Daniel Thomas: Empathy and Understanding

Steven Miller talked to Daniel Thomas AM, much-loved curator and Emeritus Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, at his house overlooking the wild north coast of Tasmania about what he has discovered about art and artists during his long career across three major Australian art museums.

Steven Miller talked to Daniel Thomas AM, much-loved curator and Emeritus Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, at his house overlooking the wild north coast of Tasmania about what he has discovered about art and artists during his long career across three major Australian art museums.

STEVEN MILLER: I'd like to start with something about your early interest in art because you've mentioned that your family, like other country families of the time, had an interest in literature and were well-read. But what about visual arts, did they play a role in your childhood?

DANIEL THOMAS: Not much art, but a lot of consciousness of the beauty of the landscape. It's an exceptionally beautiful bit of countryside. The first Thomas who landed in Tasmania in 1824 had with him a copy of Uvedale Price's Essay on the Picturesque (1798) which is how to select a place for a homestead in imitation of the views you would find in 17th Century Italian or Dutch paintings.

And do you feel that that notion of the Picturesque has shaped you in a way?
Not the formulaic Picturesque. There are other kinds of beauty I like more, like the minimalist Nullarbor landscape  or the peculiarly wild Tasmanian geology. Here in Tasmania you become very conscious of the structure of the land, how it has changed, how energies have been ordered by time and strange forces. To understand the structure of the earth and other things is to have a bit of an aesthetic response to the world.

Was it at school that you had an inkling that your life would somehow be involved with the visual arts, or did that come later, at university?
It came much later. There was prosperity: the 1950s Korean War meant that wool prices were high, so the family farm was making money and there was the opportunity of paying for Oxford. I got into Oriel College and did Modern History. Art history wasn't available. By the time I'd finished I knew that as soon as I got home to Australia I wanted to work in an art museum, and help make art interesting for a broad public. I had found myself enthralled by the museums in Europe.

When you began work in 1958 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, what did this involve?
The only current idea about what a curator was, was care and development of collections. Exhibition-making was a very occasional activity for collection curators. Most temporary exhibitions came through Government cultural agencies from overseas.

Your work brought you into wide personal contact with artists. How did you imagine your role or your relationship to them?
The only other AGNSW staff, the director Hal Missingham and deputy director Tony Tuckson, were both artists outside their day jobs; their friends were mostly fellow artists, so my friends at first were artists. There were no art historians in Sydney till the Power Department started up ten years later. Art historians embrace contemporary art as a matter of course and are delighted to document and interpret a community's new and unfamiliar art. But you quickly learnt that personal friendship with artists was a trap. Beware of their charm. It was easier for a young curator to focus on the generation that was receding into art history, the old ones, the neglected ones. That's the central role of a collection curator: to look after what is neglected and out of fashion, even when it's contemporary.

You worked at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for twenty years, to 1978. How would you see your principal achievement there?

I'd been tempted to go and get jobs elsewhere, like at the National Gallery of Victoria, which was rich and big and professional, as Sydney then was not. But the promise of an upgraded building had been in the air since about 1966, so I hung on. I suppose the greatest pleasure and achievement was helping turn that new instrument - the wonderfully upgraded building of 1972 - into a place that people from throughout Australia and overseas really enjoyed coming to. It was a terrific few years of pent-up programmes that people had been wanting to feed to a city that they saw as significant, in a country they saw as significant, but there had been no suitable premises up until then. Suddenly from 1972 there were great exhibitions from overseas, Modern Masters, newest American art, Chinese antiquities, plus our own in-house productions of colonial art, or historical modernism, or newest Australian art. (Tim Burns's closed-circuit TV piece in 1973 must have been the first New Media work seen by a big public, and still one of the best.) It was a six-year golden age of exhibition-management and exhibition-making, and also a very gratifying moment of helping create a team of ardent volunteer guides ready for 1972; an art museum's front line.

In 1978 you left the Art Gallery of New South Wales and went to the Australian National Gallery as Senior Curator of Australian Art. You were there for six years. How did these years differ from your previous work in Sydney?
There was practically no exhibition-making in Canberra. The job was almost entirely researching the existing collection, identifying what should go on display, administering a program of conservation and reframing, re-titling, re-dating, just making sure that you had a collection display that was in good order when the National Gallery opened in 1982.

Was the perspective noticeably national compared with your experience in Sydney?
It was a huge difference. There was highly professional management, and for the first time one's role was clearly defined: remember you're not working for the Australian Capital Territory, you're working for the whole of Australia. A comparable message had never been fed to us at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. There, unconsciously, we lived inside a rather cosy art world and remained working chiefly for that existing art world. We didn't very actively try to bring in people who were not yet interested in art. Whereas in Canberra we knew we would also have to satisfy many visitors who might never have been inside an art museum before.

So how did you do that?
High-powered education programs and other public programs and publications of course. But for the collections there was a strong emphasis on decorative arts and minor mediums, like prints and drawings and photographs. We were aware that those intimate mediums could speak to the innocent audiences less intimidatingly than a big high-art allegorical baroque painting by Tiepolo or a blank Minimalist sculpture by Donald Judd. There's something human about an Art Nouveau teapot, even if it's an oddity pot, simply because it is a teapot.

Why the move in 1984 to Adelaide?
I was seduced. It was like the move to Canberra. I got phoned and asked would I please consider applying for a position that had been advertised for some time but not filled. I was in my mid-50s. I hugely admired the collections and the curators, and the general activity in 'progressive' South Australia. And I knew that improving the state of art museums around the whole of Australia could be worked on through the weight you carry as a state gallery director just as well as through being head of Australian art in Canberra.

