The Proper Function of an Art Gallery and Museum
It affords me infinite satisfaction to comply with your request that I perform today this epoch-making function. New Zealand is unquestionably ripe for a great advance in the general cultural progress of her people, and I can conceive of no more practical or fruitful method of signalizing and stimulating such maturity than the establishment of an up-to-date National Art Gallery and Museum generously and prudently equipped, and administered with catholicity of outlook and comprehensiveness of educative ambit. A public museum, if properly stocked, organized, and fully utilized both inside and outside its walls, should not be a mausoleum of dead specimens, the resort only of monastic specialists or interested collectors, but a vitalizing powerhouse radiating currents of intellectual energy and calling forth latent genius in all classes of the community. Similarly a National Art Gallery should not be only a receptacle for "Old Masters," valuable and sadly scarce though they are in this Dominion. Still less should it be a mere gathering of modern pictures of varying merit and transient popularity, but rather a source of unsullied inspiration to "young students," and indeed to all thoughtful citizens - a pure fountain of sound artistic taste and, perchance, a shrine of a distinctive national artistic vision influenced by local environment and ideals.
No country is more bountifully endowed by Nature than this, but the same cannot as yet be said of the man-made equipment for the higher cultural development of its people. It has its scientists and it has its artists. The creative work of the former, so fertile in its potentialities for the economic progress of the nation, is as yet but dimly appreciated and but sparsely utilized in practical application, while that of the latter, speaking generally, and except, perhaps, in the realm of music, suffers materially from lack of contact with the superabundant artistic wealth of the Old World. This institution signalizes the inception of a new era and carries with it an immense responsibility and opportunity for those who will hereafter administer it. If it fulfils its laudable purpose it will leave its mark - its indelible impress - upon the lives, the outlook and the inspirations of posterity in this Dominion. It will become, as it ought to become, not a store-house of fusty and ill-assorted curios and a farrago of artistic mediocrity, but a source of intellectual and aesthetic enlightenment which will vitalize every sphere of educational effort, afford endless scope for self-realization, and mould public taste in appreciation of all that is beautiful and edifying both in nature and in human achievement.
The noble structure - designed by eminent New Zealand architects - whose inception we formally celebrate to-day marks the realization of a long-felt desire to see this capital city furnished with a National Art Gallery and a Dominion Museum worthy both of it and of its artistic and scientific treasures, sufficiently capacious for their growing needs and adequately protected against destruction by fire. Among those who have rendered possible this worthy undertaking the names of Sir Harold Beauchamp, your ex-Mayor Mr. George Troup, C.M.G., Mr. Ernest Hunt, and both the Right Hon. J.G Coates and the present prime Minister, the Right Hon. G.W. Forbes, will be deservedly remembered with appreciation and gratitude. To the two former today' ceremony must be peculiarly gratifying.
The constitution of the Board of Trustees under the special Act of Parliament passed in 1930, provides for representation of the Dominion and this City and of Art and Science respectively, ensuring thereby a due balance between the various interests thus freshly endowed.
Care will have to be taken that consideration is equitably apportioned to the legitimate claims of each side of this twofold institution. Moreover, its duplicate character involves a long title and the consequent risk of its being designated, for the sake of brevity, as "the Dominion Museum," thus misleading overseas visitors as to its more comprehensive contents. I have considerable sympathy with the suggestion that the possible solution of this problem may be found in calling it "Wakefield House" or "Rutherford House" in recognition of New Zealand's debt to the Empire's greatest and most enlightened pioneer of sane colonization, who has yet to be honoured by a fitting memorial, or, alternatively, of her most eminent living scientist. This, however, must be a matter for others than myself to decide.
