|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: August 6, 2002
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
When you decided to leave and come to Canberra from Western Australia, what were you expecting? What was your - what was in your mind about the National Gallery then?
Well as I say, my first instinct was "No, it's not my job. Not for me". The 'who, me' syndrome was moving in, and I'm suggesting everybody else and then out of desperation I thought, "Well, yes". I have got this ability to jump in fearlessly, you know, where fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and I think I'm a bit of a fool in that respect. I do jump, and then start thrashing for the side of the pool.
And, ah, I had really no - I knew it was going to be difficult, because James Mollison who was such an icon, and - but I hadn't quite realised the implication of what it was to inherit an institution that had been begun by a single man, every rule, every regulation had been initiated by him, every purchase had been initiated by him.
Every colour had been chosen by him, every member of staff had been appointed by him, and it's, it's a very rare situation to inherit, 'cause generally you're coming in and there have been two or other people. But anything I did was seen to be flying in the face of the wishes of James Mollison, which didn't make it easy for me at all. Because there were some things that I thought really needed to change.
I thought the National Gallery of Australia had to take its place as a much more national institution, which meant it had the resources more than any other gallery in the, in the country, therefore it could generate exhibitions in a way that other galleries may not be able to. See, Australia had been, up till then, accepting exhibitions that had been made elsewhere, like 'The Gold of the Pharaohs', things like that, that had been devised by curators elsewhere.
And I thought, "Here's an opportunity for Australia to devise exhibitions with our own scholarship, tailor-made to our audience, relating it to things in our collections, you know, putting our collections into a broader context". And, um, that's what really excited me. And that was the first thing that I really wanted to do when I got there.
But of course, I inherited a difficult organisation. The roof was leaking. They were trying to mend the roof and to fix the roof was a nightmare. It took nearly two years and we had to keep closing bits of the gallery while they did the roof over above, you know, for, for safety of the works of art below.
When I arrived, the gallery had plastic buckets everywhere. Drip, drop, drip, drop all around the gallery, you know. It was the most - it was appalling. And when I was making - while we were making those alterations, while the gallery was in upheaval, I decided to make some alternations to the gallery. The big, main hall of the gallery was vast, and had really been designed with its concrete walls and its great, you know, cathedral spaces, for large American painting.
I'm, I'm convinced of that. It was designed as if that was going to be the art of the future, and of course it turned out that it wasn't. So while that big main gallery was being closed because the roof was being done, I thought, here's an opportunity to get an architect in, to really redesign this space so that we can bring the lighting down to a lower level and light the works properly.
And really I s'pose what decided me was we had to move 'Blue Poles' out of that gallery into a smaller gallery, and it was on a white wall. And I remember Michael Lloyd, who was my - everywhere I go, I've got this, a few people, you know, that I really rely on - well Michael Lloyd was the one in, one of the ones in Canberra.
He came panting up to my office, he said, "Quick come downstairs and look at this". I raced downstairs and it was 'Blue Poles' on a white wall. It was just a revelation. Because on the cement, the grey cement, the cement was very light absorbent. The light was coming from that huge height. By the time it got down to the picture, it was exhausted.
The brick floor's light absorbent. There's no reflected light. And suddenly, here's this picture zinging, you know, with this orange line which I'd never even noticed before. And that's what confirmed me. I thought, no, we've got to do something about this. And that's when I brought Andrew Anderson[s] in.
And he, I think, did a wonderful job. I said to him, "Let's do it in such a way that it can be restored to a 1970s building". You know, because one never knows. You know, they might build a whole new extension to this gallery and they may want to return this part to its original state. So, at great expense actually, we built those walls prowed of the actual cement walls so we weren't destroying the cement wall.
They can be removed and it can, you know, return to its original state.
Did you consult with the original architect when you were doing it?
I did tell him what I was doing. I didn't want him to do it because I knew he wouldn't do it. And he wouldn't agree to the reason. You see he's - for him, the building was paramount. For me, the paintings were paramount. That's - was really the major difference. That became clear to me, you know, when -in, in our exchange of letters. He wrote to me once and he said, "Look, that building is the most important work of art in your care, and you're desecrating it".
