Cave of wonders: inside Burnie Regional Art Gallery's unseen art collection

In 1881, a starry-eyed Leicester lad named Edward Mace embarked on a journey from England to Australia to stake his claim on the world.

The 18-year-old would make a fortune mining silver at Zeehan but the good times did not last with the operation later rendered insolvent.

Depressed and indebted, Mace left Tasmania for Cape Town in 1901 but there was one thing the whims of the mining game could not take away from him: a love of painting.

One of his works and a piece of his story lies locked up in the bowels of the Burnie Regional Art Gallery.

That's where gallery director Dawn Oerlich found Mace's tranquil painting of the King River Gorge, pulled from its frame by a conserving team years ago.

IN WAITING: The gallery has almost 1400 pieces in its collection, the vast majority of which are works on paper. Picture: Brodie Weeding

IN WAITING: The gallery has almost 1400 pieces in its collection, the vast majority of which are works on paper. Picture: Brodie Weeding

"And as we were digging around the storeroom we found this frame which oddly may be worth more than the art because it's actually gold leaf," she says.

Back in a frame but still in storage, the artwork rests next to what is believed to be the first painting of Burnie, created in 1856 by a man who wanted to turn the area into a retirement settlement for British soldiers, John Day.

Behind these artworks and the 1376 others that make up the gallery's collection are stories as illustrious as a poster paint palette.

There's Gary Nichols' chaotic portrait of avant-garde mime artist and David Bowie collaborator, Lindsay Kemp; and the rustic birdhouse with parrots cut from Arnotts Biscuit boxes by the first woman to be in the Australian submission to the Venice Biennale, Rosalie Gascoigne.

"Because it's such an old collection you can sort of track art practice in Australia, where we've come from, where we're going," Oerlich says.

THE KEEPER OF KNOWLEDGE

THE KEEPER: Exhibition curator Randolph Wylie has been with the gallery for 27 years. Picture: Phillip Biggs

THE KEEPER: Exhibition curator Randolph Wylie has been with the gallery for 27 years. Picture: Phillip Biggs

Since Oerlich joined the gallery 18 months ago, exhibition coordinator Randolph Wylie has spouted a fountain of knowledge about the collection.

He's been at the gallery since he left his job as a "general mill rat" with Associated Pulp and Paper Mills in 1993.

"It was a sea change for me after being in the industry for so many years, coming into the quiet and the solitude of the gallery," he says.

Wylie's life experience has been a driving force behind his approach to curating exhibitions.

"Unless you were a doctor or a lawyer when I was growing up you didn't bother going to art galleries. It wasn't our place, you know, being a mill person," he reflects.

"But I would like to encourage more people to come and visit the gallery ... and to make them realise that art is for everyone, not just the elite anymore."

Wylie has witnessed the gallery collection grow and change depending on their peculiarities of the five directors he has worked for.

The first, Hugh J Hassard, loved "quirky prints" with hidden humourous messages while the next, Belinda Wright, was a "complete flip" who pursued more serious, well-known artists.

Greg Leong, meanwhile, was a driven man with "a very flamboyant side" while his successor, Geoff Dobson, was comparatively normal "if there is such a thing in the art world".

"Directors, like we all do, have definite styles of art that they like. Whether they like to admit that's how they collect is another thing," Wylie jokes.

THE RULES OF COLLECTING

IN PRINT: Burnie Regional Art Gallery director Dawn Oelrich surveys a work in the print work store room. Picture: Brodie Weeding

IN PRINT: Burnie Regional Art Gallery director Dawn Oelrich surveys a work in the print work store room. Picture: Brodie Weeding

Wylie has yet to figure out Oerlich's collecting style but the gallery's latest acquisition provides a clue.

"And that is a necklace by Palawa artist Lola Grenno," Oerlich says tenderly handling the two metre line of shells.

