who have not introduced the required conceptual rigour to their practice that leads to commercial gallery representation and wider critical recognition. This limits the critical realm in which new work is viewed, critiqued, presented and collected.

I accept that there remain prejudices towards textiles as art, from both audiences and curators but, notwithstanding, artists working in textile specific art forms need to strengthen the critical underpinning of their work, emerge from the safety of the guild and their personal networks to establish a profile in the wider art world. A dedicated textile art museum is not necessarily going to be a home for such makers – unless it is run by a guild or with a guild-like structure.

Anthony Camm
Director, Ararat Regional Art Gallery

Annette said...

I asked this question of a country museum that does have a number of textile items in its permanent collection and the director said no he didn't think it was a good idea. - didn't really go into the reason though. I would love one - I don't think Canberra would be a good idea as it relies on visitors as the population base is not sufficient and makes it reliant only on the Federal government for funding. I would like to see one in a regional area well serviced by transport. There are some galleries already that do have textile exhibitions occasionally. Arat as was mentioned, Tamworth, Fairfield in Sydney, The wool museum in Geelong. The Brisbane gallery run by TAFTA. The Powerhouse in Sydney has had the lace exhibition for a couple of years now. The Pioneer Womens Hut Museum in Tumbarumba, NSW is fantastic and its initiative of the national quilt register is great. But perhaps if we had a textile museum it would water down these and other similar initiatives but I do think we need to have the debate and thank you for airing it on your blog.

Art Quill Studio said...

Regional galleries in Australia are punching well above their weight with respect to textile art. In fact, when I curated - ArtCloth:Engaging New Visions (see link on this post)- it was regional galleries that came to the fore. It was exhibited at Fairfield City Museum and Gallery (NSW), Orange Regional Gallery (NSW), Redcliffe City Art Gallery (Queensland) and Wangaratta Art Gallery (Victoria).

On this blog spot you will find wearable art showcased at the National Gallery of Australia (e.g. Ballets Russes) and Aboriginal Long Cloth (National Gallery of Victoria), Versace (National Gallery of Victoria) etc. - just to name a few! Undoubtedly textile art as well as wearable art are well recognised as art forms throughout the Australian art scene.

The Ararat Regional Art Gallery is playing an exceptional role in promoting textile arts to all and sundry - and this post was not aimed to demean their work in this area. (Note: Corrections are always welcomed on this blog spot). Nevertheless, a budget of under $300,000 must curtail somewhat the effectiveness of the outreach that a gallery can have when compared to a budget over $3.5 million (which - as I understand it - does not include its collection budget) that is at the disposal of the Textile Museum of Canada.

Some of the commentators on this post have already foreseen the debate in terms of centralisation (one major museum) and decentralisation (a sway of smaller galleries in regional Australia connected to fibre art with multi-collections held by large galleries).

From my perspective, I favour a centralised National Textile Museum, with the hub of the wheel being connected by spokes to regional galleries focussing on fiber or textile art. It should be noted that I would welcome an existing gallery such as the Ararat Regional Art Gallery being re-badged and re-budgeted into the Australian National Gallery of Textiles or if a new institution is created (see post).

The gross value of Australian wool (includes value of dead wool and wool on skins) is $1.9 billion according to Australian Bureau of Statistics. This is just one fiber! Surely a dedicated textile museum is not outside our political and financial reach. This is an election year after all.

Thanks for all of the comments. It is much appreciated. May the debate continue!


Jenny Cutting said...

Yes we have had natural fibres for a long time in Australia for textiles and yes the Canadian museum is very successful - so put a museum somewhere very touristy in Australia.

Anonymous said...

I think it is very important a museum in Australia be dedicated to house collection and exhibition of textiles. So much fashion and interior design art and design depend on textiles. I have always encouraged artists to work with textiles as the coordinator of Partners in Print/ Polymedia which is a dedicated artists print media exchange. I would love to see sections dedicated to Fashion, Linen, Fabrics, Furniture, and artists made works. I would like to see displays on processes, histories and artists statements. Curated shows including history snaps say textiles from the 50's or 90's etc. Michael Florrimell

Diana Symes said...

Great idea ! Yes, would love to see this idea go ahead in all the main centres It's time for this Art form to be seen on a more regular basis.

Allison said...

This is cool!

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