The Legacies of Bernard Smith symposium

Saturday 10 November 2012


Session 1: Bernard Smith and the art museum

Chair: Dr Andrew Yip, Art Gallery of NSW
In a museum career that began in 1945 at the Art Gallery of NSW, Bernard Smith raised issues of museum scholarship that continue to inform debates about the role of the professional curator and art educator. His efforts to catalogue the Gallery’s collection provided a benchmark for future publications, yet at the same time he held complex views about the value of the museum as a public institution. This symposium explores Smith’s contribution to models of Australian museological practice and public education.

Dr Michael Brand
Symposium welcome

Dr James Berryman, University of Melbourne
Documenting art: Bernard Smith, academic art history and the role of the curator
Returning from study in London in 1951, Bernard Smith set himself the task of cataloguing the collection of Australian paintings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Ambitiously, Smith modelled his methods on Martin Davies’ scholarly old master catalogues from the National Gallery. As a teacher and art historian, the influence of academic education on the role of the art curator was an enduring concern throughout Smith’s career. Although supporting the shift from connoisseur-collector to academic-professional in matters of curatorship, Smith was not totally happy with the art historical outcomes of this epistemic shift. This paper charts Smith’s interest in art museum scholarship in Australia, with reference to his critique of art historical accounts of modernism and its legacy.

Assoc Prof Joanna Mendelssohn, University of New South Wales
Bernard Smith and the professional art museum
From 1945, when he was first appointed to the Art Gallery of NSW, Smith became an advocate for creating professional standards in Australian art museums. His 1953 catalogue of the Art Gallery of NSW collection became a benchmark for future publications in the field, and a major source for subsequent scholarship in Australian art histories. In the 1970s he became a crucial figure in promoting professional education for future museum staff. This paper will analyse Smith’s contribution to Australian art museums from both within the institution (as employee and consultant) and as an educator of future generations.

Stephen Miller, Art Gallery of NSW
Contingency as the guard dog of history: Bernard Smith and the Art Gallery of NSW
It has been voiced as a criticism of Smith that his account of Australian art, grounded in stylistic description and analysis, undervalues the contexts in which art is produced. Yet his work at the Art Gallery of NSW saw him engaged, both practically and theoretically, in issues of art patronage, the market and institutional culture. This paper will examine his work at the Art Gallery of NSW as a curator of exhibitions, as an educator travelling around rural NSW with the Travelling Art Exhibitions and as an art historian researching the collection and publishing the ground-breaking 1953 catalogue of Australian oils.


Dr Ann Stephen, University of Sydney Art Museums
Bernard the Power curator: soixante-huitard or art shopper?
Over the tumultuous year of 1968, following the Prague Spring and the Paris student uprisings, Bernard Smith travelled to Europe as Power curator. He acquired almost 60 works for the Power collection in Paris, at the Venice Biennale and the 4th Documenta. This paper will examine how Smith as curator interpreted Power’s visionary bequest ‘to bring the latest ideas about contemporary art to the people of Australia.’

Dr Christopher Marshall, University of Melbourne
Mind the gap! Bernard Smith versus the museum, 1961–95
Throughout his career, Bernard Smith manifested a characteristically complex attitude towards the idea of the museum as institution. On the one hand, his political and social sensibilities made him profoundly suspicious of the strong legacy within the museum of authoritarianism and elitism. In 1946 he accordingly denounced ‘the futility of art museums’ for maintaining an exclusionary attitude towards their audiences – an attitude that was anathema to his own socially inclusive commitment to full public programming and art education. At the same time, though, Smith remained wedded to what we would now recognize as a traditionalist – and in its own way also elitist – model of the curator as specialist keeper whose worth was to be judged not so much by the flashy distractions of populist temporary exhibitions, as rather by his or her long-term commitment to producing impeccably researched permanent collection catalogues based on the model of Martin Davies’ post-war publications on the National Gallery, London. This paper will examine this complex attitude as it manifested itself in two noteworthy instances of Bernard Smith’s public agitation against high profile museum redevelopment projects.

Panel session

Dr James Berryman, University of Melbourne
Stephen Miller, Art Gallery of NSW
Dr Ann Stephen, University of Sydney Art Museums
Dr Christopher Marshall, University of Melbourne
Assoc Prof Joanna Mendelssohn, University of NSW

Self-catered, but coffee and tea provided

Session 2: Beyond Bernard… The future of art writing in Australia

Bernard Smith created some of the most important narratives by which to make sense of Australian Art. Where do these narratives now live? Who is making the new histories of Australian Art? What are the challenges facing art criticism and art writing in Australia today? Is another Bernard possible? Or desirable? And will the new generation of art historians be writing books, articles, or blogs, or curating exhibitions?

Round table
Chair: Professor Mark Ledbury, Power Institute, University of Sydney

Dr Christopher Allen, art critic, The Australian
Assoc Prof Rex Butler, University of Queensland
Prof Andrew McNamara, Queensland University of Technology
Amelia Groom, art writer and PhD student, University of Sydney
Katrina Grant, editor, Electronic Melbourne Art Journal and ‘Melbourne art network’

Closing reception
Domain Theatre foyer

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Day 1 is Friday 9 November at the Power Institute, University of Sydney
Day 2 is Saturday 10 November at the Art Gallery of NSW









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