The establishment of this Dominion Museum and Art Gallery is taking place at a time and under conditions, which enable it to become the finest example in the British Empire of what such an institution should be. The unparalleled influence which such a centralized building and organization possess for radiating true culture throughout the whole community has come to be widely recognized by the chief exponents of Art and Science in the World. Moreover, the successive reports within the last six years of the British Royal Commission on National Museums and Art Galleries, and of Sir Henry Miers to the Carnegie United Kingdom Trustees on the Public Museums of the British Isles, coupled with that on the Museums and Art Galleries of Australia and New Zealand recently published by the Museums Association, afford a wealth of material for the guidance of both administrators and curators of such an institution as this. These reports, hitherto unparalleled in scope and value, are lying ready to your hands in a country peculiarly fitted for their assimilation and their utilization, before irremediable or only partly remediable mistakes are made of the kinds which have in the past severely checked the incalculable efficacy of both museums and picture galleries in promoting the intellectual endowment and happiness of mankind. These blunders, from which the whole body politic have been sufferers, have been due to many causes. The chief of them have been lack of expert knowledge and vision, neglect of educational zeal, and, above all, want of firmness in dealing with gifts and bequests or an inclination to pander to the transient and distorted tastes of a period of artistic abnormality. The amount of - relatively speaking - utter rubbish which clogs the walls and showcases of numerous picture galleries and museums throughout the civilized world is a testimony to the generosity of would-be benefactors and the good nature of weak trustees, but has done positive injury to the progressive advance of scientific knowledge and the widespread development of cultural taste. Many, too, house precious treasures which fail to secure full appreciation through faulty arrangement or defective lighting. The finest endowment of this beautifully-planned structure will not prove to the money provided by the Government or by generous public-spirited benefactors; the surest foundation for its stability will not be this stone which I am formally laying to-day; but both will be found in the knowledge and broad-mindedness of its successive curators and the discriminative wisdom and courage, in face of possible ignorant criticism, of its successive administrators.
I have described this Dominion as peculiarly fitted to take full advantage, to its abiding enrichment, of the mistakes of others in the past and of the guidance now so abundantly available for their avoidance. This is so, seeing that there is here an exceptionally high average standard of education and a keen desire for self-improvement, coupled with a noticeable development at the present time of a national historic sense, a pride in the Dominion's past and in its unique natural equipment, and, above all, perhaps, the possession of museums, if not of picture galleries, which in some respects are unrivalled in any part of the Empire. It is significant and encouraging to note that the Museums Association's Report, 1933, in classifying the countries of the world according to their importance from the museum and art-gallery standpoint, and judged by size of buildings, extent of financial support, and number of scientific staff, ranks New Zealand in proportion to population as "slightly higher than any other British Dominion or Colony." It proceeds to describe the Auckland War Memorial Museum as "probably the most beautiful and best-arranged educational museum south of the Line," and Wanganui as having "almost the finest Art Gallery and Library for a town of its size anywhere in the Empire." Another significant and gratifying statement of Mr. S. F. Markham and Dr. W. R. B. Oliver, the signatories of this report, is to the effect that "the main lesson which New Zealand teaches is the amazing influence which a single efficient and zealous curator can have upon the whole museum service of his country."
While leaving much room for improvement, New Zealand can, for a young country, justly feel pride in her museums, thanks to generous benefactors, too numerous to specify, and to curators of exceptional knowledge and forceful personality, such as Mr. T. F. Cheeseman, Professor Parker, Sir James Hector, Sir Julius von Haast and Captain F. W. Hutton. Fortunately she possesses to-day curators of similar zeal and attainments. Upon the right choice of the curator the efficiency of all museums primarily rests.
The conception of the true purpose of such an institution as this has, to the public advantage, undergone in recent years an entire revolution. A National Museum and Art Gallery of to-day must be frankly and actively educational. It must cater not solely, or even mainly, for requirements of the specialist or connoisseur, but for the intellectual, technical, and spiritual needs of the whole community, without distinction of class or vocation. Moreover, it cannot achieve its maximum efficacy if it occupies a position of detachment from the various educational organizations, whether juvenile or adult, whether social or scholastic, within its area.
It is becoming increasingly evident that the eye is a most fertile channel of entry to the mind, and that consequently there are no more promising educational agencies or more powerful stimulants to the human imagination than the museum and the cinema. The latter, while maintaining its spirit of cheerful entertainment, should be purged of its least wholesome and inartistic elements and on its instructional side be brought into close partisanship with the former. New Zealand has the opportunity of showing that it can lead the world in visual education as in other branches of social activity.
"The first essential of a public museum," according to Sir Henry Miers, "is that there should be a definite purpose behind every exhibit. Curators and governing bodies should have the courage to refuse unsuitable gifts, and under no circumstances whatever should a gift with onerous conditions attached to it be accepted." The aim should be the widest possible radiation of the influence of the arts and sciences through united effort. The outstanding need is said to be the "kinetic" use of resources, whether artistic, scientific or literary, by co-operative effort.