And I explained to him, "Look, it can all be returned. Nothing is permanent. It's just a sort of a temporary space. It's -no - not really terribly different to the screens". You know, the moveable screens they had in that space. "Oh", he said, "things never change". I said, "Yes, they do". I said, "Chartres Cathedral's changed quite a bit over the years, and I think this one might too".
Anyway, he, he then wrote another letter and he said, "That building", he said, "is in Bannister Fletcher", which is the great architectural tome. He said, "It's in Bannister Fletcher, along with the great pyramids of Egypt". I was terribly tempted to write back and say, "Ah, but the great pyramids didn't leak". Because I had these blipping buckets all around the gallery.
But I resisted that. I like Col. Col doesn't like me because of what I did, but I really do like Col. He's a - I think he's a terrific guy. But, um, we couldn't see eye to eye on that and we never would, because of that different - we were just coming from different angles. The thing I loved about Andrew Anderson[s], as he walked through the door of my office, before he'd even sat down he said, "Now, I'm going to have to know what art's going to go in these spaces".
So he was thinking about the art first and foremost. How it had to be lit, how it would best be seen, how we were going to divide the collection up. And, and what we did, we just divided that great big space, basically into four, so there were four segments, but there was that curved coving with the light - concealed light there so that we could light the pictures properly.
That was one of the main problems with that space. You simply could not light the pictures properly. If a light blew in the morning, at ten o'clock, there was no way of replacing it till five o'clock that evening, when you had to bring a cherry-picker in, you know, to get to the top of that, that great height, of those spaces.
But I didn't want to lose that sense of grandeur, so Andrew's four screens, with their coving, you still get the sense of that lovely cathedral-like space. And as I say, it can return to that space again.
Andrew Andersons himself has a very great regard for Col Madigan I know ...
Oh, he does, yes.
And so would have respected that. What do you think - Col Madigan then didn't go public, though, over it. It was an argument between you, and you weren't altering the building. What do you think about the more recent controversy about the changes that are being proposed now?
I can see why he got more agitated about that, because what I was doing was not altering the building fundamentally. I was simply altering the internal disposition of spaces. And I had pointed out to him that it could return. I wasn't destroying anything that he'd done. The new idea, you know, to put that great big glass thing across the front - and this is a personal and private view - I think is not a good one because that building relies on that tall portico entrance.
You know, where the undercroft - you know, where the library's above it - the research library's up there. But the façade really needs those great tall columns and that shadowed space above. I was going to actually glass in that area to make a bigger foyer. You - the gallery's big failure is that it has never had a proper space for people to congregate.
You know, I used to use that bridge to the High Court. We'd put, you know, pavilions up on that High Court bridge and - but there's never anywhere for people to congregate. So I, I'm sympathetic with the need to make a proper entrance to the gallery which it never did have. Col gets very angry when I say that, 'cause he said [sic], "Yes it does" - it was that grand entrance, you know, up from - and he said, You know, "The car - altering the circulation of traffic was the problem".
I said, "But Col, you'd have to have been chauffeur driven". Because you have to drive past the entrance, right around to the carpark and then he's expecting people to park their car and then walk right around the building in order to come up the grand entrance. Well of course they won't do it.
People, like water, find the easiest course. And the easiest course is up those horrid little steps and that ramp, you know. And that's just how that is. You know, there's nothing you can do to alter that. All you could do is put the carpark down by the lake there, so that people naturally moved up towards that main entrance.
But I er, I - just privately - I didn't like that extension. I thought it made - turned it into a bit like a shopping centre, really. You know, it had that - and it lost, you know, its sort of sculptural look for the façade of the building. And I think that's what Col was going bananas about. The second plan though that they've got now I think would be a good one.
That's to make an extension out towards Kings Avenue, which doesn't interfere with that front façade. That front façade stays. That - you know, the bridge across from the High Court and that lovely undercroft space. Um, and I think that, that's probably a better solution. But that's why Col went public and angry about that, I think, because it really did compromise the, the building.
So that was the building. You had to tackle the building. But what was your broader concept for what you really needed to do at the National Gallery to achieve objectives that you had in mind for it?
Well, it had a very set - I think very prescribed mindset. You know, they were very - one of my biggest adversaries at the beginning, was Michael Lloyd, who turned out to be my great strength and the person that I really relied on and took great pleasure in. But he was deadset - everybody was deadset against me, because they could see me coming in ... [INTERRUPTION]
I presume that for the job of the National Gallery, your selection committee and the appointment was of a slightly different kind from the one you'd had in Western Australia. How, how were you selected and why do you think they chose you?
