Art – Sasha Grishin
Dr Anna Gray - Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia 2001-2016: A tribute
On Easter Monday, when the Tom Roberts exhibition closed its doors at the National Gallery of Australia, more than 131,000 visitors had passed through the turnstiles. It was an exhibition that broke many records and greatly exceeded expectations, and superlatives flew thick in the air.
As was appropriate, most of the attention focused on the spectacular array of Roberts' paintings that had been brought together in the exhibition, and on the new insights that this exhibition provided for the discussion of this, most favourite of Australian artists.
Little mention was made of the remarkable person who was responsible for the exhibition, its curator, Dr Anne Gray, who after 15 years as Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery, retired last week.
Dr Anne Gray, universally known as Anna Gray, came from a theatre background, immersed in acting, ballet and choreography. She became a well-known figure in Perth theatre circles and by the early 1970s she was tutoring in philosophy at both universities in Perth.
She gradually converted to the visual arts and, in her studies, followed her BA in philosophy with a masters in aesthetics and years later completed her PhD in Aart history at the University of Melbourne. Once she had "found herself", her dedication to art and curatorship became legendary.
After five years at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, she was poached by Canberra and moved to the Australian War Memorial, first as curator and then as head of art at the memorial. Subsequently, she was back in Perth as the director of the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery for five years and, in 2001, moved to Canberra again, this time to head Australian Art at the National Gallery, the most prestigious curatorial position in Australian art in the country.
I have known and admired Anna for about four decades, both in Perth and Canberra, and have been in awe of her integrity, energy and dedicated professionalism. We have had arguments over the years over some of our assessments of the significance of some artists, heated at times, but Anna belongs to that rare breed of passionate, "scholar curators", who is always prepared to back her assessment with a mass of critical scholarship. She is also a person with an infectious sense of humour and a loud boisterous laugh that would frequently break the church-like silence that frequently prevails in art galleries.
Two of her great loves in Australian art are George Lambert and Tom Roberts, to whom she devoted a string of exhibitions and scholarly publications. Roberts always had his champions, Anna was simply the most exacting and insightful, but friends of Lambert, especially in recent decades, have been a little thin on the ground.
This dedicated curator single-handedly championed his art, published a comprehensive catalogue of his work, plus several other catalogues and books, and restored his name to the pantheon of Australian art.
Anna has the rare ability to combine passion with scholarship and visual intelligence. A good curator presents an attractive exhibition that may bring some new insights to the understanding of the art before us. A great curator makes us see the art before us in a new way and compels us to this new understanding visually and intuitively, rather than verbally or purely intellectually. In this sense Anna Gray is a great curator, one who reveals new ways of seeing art and seeing new connections that had previously been overlooked.
Anna Gray is not a curator who spends all of her time chasing the great and established names in art, although, as is appropriate, the major exhibitions that she has curated for the National Gallery include shows devoted to Roberts, Constable, Lambert, McCubbin and Sydney Long.
Some of her other most memorable shows have included a wonderful exhibition she curated of the artists books of Petr Herel (1989) at the National Library, Face: Australian portraits 1880-1960 (2011), The Edwardians (2004) and Out of the West (2011), all at the National Gallery, the last championing Western Australian artists who are little known outside their home state.
She is also rare as a curator in her ability to combine quality with quantity. In her 15 years at the National Gallery, she curated no fewer than 10 major "blockbuster" exhibitions, published half a dozen books, scores of articles, spoke at more than a dozen conferences and acquired hundreds of artworks for the national collection.
Although she was Head of Australian Art, she kept a high scholarly profile abroad and is an internationally recognised authority on the Edwardians, as well as on Constable and Turner. She also spearheaded and published the first volume of the remarkable Donald Friend diaries at the National Library.
Throughout her career, Anna Gray chose her battles well, to use one of her favourite sayings, but she also chose well the moment of her departure. Tom Roberts has been a stunning success, Australian art at the gallery is in good shape and with its constant "rehangs", it is a continuing work in progress.
I am happy to report that rumours of her departure may also have been greatly exaggerated and after a few months' rest in Europe, she will be back in Canberra as a guest-curator at the National Gallery working on her new exhibition for 2018, Arthur Streeton and the Great War.
Dr Anna Gray is a giant among curators and indeed leaves very big shoes to fill for the National Gallery of Australia.