Co-operation and co-ordination in the museum service of a country are called for by considerations alike of systematized efficiency, equality of opportunity, and financial economy. The distribution of museums in the British Isles is in this respect a warning to the Dominions. It is haphazard and illogical, and governed neither by population nor by location. Thus Croydon, with a population of 192,000, and Barrow, with one of 75,000, have no museum at all, whereas the villages of Polperro and Grassington, each with a population of less than 1,000, have museums which are well conducted and a source of delight to their visitors.
In the public interest, and in order to ensure a full and fair distribution of museum benefits in this territory, the friendly co-operation and intercommunication which obtain already between your four principal museums should be unselfishly pursued and developed. The small museums should be encouraged to participate in similar intercourse and mutual helpfulness. An annual "Colloquium" between all the museum curators for the sole purpose of advancing the general utility of the whole museum service of the Dominion is worthy of serious consideration. Assuming that co-ordination between the various museums in the country and between them and educational institutions, is essential in order to secure the optimum utility of a National Museum service, and at least cost to the public, the governing body of a Central National institution such as this would appear to be the proper body to undertake the task.
Organized visits of school-children in school hours to a well-arranged central museum, especially from the rural districts, tend to enlarge the outlook and stimulate the imagination of youth, particularly if followed up by lectures in the schools. This objective is vitally important in a remote, ocean-girt country whose inhabitants suffer a constant risk in a fast-moving world of the danger of geographical isolation being reflected in mental insularity and myopia.
Seeing that the expenditure of time and money is apt to militate against school visits to museums situate at any considerable distance, there is found to be no better medium for disseminating equitably and efficaciously the benefits of a museum service than the establishment of ancillary travelling museums working from a national or provincial centre and carrying appropriate materials to the schools within its environment. These peripatetic collections should be suited to the course of study in the schools, and the exhibits should, as far as possible, be such that a child can handle. This tends to improve a narrative lesson and give it greater reality. The main function of such distributed exhibits should be to stimulate in a child a more living interest in his or her books, to save the teacher time now spent in explanation, and afford a means of bringing pupils more closely into contact with the outside world. Children have been known to designate a museum containing stuffed animals as "the dead zoo." It should be our aim to make it a live and pregnant factor in their mental expansion. Apart from travelling museums, circulating collections, following the enlightened lead of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, should be carefully assembled and rendered available not only to the lesser museums and galleries, but also to art schools, secondary schools and training colleges. There should be mutual interchange of objects between the local museums and the National Museum. This is essential if the present educational resources of the nation are to be mobilized with efficiency.
Museums have in the past been among the wasted assets of a nation. As Sir Henry Miers significantly remarks in his report, "For several generations collectors and curators have devoted much labour to the making of museums, but the time has come for a new generation to consider how to use them." Educational exhibits should be systematized as such, and be rendered increasingly attractive as stimulants to the imagination by constant change, special temporary displays finding justification in local circumstances and recent happenings, such as, in the case of New Zealand, an earthquake, an eclipse, an Antarctic expedition, the discovery of moa bones or an old Mori canoe, and white butterfly or grass-grub pests, the new national coinage, or the revived interest in gold-mining.
In the area of adult education not merely the field clubs and natural history societies, but, above all, the Workers' Educational Association, should make full use of the museum as the most potent means of spreading knowledge and stimulating zeal for its progressive acquisition.
Travelling museums, based upon a central public museum, are especially valuable for the benefit of adults in the sphere of Agriculture and of Public Health. In elaborating his scheme for the former, Sir Henry Miers says, "Such a battery of scientific facts and information might revolutionize the husbandry of the countryside." Is there not, I may ask, in this connection, a vital need for a less conservative outlook on agricultural problems than that which obtains in this Dominion to-day? As regards the latter, he says that there is no more effective manner in which a museum can help the public than in the display of exhibits relating to sanitation, hygiene, child-welfare or town planning. Seeing that already your Plunket and Karitane Homes are pointing the way to the world in the avoidance of infant mortality, New Zealand might appropriately set a similar example in the health utilization of museum services. It is suggested that all museums might usefully have in every two years special health and hygiene exhibitions, each lasting for a fortnight. To no section of the community can this mobile form of museum service prove more beneficial than to those afflicted with blindness if the specimens are carefully selected so as to convey their lesson by the sense of feeling in the absence of sight. It is noteworthy, and a matter of gratification, that nowhere in the world outside North America is this fact realized and acted upon more thoroughly and convincingly that at the Jubilee Institute for the Blind at Auckland, in this Dominion, with the sympathetic help of the museum curator.