I don't know I - why they - I think they'd come to the end of their options. Patrick McCaughey wasn't interested and the ones - the people who'd applied had, for various reasons, not been considered suitable. And so I was invited and as I said, you know, I was a [sic] slightly reluctant about it, and very unsure as to whether I could do it.
But Gough Whitlam was the Chair for the selection panel, and I remember Rene Rivkin was there, and he had his gold worry beads and all through the interview he clicked these gold worry beads. I felt like grabbing them and keeping them still. But, um, it was very [sic] different interview because, ah, it was a very talkative and, and jolly interview, because I really didn't care whether I got it or not.
Again like with Melbourne. Melbourne I really didn't want the job. This time I sort of wanted the job but I would have been quite happy to have gone back to Western Australia. So - and I think that puts you in the very best position to win a job at interview. The only job I've ever applied for, I've only ever applied for one, and I didn't get it. Every other job I've been headhunted for and I've, and I've got.
But it amuses me to think of the one that I did apply for I didn't get.
What one was that?
Oh, it was for the, ah, it was quite right I didn't get it. It was for the Head of the Victorian College of the Arts. You know, not of the Arts School, but of the whole Music, you know, Drama, etcetera. And I went in unprepared. It was just - and they were quite right not to give it to me.
When was that? How long ago?
That was while I was at, um, Preston Institute - Phillip Institute. And I can't remember the date. But it was a very half-hearted - Len Parr had been the Director and he said, "Why don't you apply?" It, it wouldn't have occurred to me. And I applied but I didn't give it any thought or didn't really prepare myself and didn't do a good interview and didn't get the job. But it's ...
But in the atmosphere of the selection interview for the National Gallery, you felt very relaxed.
Very relaxed and told them precisely what I would do and what I thought needed doing with the National Gallery and without fear or favour not worrying whether they agreed with me or not, you know, which one often is at an interview. And of course it went down very well. And as I - Gough walked, Gough walked me out, you know, towards the lift and he more or less told me then and there that I'd been successful. But, um, I was successful.
And so that vision, that idea you had ... [INTERRUPTION] And what was this plan that you outlined there and put into effect once you took over?
That I wanted to make it a lively and viable place, evident as the National Gallery of Australia, doing things that no other gallery could do because it was resourced as a national gallery. And it had to be recognised, not just within Australia but overseas, as the National Gallery. Because when I travelled, I discovered they all thought the National Gallery was in Victoria, because it was called the Australian National Gallery, like the Australian Aquarium and the Australian Centre for Photography.
But the National Gallery was in Victoria, and I had to explain very carefully, "No, the National Gallery is really called the Australian National Gallery and it's in Canberra". That was really beside - behind my desire to change the name. That was a very unpopular move with the staff. Ooh. Changing the name of the gallery. How dare I?
And so you had this vision that you were going to make it national. What other aspects did you think that you needed to change?
I thought that we needed to change the buying policy, because the money available for purchase of works of art had not altered. The value of works of art had risen, the number of departments - see, James had made it an encyclopaedic collection. We collected everything, from fashion to theatre design, ceramics, pre-Columban, cycladic, everything, you know, was in the collection. So what do you do when you've got a pro ... - a very sort of confined amount of money and a need to build? It's a new collection.
So I, I, I said that I think we should slow the amount of - the number of works coming in - in order to make room for the major works. I said, otherwise, we'll never buy another 'Blue Poles'. You know, that's the end of that.
And so you wanted to be more discriminating about what you were going to collect.
I wanted to put aside quite a large amount of the allocation for purchases into what I called a global fund. Which means anything, whether it was a collection of - large collection of Aboriginal art, or a Magritte or a Matisse, or an Arthur Streeton. Something we would never be able to buy. The money was divvied out very evenly to every department. Because there were so many departments, it meant our buying power overall was very, very limited.
There was a global fund but it was only standing at - I think at five - oh it might have been seven hundred thousand. But I wanted to actually cut the amount of money in half, put two million in the global fund, divide the two million that remained amongst the various departments so they still had buying power. But anyone could apply, and that's why I called it global. It wasnt just ...