Oerlich says the Cape Barren woman was "one of the seven iconic artists of Australia" and adding her work to the collection was important as increased water acidity was breaking down shells more easily.

"And there hasn't been a lot of attention to collecting artwork of Tasmanian Aboriginals or Palawa people," she says.

"That's lacking in our collection because it doesn't really give a full story."

THE COLLECTION: Burnie Regional Art Gallery director Dawn Oelrich in the collection store with Mace's artwork in the back left. Picture: Brodie Weeding

THE COLLECTION: Burnie Regional Art Gallery director Dawn Oelrich in the collection store with Mace's artwork in the back left. Picture: Brodie Weeding

One story well told through the collection is Burnie's paper making heritage, with more than 1000 individual artworks on paper or roughly 70 per cent of the collection.

That's partly the result of paper making suggestions contained in the charter that dictates what the gallery can and cannot acquire.

Any prospective acquisition must be of outstanding quality, reflect cultural diversity or a vessel for research, not to mention within the gallery's budget.

Once a work has entered the collection by acquisition or donation it rarely leaves but that's not such a bad thing for the economically minded mayor of Burnie Steve Kons.

The collection is currently worth $1.3 million thanks in part to investments such as an artwork bought in the 80s for $300 now valued at $15,000.

"And these estimates are usually conservative," Cr Kons says.

The perpetually growing size of the collection has squeezed the gallery's storage space but this problem will likely be solved if the mayor fulfills plans to build a new, architecturally iconic gallery and museum next door.

"We'll be able to call ourselves the art city," he says.

But the gallery might not have had such a future had it not ever opened in 1978.

Wylie says the gallery only came about thanks to the cries of art loving locals and former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam who "was throwing around money to regional areas trying to secure votes".

"At the time the Civic Centre ... was being built, the gallery was meant to be the car park but it was only ever used as a car park by the builders," he says.

REFLECTION OF THE TIMES

A THINKER: Burnie Regional Art Gallery director Dawn Oelrich with Rodney Pople's 2016 work Endangered (Upper House Tasmania). Picture: Brodie Weeding

A THINKER: Burnie Regional Art Gallery director Dawn Oelrich with Rodney Pople's 2016 work Endangered (Upper House Tasmania). Picture: Brodie Weeding

The gallery owes not just its foundations but a number of items in its collection to government checkbooks.

Ironically, it was a donation from the Commonwealth Government's Cultural Gifts Program that facilitated the acquisition of Rodney Pople's somewhat anti-government 2016 work Endangered (Upper House Tasmania).

The evocative piece depicts a pipeline flooding the Legislative Council chamber with woodchips and was part of a 2016 series exploring endangered species in Tasmania.

But Pople insists the painting "isn't just about politics" and he is not a didactic painter.

"It's a painting that engages the viewer to think a bit for themselves and ask questions about the anachronistic parliament we have in this Australia," he explains.

"... In a sense the painting is done in a very bold manner for the viewer to stand in front of it and make up their owns minds."

SOFT SPOT: Dawn Oelrich with one of her favourite works, The Bird House. Picture: Brodie Weeding

SOFT SPOT: Dawn Oelrich with one of her favourite works, The Bird House. Picture: Brodie Weeding

The provocative nature of the work is not surprising for an artist who created a storm with a Glover winning work of Port Arthur that featured a tiny Martin Bryant and his latest exhibition that explodes the Anzac Myth.

"The role of them (galleries) is to in their local areas sort of create exhibitions that get people engaged, not just exhibitions, all sorts of cultural forms, and keep people aware of the current times," he explains.

Oerlich believes a gallery collection should "reflect different ideas" and it is not contentious for a town built on forestry to own an artwork like Pople's.

"We have a really great relationship with MMG over in Rosebery but we also have a good relationship with Bob Brown," she says.

"A public collection should reflect what's going on in your community and not take a stance either way politically."

This story Cave of wonders: inside Burnie's unseen art collection first appeared on The Advocate.