The growing recognition of the educative value of museums in England is evidenced by the fact that whereas in 1891 statutory power was given to urban authorities to levy a rate not exceeding d in the pound for museum purposes, which was raised in 1892 to 1d, there has been since 1919 no limit to the rate leviable for this purpose.
The principle of friendly co-operation within national boundaries, so strongly advocated by all the leading authorities on museums, should not be confined in your case to New Zealand's own geographic area. Much advantage to both New Zealand and Australia would accrue from the activities of some co-ordinating committee which would effect friendly co-operation and exchange between them in regard both to their museums and to their art galleries, as well as promote periodical combined conferences between their respective curators and trustees. Moreover, the museum movement would maintain far greater momentum and vitality if museum curators were given, once in every five years, the opportunity of visiting the best museums in Europe and America.
There is great scope in this land of farmers for an agricultural museum, or an agricultural department of a National Museum, which illustrates the methods and implements of rural industry, commencing with the primitive cultural processes of the Native race before the advent of Western Civilization and extending down to the present time.
Moreover, somewhere in New Zealand I should like to see at least one genuine old English farm house, manor house, or tithe barn, furnished with coeval contents such as our forefathers were wont to look upon and use as part of their domestic and vocational equipment. Nowhere in the Empire are British sentiment and tradition stronger than in this Dominion. Such a concession to their indulgence would be both salutary and instructive. If originals cannot be transplanted, let exact facsimiles take their place. Nothing is more attractive in Denmark, Sweden and Holland - nothing has lingered more delightfully in my own memory - than their open-air folk museums, illustrating the past life of their peasant populations. Why should you not also have a comprehensive nautical museum in this sea-girt Dominion:? You have your Mori canoes and your flat-bottomed New Zealand scows. You have also in Auckland a unique collection of figure-heads of old and famous ships. Why should you not fill the gaps and assemble here a comprehensive museum or museum department illustrative of British seafaring life from the earliest times? Amsterdam can show in this respect what no seaport in the British Empire can equal.
The importance of plants in human economy and the unique character of New Zealand's native bush would justify on the grounds of education and inspirational recreation the organization of botanical collections to a much larger extent than in the past. From an economic standpoint the same applies with even greater force to geological collections and the interest thereby aroused in stimulating an accurate understanding of geological processes. Incidentally, it would tend to justify in the public eye not only a comprehensive geophysical survey of the nation's extensive mineral resources, but also the progressive conduct by the Government of the all-important national soil survey which is now in progress and upon which the wise economic development of the Dominion's wide extent of presently unprofitable land largely depends. It may be added that New Zealand's geological features, like her scenic beauty, are probably unsurpassed for variety over any equivalent area in the world.
Among the points emphasized by the British Royal Commission in relation to scientific exhibits, the following merit more than passing consideration at the inauguration of your National Museum:
- The need for more adequate representation of current practice in the manifold fields of applied science;
- The great educational utility of periodical exhibits dealing with recent discoveries and developments;
- The desirability of keeping pace with the ever-growing interest of all sections of the community in the varied applications of physical science; to which may be added
- The need for illustrating especially the discoveries of agricultural science of high economic value.
In this building a large Mori hall will form appropriately the means of access to the other galleries and afford a perpetual reminder that this Dominion is the natural centre for the display of the finest specimens of Mori art and handicraft, and visitors from all over the world will seek here the maximum degree of enlightenment and accurate technical knowledge on this branch of Polynesian ethnology, folk-lore, and handicraft. Every effort should be forthcoming by gift, purchase, loan and exchange to make this specialized section of your museum as perfect as possible. But it should be not merely a treasure house of old-time Mori art, but the central source of its renaissance among the Maori people, the mainspring of accurate instruction in the true significance of the old Mori designs, and the most efficient modern means of executing them in wood, stone and fibre of a quality and craftsmanship comparable with the best work of their forefathers. At Wellington and at Ohinemutu reliable manual instruction in Mori carving is now available at the hands of expert craftsmen. A few young Maoris and Rarotangans are at present seeking instruction at the latter, but their number should be largely augmented and every encouragement be given to this work by the leaders of both races. So far as is practicable small workshops should be established in connection with this and other museums, where the students can carve direct from the finest and most typical specimens which they contain. It should eventually be possible to attach you Maori students to each museum, its authorities controlling their instruction in carving, with such assistance as may be arranged from both Mori and Government sources.