Michael Lloyd fiercely opposed me in this, and we used to laugh about it afterwards. He said, "Yes, but I wasn't to know then that you were ..." - he was in charge of Aboriginal art, he was senior curator of Aboriginal, er, international art. He said, "I wasn't to know that you were going to be such an enthusiast for international art".
Now you came in with this idea that you wanted it to be more clearly the National Gallery, that you wanted to have a more discriminating, um, and, and, and well thought out ...
Acquisition policy, yeah ...
... buying policy ... acquisition policy. What about the general atmosphere of the gallery? Did you want to change that?
Yes, I wanted people to feel comfortable. I thought the gallery was - had a cold front for the public. You know, there was very little given away, you know, in the sense of information or, even finding your way around the gallery it was, you know, difficult. You'd find people with a haunted look on their faces saying, "Please can you tell me how to get out of here?"
You know, the levels were so confusing. And I thought there was nothing really to make the average person feel comfortable. And the other thing that I was very aware of is that the National Gallery is in a situation of a population of say 330,000 people, and therefore, if it's going to be viable, if it's going to warrant that amount of taxpayers' money, it's got to draw people from other parts to it.
One of the things I did was, um, I found out all the tourist buses were shooting past the National Gallery, and I couldn't work that out. And the reason was, one, the Gallery was insisting that they paid the entrance fee when they'd already bought a package, you know, tourist deal. And the other thing was that the tourist, um, they call them coach captains, used to lose them. You know, they'd disappear into this sort of vast, you know, labyrinth and they'd never find ...
And I said, "Look, if I can fix those two things, will you bring the people to the gallery?" Because I think once you introduce people and they find that it's not a scary experience, it's fine. So I removed the charge and I made it a thing where they had people to meet and greet somewhere and get onto the bus and greet them and say, "Now, we're going to do this. It's going to be a twenty minute visit", you know, and take them around just to two or three major highlights.
You know, major Australian painting, 'Blue Poles', everyone wants to see some Aboriginal art, and out. And then hopefully, a proportion of those people would come back. That was the aim.
So you wanted to improve physical accessibility. What about, um, conceptual accessibility? What about accessibility to the art itself? Did you do anything about that?
Well as I did in Western Australia, I really insisted that they put a little bit of information, if it was appropriate. I was not for putting, I said, you know, I don't want an art history lesson. I just want - and if it's quite clear what the subject is, and what the artist is trying to do, just the title and the artist and the date and the material is sufficient. But if it's not, if it requires something - and I fought the curators. They didn't want to do it.
I remember a particular one. There was a Robert MacPherson, lovely work of art. It was a little tin boat at the bottom, and then running up the wall on pieces of wood, beautifully lettered on, um, brass plaques, was the names, the Latin names, of every frog variety that you could think of. Now the fact that that [sic] those were frog names, I thought, was important to the work of art, because it was his childhood memory of a little boy with his little tin boat that he'd made, pushing his way through the reeds, and these "br, br, br", you know, different frogs croaking away, it was, you know, embedded in the work.
And, you know, all it needs is that. 'The Latin names above the child's boat are the Latin names of frog varieties'. You know, that's, that's the label.
Well I won in the end but by God it was a battle. And I think they thought it was what they call dumbing down. You know, sort of that if people didn't know - and, and I defy anyone to know that those - unless they're a zoologist - that those are frog names. You know, they knew because they were curators and they'd, you know, read books on Robert MacPherson and Robert must have told someone in the first place.
So if the artist thinks it's significant to tell somebody, it's significant to tell Mr Average that's just walked into the gallery, I think.
Why do you think that when you arrived - and you've said already that you arrived to a lot of hostility, pre-existing from the staff - why do you think that was so intense in this case?
I think they thought it was Betty Who? You know, they didn't think, "Why on earth?", you know. If it had been Patrick McCaughey or someone, but I was as far as they were concerned - I always remember the - remember when Brian was appointed, the front page and all of this brouhaha. When I was appointed, there was this little tiny column. What was it? 'Mother of' - '58 year year old mother of four inherits top job' and I thought, "Oh, blimey, there we go", you know.
Now that didn't help, you know. That sort of - in the, in the attitude of a lot of the staff, I was a 58 year old mother of four, you know, and not an appropriate person to be running a national gallery. Now that did turn around. You know, that - not with all of them, I didn't - but with a significant number I did manage to turn them around.
