Mary Dudin Element Aqua 1 1997, ed of 50, relief woodblock, 42 x 29.5 cm.

A unique collaboration between an architect, an artist and some of the architect's friends was celebrated in an exhibition of selected works by the recipients of the Mark Howlett Foundation Commission between 1991 - 2001. The First Decade is a tribute to the architect Mark Howlett who sadly died soon after this unique idea was conceived. The exhibition also gives recognition the voluntary work of the Mark Howlett Foundation Board, the up-front financial commitment of the friends who became subscribers and the seven artists, many of whom, after being recipients of a Commission, continued to provide hours of voluntary administrative support for the other projects.

The Mark Howlett Foundation has never had the funds nor the space to exhibit the projects together so an approach was made to the Art Gallery of WA who saw an opportunity to show these works together with other work by the same artists acquired 1970 - 1996. Some of these acquisitions had not been seen for some time, while others had never been hung. It was a rare treat to see a large exhibition of West Australian contemporary prints, painting and wall sculptures at the Gallery for a three month period.

The mechanism of the commissioning is that artists are invited to participate in a 'Commission with no brief' whereby financial support for eighteen months allows time to try new directions; therefore much of the work is experimental. In other respects it is a demanding brief as on completion the artist has to provide each subscriber with an original work and a set of limited edition prints.

Trevor Vickers Minilya 1999/2000, ed of 45, silkscreen, 40 x 40 cm, courtesy of the Mark Howlett Foundation.

The original artist, George Haynes produced twenty drawings, which were subsequently produced as a suite of black and white lithographs and which the first 20 subscribers received. The Draughtsman's Contract depicts Fremantle and the surrounding countryside and showcases Haynes' considerable drawing skills while invoking a wonderful sense of place.

Three of the artists pushed the boundaries of the serigraph by manipulation and experimentation, Jeremy Kirwan-Ward by creating intensely dense and rich colours, Eveline Kotai, in a suite of nine prints, creating patterned, translucent tones on Arches Platine paper while Trevor Vickers' Minilya Suite conveys depth on a two dimensional surface.

Giles Hohnen and Mary Dudin chose the linocut and the woodblock, simpler and older forms of printmaking, Hohnen achieving an exquisite density of colour, broken into forms by jagged and bold edges while Dudin's finely textured surfaces bring light and movement to the surface, expanding the possibilities of this dramatic and effective print process.

The composition of the subscriber group, around 25 strong, has changed over the years but with a $2,750 commitment from each, participating still requires an act of faith. 35% of the funds are retained for management to provide a studio space and pay a curator for each artist's exhibition and catalogue. The excess of each print edition (which varies between 35 and 50) is retained by the Foundation until sold, with 50% of the sale price going to the artist.
This flow-on effect is considerable both financially and also in terms of recognition and prestige. The journey for the subscribers is exciting and educational as there is involvement from the initial visit to the artist's studio to subsequent get-togethers to view progress with many anxious and enthusiastic subscribers at the dinner held in the final month to view the outcome and hear the announcement of the next recipient. For the artist there is a regular income derived from 65% of the subscriptions and a guaranteed exhibition at the completion of the project.

The significance of these prints to the art community and the Foundation is considerable. Roger Butler, Curator of Australian prints at the National Gallery of Australia has recently purchased complete sets of the first six projects. The seventh project by Penny Bovell is still in process. Bovell intends to make paintings, a limited edition book and a set of prints. Theo Koning has just accepted Commission No. 8.

The First Decade has given the Mark Howlett Foundation a public face but could have benefited from more curatorial input. There were excellent educational sheets but sadly no catalogue of the order of that produced for The Rural and Industries Bank of Western Australia Art Collection (1988) or the Wesfarmers Collection of Australian Art (1989) exhibitions. A video of the contributing artists would have been informative and a valuable historical document. Exhibiting West Australian art gives the Art Gallery of WA an opportunity to review its own collection in different contexts, also opening up opportunities for contemporary West Australian artists both within the State, interstate and internationally.