It is desirable that really valuable and genuine specimens of Native art and handicraft should pass gradually out of the precarious proprietorship of private individuals - rendered especially precarious by recurrent economic adversity - into national or well-administered municipal museums. If not acquirable by gifts, these should be purchased, after due valuation, by the State, and no shortsighted economy should be permitted to stand in the way of the process, for they are national assets which this country cannot afford to see expatriated. They are calculated to add to the intellectual and artistic enrichment of their national habitat and to its credit and attractiveness in the outside world.
The apparent acquisitiveness on the part of Great Britain and other countries of what should constitute in a special sense your own national heirlooms is not due only to greater wealth or even necessarily to any profound knowledge of their ethnological value, but rather, on the one hand, to the impulsive generosity of their original proprietors, and, on the other, to the lack of foresight of your European community in bygone days through non-development of a historic sense or an immature appreciation of Polynesian art.
A suitable setting for ethnographical collections adds immensely to their value alike from an instructional, aesthetic, and scientific standpoint. The British Royal Commission's report, in commenting on the absence of any adequate museum of ethnography in London, says, "The British Museum contains ethnographical collections which are unrivalled, but their present inadequate setting deprives them of much of their potential value," and it commends the wisdom of Belgium in devoting a large museum solely to the products of the Belgian Congo. Among the benefits flowing from the establishment of a national museum of ethnography it includes the scientific study of early civilizations, the promotion of a more sympathetic understanding of subject races, the provision of useful equipment to prospective Colonial administrators and pioneers, and the stimulation of trade by suggesting new ideas both to importers and exporters. In view of the gradual trend of population and trade to the shores of the Pacific and the paramount interests of the British Empire in these waters, this is a laudable aim. New Zealand, above all countries in the British Empire, may well commend and endorse it, and indeed advance its realization and utility by organizing, and so far as possible centralizing, on a national basis, its own unique resources. Further, by friendly co-operation with the Mother Country she should fill the gaps in her own Polynesian collections by recovering, by gift, loan or exchange, some of her expatriated gems of Native handicraft, or at least faithful replicas of them. She should also grasp reciprocally from time to time such opportunities as may present themselves of supplementing with specimens of special ethnographical and anthropological interest a separate Empire Museum of Ethnography, if and when established in London. While England should bear in mind that with every passing year educated and enlightened visitors from overseas seek - and expect to find - in our museums here in their most appropriate "setting" the most perfect specimens of Polynesian art, and in many instances develop a zeal for more meticulous study which their home environment and activities would never have stirred, New Zealand should never forget that a fully equipped ethnographical museum - or Polynesian section of the British Museum - in London is calculated to benefit this Dominion scientifically, artistically, and commercially, to an unparalleled degree. I take this opportunity, on behalf of New Zealand, as well as of myself, of thanking the Trustees of the British Museum for responding so sympathetically, within the limits of their statutory powers, to my request that they afford us their invaluable assistance in making good, from among their duplicated specimens which once had a home in this country, some of the more flagrant gaps in our Mori collections.
This institution will be fortunate in having besides its galleries a commodious lecture hall, as well as work rooms and storage space, the absence of which has in the past obstructed the full utilization of many public museums and conduced to untidiness and disorganization.
Turning to that portion of this building which will house works of fine art, it must ever be remembered that "A nation is only as great as its art," and its art is interwoven with the fabric of its history. It is essential, therefore, to national greatness that both Government and civic authorities should show practical sympathy with all efforts made by patriotic citizens to promote art and foster the appreciation of its highest manifestations. For many years to come no large number of the world's masterpieces are likely to find a resting place within these walls, but all encouragement should be extended to schemes for obtaining good reproductions of them, now so very easily and inexpensively procurable. Periodical loan collections of drawings, paintings, and examples of the finest craftsmanship from the Mother Country should also be sought. Such collections are now regularly circulated throughout England by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and such circulation should be extended to the Dominions. In this connection the enterprise of the Empire Art Loans Collection Society and of its founder, Mr. Percy Sargood of Dunedin, is worthy of all encouragement and support. Regular exhibitions of this description would improve not only the taste of the community, but would aid in the more general employment of local artistic talent. In an isolated country like this better standards can be obtained only by setting up for imitation and admiration the highest achievements in the arts and crafts. If your people are to aim at the best, they must know and appreciate the best. The Royal Society of Arts in England has, by close association with British industry, immensely improved the design and marketing of British goods during the past decade, a fact of which Chambers of Commerce in New Zealand may deem it well worth their while to take cognizance.