How did it manifest itself towards you when you arrived? How did you experience the hostility?
Oh, it just - silent determination not to do what I was asking. Just absolute determination. I was saying, "Well look, I'll write the labels". "We haven't got time." "Well, I'll write 'em." But, you know, then just not happening and not happening. And having to insist, you know, and things like that. It was, um - and at meetings, I can remember really quite rude behaviour at times.
But it was, in their - to forgive them a little bit - it was hard. You know, they had been used to this, you know, a single person, ah, James Mollison, who had this sort of, um, persona in Australia and suddenly here was this strange woman, you know, coming from the west and, ah, I certainly had the credentials, you know, the academic credentials and all of that, but, ah ...
So you entered the situation and there was a distinct lack of respect. And you had to earn that respect in some way. How did you do it?
I think by respecting them. Like I remember with Michael Lloyd, you know, when I announced this global fund, I remember him, er, storming out of my office and slamming the door after him. You know, there was no doubt about it, you know. But then, because I totally respected him and what he could offer, and what he had offered, what he'd done, and was clearly, as time went on, anxious to assist him do more, you know, and progress, he slowly began to see that, you know, what he'd been objecting to really didn't exist and he no longer objected to it.
In fact, as I said, we became firm friends.
But you managed to remain patient while they were behaving like this towards you. You didn't lose your temper with them?
No, I never did. I, I, um - not at all, and of course, I came in at that time when the unionism was, you know, really, really very, very strong and a lot of it was coming from, um, security staff, interestingly enough. A lot of the resistance. The security staff - James had been such a - almost paranoid about the safety of the works of art. You know, he'd say, "I'd rather there was blood on the floor than someone - something happen to the picture".
Well I wouldn't. I don't want anyone brought down in a pool of blood. I'd rather a picture got destroyed, if necessary. But, um, there was - so and they were, they were policemen. And I said, "You mustn't do that". You know, I'd get letters from people saying, "I was absolutely outraged. I've travelled, you know, thirty thousand, thirteen thousand miles to visit the National Gallery and I was followed every step by security guards". They must have thought this person was - looked a bit odd and they would stalk them while they were trying to enjoy the pictures, you know, and that sort of thing.
So I was trying to bring a bit of, sort of, sense into that. And they wouldn't let people bring - if their, if a woman's handbag was that big rather than that big, they'd say that they had to leave it at the - and the poor woman would say, "Well no, it's got my handkerchiefs - it's got my - it's got everything I need in it, and I want to go to the canteen after, or I want to go to the restaurant after and have a meal". "Too bad. Too bad. It goes in here."
And little unfriendly things like that, and, um, and of course, they were going on strike the whole time. Every time I made a decision that some - you know, kids with backpacks for instance. That was all the - there's nothing wrong with a backpack. There's nothing they could do with a backpack that was - unless it was a, you know, properly big one, but you weren't with the little handbags really that was [sic] on their back, you know.
Why rip those off a kid when they don't ...? Oh, and mothers with babies. They'd say, "Well the mother can swing around and knock their baby into a picture". I said, "I don't think you'd find the average mother would do that". Not because of the picture but because of the baby.
So you came there - you came there in 1990?
Yeah, I started at the beginning of 1990.
And that was a time when there was a lot of pressure on reduction of money towards all government funded institutions, which often then led to a reduction of staff. What was the situation at the gallery in relation to those things?
Well that was really, probably, the first instance where the staff had had to suffer reductions. It had always been expanding, from the - you know, from when it just started from one person, James Mollison, it had just been a constantly expanding organisation. I came in just as this so-called efficiency dividend that you had to - it had been in place for about four years and they'd done nothing about it.
So by the time I came in, we would have, if we'd done nothing, ended the year with a deficit of something like two million dollars. It was really quite serious, because they'd just kept putting on - every time a job appeared, they'd just put on a person of, a member of staff to do the job, instead of trying to shift things around a bit, you know, and accommodate that new activity.
Every activity had a person, and so there were really - it was overstaffed. But then you get to a point when you're cutting back and cutting back where you're starting then to cut into muscle. You've removed the fat and you're really starting to cut into the muscle that's making the organisation work.
