Modern art & country Australia

Melissa Boyd

In his autobiography art historian Bernard Smith recounts how, as a young art teacher posted to a school at Murraguldrie in country New South Wales (NSW) in the mid 1930s, he tried unsuccessfully to borrow books on modern art from the country lending service of the State Public Library.

On a visit to Sydney he made an appointment to see the NSW Chief Librarian W.H. Ifould, 'a man of considerable power and influence in New South Wales' who was also a trustee of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW).

Smith took to the meeting the small catalogue listing the art books in the country section and 'asked, as discreetly as he could manage, why it offered no books on modern art'. Ifould was very clear: 'There are no books on modern art in the Country Reference Section ... because to the best of my knowledge no one in the country is interested in modern art'.

This essay explores the history of taking modern art to country towns in NSW, particularly the contribution of one woman, Mary Alice Evatt.

Mary Alice was involved in the modernist art movement both locally and overseas.

Through her international connections she was also well-informed on the 'Art for the People' movement: in America the Federal Art Project, established under Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal in 1932, emphasised the central role of the arts in a democracy and in Britain the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts was established in 1939 on principles of opportunity and participation for all citizens.

In Australia, Mary Alice promoted similar ideals focusing on arts access, education and participation as part of the modern state. These views, combined with her advocacy of principles of social equity, led to her becoming a key broker in the delivery of one of the main 'Art for the People' initiatives in Australia, the AGNSW's Country Art Exhibition Scheme.

It was through this scheme that modern art found its way not only into library catalogues but into the heartland of NSW country towns.

In 1943 Mary Alice Evatt was appointed a trustee of the AGNSW. The Bulletin reported on the morning tea put on by the President and trustees of the gallery to welcome her: "Through the board room of the National Gallery last Saturday morning ran a thrill of anticipation. For the first time in its history a women trustee was to enter its portals."

Women's groups and women artists wrote to the gallery applauding Mary Alice's appointment but she remained the only woman throughout her twenty-seven years in the role.

Not only was she the lone female voice at board meetings (the standard address by the president to the trustees began 'Gentlemen - and Mrs Evatt -') but she was one of the few champions of modern art.

In his autobiography the director of the gallery from late 1945, Hal Missingham, recalls that the 'early trustees were inordinately partisan about what they considered to be true art as opposed to all the horrible modern rubbish infiltrating the pure art of Australia'.

He credits Mary Alice as being the only trustee with a thorough knowledge of modern art and with consistently arguing for the purchase of modern works in the face of the entrenched conservatism of trustees such as Sir Lionel Lindsay, Sir Marcus Clarke, Sydney Long, J.W. Maund and Ifould.

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