In due course a National Portrait Gallery should be established either as a department of, or under the aegis of, this institution - a fitting mode of signalizing the growing sense of nationhood which is so obviously permeating all classes in this Dominion. There is already plenty of material available as a nucleus for its formation.
Our public galleries are intended for the people as a whole - for the man in the street, the workshop, and the field. The plain man is not greatly interested in technique, if at all. We must lure the people into our galleries by catering for their natural unsophisticated artistic tastes and instincts, and their interest in technique will probably follow. For this purpose there should be a fair proportion of subject pictures - pictures which tell a story, pictures which the plain man or woman can understand. In a recent publication on "The Practice of Oil Painting," Mr. Solomon J. Solomon - Britain's eminent academical painter - urges the examination by students of "works of art which have stood the test of time," so that "they may gather material on which to base a sound and workmanlike method." The whole object of his book, he says, is "to combat the careless craftsmanship which is all too common and is detrimental to the work of any painter, however gifted." If a picture deals with humanity he classes it as "worthy of serious consideration if, but only if, its humanity tallies with the experience of observant human beings." Pictures which are unintelligible to the normal human being can hardly be described as true art, and will certainly not live, except in a world of anarchy and unreality. Art critics may be led astray by a transient fashion or technical ingenuity. If, however, the inspiration of the beholder or the immortality of the picture, statue, or other work of art be the objective, the judgement of the intelligent rational man in the street - the child of Nature - is more likely to be correct than that of many so-called art critics. Auguste Rodin, the world's most famous sculptor since Michelangelo, while decrying the lack of understanding or art of many modern critics, says emphatically, "It is the verdict of the public which ultimately prevails." An art gallery which does not draw within its walls the general intelligent public of all classes of the community through the consciousness that it echoes its highest natural aspirations, and supplies the ethical and spiritual pabulum for which its soul ardently craves, fails to justify public support. Instead of being a national asset, an engine of national enlightenment, contentment, and happiness, it becomes a drag on the wheels of cultural progress.
The public will not be benefited by an art which they cannot understand or which appears to them bizarre, unnatural and distorted. We are passing through a transient period during which current canons and conceptions of art are unreliable guides to the artistic and aesthetic needs and demands of future generations. Cubism, impressionism, modernism, futurism, and the like, may prove to be ephemeral infatuations and not the true expression of immortal artistry. The recent successive exhibitions in London of Italian, French, Dutch, and British Old Masters, and the vast throngs of people of all classes who have visited them, are a significant and happy indication of the great yearning of the British people to revert to pictorial scenes and methods of technique and colourings less sophisticated, perhaps, but more intelligible and soul-satisfying. Schools and other public institutions should be encouraged to have on their walls Medici reproductions of some at least of the great pictorial masterpieces of the world.
I have adverted to the necessity of firmness on the part of curators and administrators in declining unsuitable gifts to museums. This is even more essential in the case of a National Art Gallery. Just as expert judges at leading agricultural shows who, through fear of unpopularity or excess of good nature, award championships to third-rate farm animals give their "imprimatur" or official approval to the wrong type and thereby retard general live-stock improvement, so the easy-going acceptance of gifts to picture galleries and museums (especially the former) tends to crystallize taste in the wrong direction. And the injury inflicted is far more serious in the case of the public gallery than in that of the showyard, because it is less easy to eradicate when once inflicted.
Many artists base their claim to consideration on "leaving something to the imagination." But, as Ruskin truly says, "The duty of the artist is not only to address the imagination, but to guide it - and there is no safe guidance but that of simple concurrence with fact."
Much of post-war art appears to by symbolical of the restlessness and vandalism of the age in which we live. It evinces a temptation to destroy without selective discrimination all that is beautiful and sacred, and, in the modern mania for tearing down the traditions and values of the past, to portray life as a mechanical world of squares and cubes, crushing out beauty of form as nature fashioned it.
