Bryony Nainby gives the great heavy door a heave with her shoulder and it slowly slides open. The Benalla Art Gallery director walks into the vault that guards the city’s art collection. On every rack and in every storage bin are the most important names of Australian art. In a corner stands Howard Arkley and Juan Davila’s famed installation Blue Chip Instant Decorator – a Room, including a chair airbrushed in classic Arkley manner. An early colonial scene, the dusk sky reflecting on water, is by Louis Buvelot. A work in yellow of deconstructed road signs by Rosalie Gascoigne. At every turn there is another great work by instantly recognised names: Tom Roberts, Sidney Nolan, Margaret Preston.

‘We were very fortunate to have a visionary founder, Laurie Ledger,’ says Bryony. ‘Not only did he have the vision for a state of the art gallery that still works so well 40 years on and in such a beautiful site by the river and surrounded by gardens, but he also left us his collection,’ she says. ‘This and the fact that he was able to convince his cousin Gladys Bennett to create a bequest of a million dollars to acquire modern art.’ This impressive and important collection forms a solid foundation for Bryony’s plans to make the gallery one of the most important art destinations in the country. 

Before she joined the Benalla Art Gallery in November 2014 Bryony was based in Paris. She had been working at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery overseeing the institution’s involvement in the Theatre of the World exhibition, a collaboration with MONA and famous French art curator Jean-Hubert Martin. Sent to Paris to supervise the exhibition’s presentation at the Maison Rouge gallery, she travelled France and Europe once her contract had finished. She was impressed by the way smaller regional cities and towns were using art exhibitions to draw attention to their existing attractions.

‘Lille, for example, draws large numbers of people from Paris and other cities in France to visit its modern art gallery, a stunning example of contemporary architecture set in beautiful gardens,’ Bryony says.

‘It, like us here, is two hours by train from major population centres. We are part of that movement. Statistics from a recent exhibition show that 65 percent of attendees walking through the doors were from out of town.’

Recently the gallery announced that it was to be the sole space outside Sydney where the winner and all finalists of the annual Doug Moran Portrait Prize, worth $150,000, will be displayed in 2016. ‘Next year we are very pleased to have an exhibition of works by Brett Whiteley,’ says Bryony with a warm smile.

Creating a destinational regional gallery is not just aimed at people driving in off the Hume Freeway. One of the greatest successes recently has been the John Twycross Melbourne International Exhibitions Collection. The exhibition presented a beautiful selection of paintings and decorative arts bought by wealthy wool merchant John Twycross in 1880 and 1888 at Melbourne’s two world fairs. ‘A remarkable snapshot of late 19th century taste and style, many of the works on show had been held in a private collection in north-east Victoria before being donated to Museum Victoria,’ Bryony says. ‘This has been very popular with people from the North East’.

Also attracting attention is a collection of portraits of famous Australians by the acclaimed artist Vincent Fantauzzo. His 30/30 Project presents 30 people painted with plain backgrounds on a standard canvas size. The portrayals are so accurate they border on photo-realism. Subjects include film director Baz Luhrmann, AFL legend Ron Barassi, actress Asher Keddie (the wife of the artist), former prime minister Bob Hawke, champion Australian Rules footballer Heritier Lumumba and many others. Many of the faces are instantly recognisable, such as Keddie, while some visitors struggle to put names to faces they’ve probably seen, such as former Australian of the year and eminent biologist Sir Gustav ‘Gus’ Nossal.

Bryony has succeeded in making art more accessible and approachable. ‘There had been a perception that the gallery was elitist,’ she says as we walk into the Ledger Gallery overlooking the old oaks and elms of the botanic gardens. ‘We’re trying to dispel this idea with exhibitions and events which draw people in and provide an engaging experience.’ The current exhibition Colour and Movement is an exploration of Australian artists and art movements and the way they depict the landscape. The exhibition is a blend of works from the collection and works from the CBUS collection, a private superannuation fund collection of 250 of Australia’s most important artists.

In one corner Bryony has grouped together three works by Heidelberg artists Tom Roberts, Walter Withers and Frederick McCubbin, of the Victorian landscape. The close grouping naturally makes you look and compare the three works, finding the similarities in technique, looking at similar brushstrokes and colour pallet but also noticing each artist’s individual voice and style. It is a simple but clever technique to change the gallery visitor from being a passive observer into someone who actively evaluates each piece.

These are hung next to a modern piece by Stephen Bush depicting three Victorian explorer gentlemen bathed in gold afternoon light, on a hilltop in the bush. Although essentially a self-portrait (each of the explorers is Bush himself), by placing it next to three of the most prominent men in Australian painting in the Victorian era one simply can’t help but join all the paintings together and ask, ‘Are painters explorers?’ or ‘Were all three working on a frontier?’

Bryony is very skilled at drawing you in to ask questions so you you feel like you’re part of an exhibition.  ‘I want the gallery to be an agent of change,’ she says, ‘I want to deliver to people something outside of everyday expectation.’ On all counts she is delivering above and beyond.

Vincent Fantauzzo’s 30/30 Project:
March 4 –April 25

Colour and Movement:
Feb 26 – June 5

Dreamcrossed: The Imagined Body:
Feb 19 – April 17

Open 10am-5pm (closed Tuesdays)
Bridge Street, Benalla, Victoria

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