Over the last few years, as an extension of my projects as RSASA Historian, I have worked with the Collections Manager, Doris Unger, who has been maintaining the RSASA Collection, accessioning donations and revising what’s been done in previous decades, and adding information into the Collection’s database. I recalled things I saw in boxes or found while digging in the Archives that needed to be incorporated into the collection of artworks, and most of this has been done over the last year. With so much material being recovered, and new works coming into the RSASA Collection at a steady pace, it occurred to the Director, Bev Bills OAM, that History Month would provide a perfect opportunity to showcase this part of the Society’s activities to the public.
The last comprehensive showing of its Collection material only was in 2015, when 80 works were shown in Unwrapped: The RSASA Collection; and prior to that a smaller display in Selected Works from the Society’s Collection, in 2006. Before that a number of works and documents were displayed to celebrate the 140th anniversary in 1996, as part of a broader exhibition with borrowed works. The 2016 exhibition Proud to be 160 featured about three dozen works from the RSASA Collection among works from members, and private and museum collections. Earlier in 2022 the Society presented a second solo exhibition of the Malcolm Carbins’ works it holds, and from time to time supplements other exhibitions with more tightly focused presentations, such as for Life drawing (next year is the 100th anniversary of our Sketch Club).
In the previous few History Festivals we have presented an exhibition on Doreen and John Goodchild, an artistic couple who were very active in Adelaide from the 1920s, and especially attached to the RSASA as John was President 1937– 40. That exhibition was held in 2019; 2020’s was cancelled due to Covid and presented last year as Trailblazers, an exhibition on pioneers and artists of the first 20 years or so in the colony’s history. Associated with that exhibition, and largely because of the extra time leading up to its eventual presentation, the Society published Early Settler Artists of South Australia, 1836 –1856. These projects added information to the History Project that resulted in two volumes of A Visual History, published in 2016/2018.
So, there have been several historical exhibitions showing aspects of the Society’s collection over the last two decades, since the Society’s rooms were first refurbished at the beginning of the century. The focus on this exhibition has been to show some of the best of the Collection, and some of the newer material that has come in but not been seen yet. There has also developed a strong theme in the Collection of portraits of artists in paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculpture. This emerging theme is presented as an exhibition within an exhibition, as a means to introduce these artists to the members and public, as many of them have become obscured or are not familiar to modern viewers.
As I worked on the catalogue over a period of months, it enabled me to refine what images should be presented. The final outcome depended on a visual inspection after work was unpacked, and repairs or remounting or reframing were made as required, as works long packaged to protect them in storage were able to be better assessed and photographed. Some of them had not been accessioned. Finally, the hang, too, informed the ultimate selection in terms of the curation of the exhibition, and it amounted to about 1/2 of the work in the catalogue, which is estimated to be around 1/2 of the total material held.
Of particular note are the conté and photographic portraits of artists from the 1960s made by the then editor of Kalori, Betty Jew, and a series of strong photographic portraits of key modern artists by Peter Medlen. There are several large paintings that won various prizes at the Society from the 1920s to the 1970s. There are a few photographs from the RSASA Archives, too, which have not been framed but have been presented in reproduction on walls added in to the gallery. These reproductions show works that won prizes in the 19th century, some work that was not suitable to show at present or had not yet been repaired or framed, or due to constrictions of space.
It was hoped the selection offered a glimpse at the range of media, in both 2D and 3D, and the quality contained within the broader Collection, and informed and provided interest and pleasure to members and gallery visitors.