In this way modernism thinks to improve on Nature's wondrous colours and shapes in a realm where normally naught but harmony reigns - where the sunlight appears to move along serenely, silently and beautifully from dawn to eve, producing a wondrous kaleidoscope of dazzling hues so fringed and interwoven that no harsh or discordant lines can there be found. 'Twas such impressions as these which caused our pious forefathers to gaze with reverent awe and minds uplifted in inspiring thoughts of thankfulness to a Great Creator, the maker and giver of all good things. 'Twas this, perchance, also, that the artists of yore felt, and depicted accordingly beauteous forms with accuracy and harmonious symmetry.
In equipping with works of art the picture galleries of the Dominion it may be prudent to refrain, as far as possible, during this interregnum of artistic perplexities from effecting purchases. In any case it is the truest economy and artistic wisdom to resist the temptation of spending money because it happens to be available, whether drawn from an endowment or from the pockets of the public, upon works of mediocrity or of doubtful permanence. Rather should you accumulate such resources with a view to the purchase of an unquestionable masterpiece of art whose immortality is assured and whose presence will enhance materially and permanently the credit and attractiveness of the gallery. One really great work of supreme artistic genius has been known to make a gallery world-famous, whereas many relatively poor paintings of equivalent aggregate money value have brought disrepute upon galleries whose buildings have excelled in architectural magnificence.
In the equipment of any public art gallery, and especially of a National Art Gallery, immense responsibility rests upon the trustees or those to whom they delegate the task of selection. If such equipment is to be educational, inspirational, and permanently satisfying, those whose needs - technical, mental, moral and spiritual - merit dominant consideration are, on the one hand, the general public and, on the other, the art students. Attempts to satisfy at the public expense only self-styled art critics and connoisseurs are unfair to the taxpayer and will assuredly jeopardize the prestige and lasting credit of the institution. I venture to hope that no obviously inferior picture or statue will be permitted to enter or deface the galleries of this building on the ground that it will usefully occupy space or that it has received, although unmerited, recognition elsewhere. As with the contents or our museums, so also with those of our art galleries, the principle of exchange or loan, under proper safeguards, should be encouraged, as it is in France, to the advantage of the whole community. Probably a periodical interchange of works of art with the chief Australian galleries would be to the advantage of both countries.
Modern life is displaying the clamant and growing need for the widest possible dissemination of the inspiring, creative, and soul-satisfying influence of the arts, and its non-recognition or its niggardly satisfaction is liable to culminate in social discontents. Through the medium of our relatively generous but stereotyped State education we lift a corner of the veil which conceals the treasures of scientific discovery or artistic achievement. In many responsive breasts we create an appetite for a more abundant acquaintance with the world's storehouses of intellectual and aesthetic treasures. If this be starved, an instinctive consciousness of lack of opportunity may lead to a sense of grievance based on the non-expansion of those faculties, the stifling of those aspirations, inherent in all normal humanity, and this in aggregate concentration may foster rebellion against those very conditions and institutions which are potentially the most prolific in affording relief and setting the whole body politic permanently on a higher plane.
Conscious as I am of the salient defects, as well as the outstanding merits, of the educational system of this Dominion, I earnestly trust that I may be deemed in the eyes of posterity to have laid this afternoon the foundations not only of a prospectively noble structure of striking architectural beauty and skilful internal arrangement, but also, and chiefly, of a new, more stable and more coherent national fabric of higher education and cultural expansiveness. Of such, this institution, if unselfishly, broadmindedly and loyally supported by similar institutions in other Dominion centres of population, may prove to be the chief bulwark or reinforcement - a solid pillar which will ever uphold a monolith of intellectual progress. There is nothing more difficult to define than "true economy." It is one thing to raise the fabric of a new and important public institution; it is quite another to provide the means of maintaining it, and with it the aims and ideals which it enshrines. Enthusiasm is apt to inspire the former and woefully to neglect the latter. In this connection let us ever remember that "there is nothing else do costly as ignorance," and the nation which neglects the most effective means of dispelling ignorance is bound ultimately to become bankrupt not merely in ideas and aspirations, but also materially in agriculture, industry, commerce, and finance. God grant that this enlightened enterprise may prove to be an historical landmark in the vigorous, intellectual, and spiritual progress of all classes and of both races in this land of healthy traditions, high ideals, and immeasurable opportunity.