Were there some sadnesses in being a bit removed from curating the collections and exhibitions?
Not at all. At a certain age you begin to tire physically and you realise that there are other ways to feed your psychic energy, and art-politicking filled the need. I was aware from the beginning of my six years in Adelaide that there was only one task at the top of the priority list: upgrade the building. Even though it opened six years after my retirement - South Australia went bankrupt - it was very gratifying to get the politicking and the approvals in place for that building.

I'm interested to ask where you see things moving now. You once wrote about art in your time being pushed to the brink, that it was virtually disappearing into life. Has it disappeared or is it coming back to claim its old grounds?
Where did I say that?

I think it was in the context of conceptual art and how it was becoming so engaged with the everyday, with politics, with poetry...
It sounds like a period-piece statement for the survey of new art in 1973. It sounds like what you would say in the Donald Brook period.

But new art is still being pushed to those brinks isn't it?
I'm not so sure in 2006 that art-and-society post-modernism is still all that strong. I think there's an awareness that without aesthetic force, subject matter isn't enough. I think people have got a bit bored with the dominance of photo-media, a lot of which is primarily concerned with subject matter. Sometimes also it's technical tricks, and often the aesthetics are a little weak. Today there is an awareness that Pop art, which was one of the beginnings of post-modernism - the pre-history of post-modernism - was very strong on formalism. And Pop art's exact contemporary, extreme formalism in the form of Minimalism, is also having a bit of a comeback. Specifically Australian ecological subject matter seems to be interesting some artists, they don't all stick to the internationally marketable formulas of class, race and gender. Australia's uniquely strong Indigenous artists' movement is doing its own often spiritual thing, not much caring about global mainstream issues.

You've mentioned retirement: I didn't realise that it had been 16 years? But you're still writing occasional pieces for exhibition catalogues and art magazines and you're currently helping the Museum in Launceston with its catalogue of Bea Maddock's complete work. So retirement obviously has not meant an end to your working life?
I thought I would come here and maintain a bit of nature, which is fairly demanding. It means going out with a saw or lopping-shears and tidying up storm-blasted scrubland. It didn't occur to me that I would be increasingly asked to redo articles I had first written around 1970, or to do obituaries.

Has it been a pleasant experience?
Yes, I enjoy the obituaries. You unearth what you didn't know about friends and acquaintances; you get to know them better.

Talking of obituaries, people like Lloyd Rees are considered to have had a flowering in old age. I'm thinking of that Alec Hope poem where he describes old age as an autumn bursting of wonderful colour and vibrancy. How does Daniel Thomas consider old age?
Old age is not for sissies. You get arthritis, prostate problems, cataracts. You just try and keep warm and active and try not to stiffen too much. I enjoyed commissioning a tailor-made house for old age. To live up to it I threw out all the old furniture and paintings, and got new ones that suited it. I'm more modern now that I'm old. I read more political news than I used to. And the unexpected requests to write, usually about the recent past that I have lived through, don't count as work, more a pleasurable kind of light exercise for the mind, as the scrub-cutting is for the body.

You have mentioned that some of that writing, a second time round on an earlier topic, might turn out better than the first time. Why?
I think particularly of two essays for the Cossington Smith exhibition book that the National Gallery published last year. Art history is less interesting than it used to be; the reception of Post-Impressionism no longer interests me. I've grown out of art history. Instead, the personal, human touch is essential if you are to bring the wonders of art to the broad public. It's very bad when an art personality becomes more interesting than the art itself, as in the dreadful moment when Brett Whiteley's personal image took over at the expense of his art. But once works of art become validated by consensus over a long period, as with Grace Cossington Smith, then it becomes important to insert all the personal information that you can.

Therefore in last year's essays I went into the details of the particular rooms in her paintings of interiors. Her own bedroom, previously her parents', was the place where her mother had lingered with cancer and also where sunlight comes in from a verandah, a favourite place for tea after tennis, and the bounce of light in and out of the bedroom is to do with the physical pleasure of tennis earlier in her life. It is an interior with memories of a mother dying in the very same bed where an artist is ruminating, creating the image for a painting. There's thought of energy and death in the image as well as thought of shapes and colours and vibrations. Another room is the one in which a sister had lingered dying. These fabulous glittering interiors that you think are about Australian sunlight are about much more than meets the eye.

But do you think that has something to do with an older viewer's sensitivity to the painting as well? As a younger person writing, you might have wanted to make something snappy and memorable, whereas this sounds like a much more lingering gaze?
Well yes, her paintings had had time to get to work on my mind. And of course being old, you see things like death closer at hand for her and for me. But I'm still interested in the snappy phrase that might keep somebody reading, and a mention of something as interesting and universal as death can wake a drowsy reader.

You mentioned that you now read overseas political reporting and analysis more than in the past. Often art, contemporary art, is said to be a kind of gauge of political and social and economic factors? Have you found that true in your life? Being involved in contemporary art, did it bring those things into relief?
Yes, there was always art that was very engaged with the contemporary world around it. However, it was essential to keep up with overseas art; if you looked only at Australian art you would hardly have known the Vietnam war was being seriously questioned from the beginning. But - and this is the most important thing for an art museum collection curator - there's always some art that is not engaged with public issues. There's always some that is very inward. And there's always some that might be deliberately uninterested in the current culture, perhaps just eccentric but perhaps genuinely visionary about things beyond the current culture. So you've got to take care not to be totally involved in the socially engaged. You've got to look for the quieter voices that might be somewhere else as well.