And I arrived just at that point where it was a real problem, you know. Nothing had been done about it, no provision had been made, no cutbacks had been made. And, ah, it was my unhappy task, you know, in that first, very first year, to reduce the staff. Now only by voluntary redundancies. Nobody went that didn't want to go.
And of course a voluntary redundancy means that you've got a deficit really for nearly two years because of your redundancy payout. So it doesn't get you out of the woods really, but it means that down the line you are going to be able to run to budget. The trouble with the efficiency dividend is they just kept applying it.
I said to the government, I said, "It's absolutely ridiculous. It's going to end with just me sitting in this vast building. There'll be nobody left". You know but they - I think it's still - I'm not sure whether it's still applying, but it's just a lunatic - it was quite right, you know. There was fat in the system. There was a sort of a lazy way of thinking, you know. Ah, the sky's the limit. But it then became ridiculous.
But I became the monster that had to do the, the dirty work. I sometimes wonder if James left because he realised he'd got to the end of the point where he could keep operating in that sort of generous way, you know, with money. I don't think so. I'm only joking, but that is actually how it happened. It just coincided - just, just bad luck, really.
So you had these quite serious management problems that you had to deal with, and you eventually reduced the staff and turned the staff around. What was happening with the program of the gallery? What were you doing with that?
Well you see, I had a leaking roof, so we could have no major exhibition until that got - and that spread over really the first two years of my time at the gallery. Nobody could have come in at a worse time, with a leaking roof, with a disgruntled staff, with a, a potential deficit. You know, it really wasn't good news. And no exhibition program.
There was one exhibition which was from the British Museum that happened, almost just as I came in, in fact literally as I came in, but there was nothing in the pipeline. Now an exhibition takes about two years to three years to get together, and there was nothing there. Nothing had been worked on. So I immediately started working on an exhibition, and that was the exhibition 'Rubens and the Italian Renaissance', and that happened in '92, two years after I'd been there.
Which of course was a huge, ah, success and that was one curated by our own staff, or David Jaffe had left, but he had been. He'd been responsible for purchasing the Rubens self-portrait. So the exhibition really had a, had a reason, had a sense. It was putting our self-portrait into a much wider context.
Whose idea was that? Whose idea was to take - was it to take a picture that was already in the gallery and make a blockbuster around it?
Well I, I thought of that, because I wanted to get a curator that was absolutely full bottle on the subject and full bottle in enthusiasm to, to project that subject. You see, when we came to surrealism, the thing that got them really excited about that - Michael Lloyd did surrealism - but was the opportunity to put Australian surrealism beside European surrealism. So that's where it's different from an exhibition, say like the Italians, which has just come in.
That comes in as a package, and really doesn't have any sort of relationship to Australian scholarship or Australian collections or Australian art. See, even with the Turner exhibition that Michael did, again, Turner was such an influence on early Australian landscape paintings, on John Glover in particular. And we were able to do one chapter of the book on the influence of Turner on Australian art.
So always, there was that little connection, either between the person, the curator that was doing the exhibition, or the work of art that was in the collection already.
Why was it Rubens and the Italian Renaissance? That was a sort of interesting juxtaposition.
Well, that was David Jaffe's passion, you see. David Jaffe was fascinated with the fact that Rubens had been the one who carried the Renaissance back to Flanders. He visited Italy in 1600, in 1608 he went back because his mother was - well, he thought dying, but she didn't actually die. But he went back to Flanders and didn't return to Italy. But in that - in the meantime, he'd had a chance to understand what was happening in Italian art. Because you remember, this is before photography, before there are public galleries.
You can only see great works of art in great persons' collections. And he had introductions to the Barberini family and to various great families where he saw the works of Caravaggio and Veronese and Titian. And then he was able to take that back to Italy. And it was a wonderful subject, you know, and I actually wanted David to - the other thing that was - made me think about it was the fact that the, um, oh, the gallery in Italy that - now my mind's gone a complete blank - the Borghese.
The gallery had been closed for, for renovations for like seven years and I thought, well, God, there's a marvellous collection of Italian art there. You know, all of the Caravaggios etcetera, that we would have wanted. So I said to David, I went over with Gough, who was the chairman, David now living in London, and I said, "Well let's just ask for the Borghese Gallery, you know, if they'll lend their work and we can build it around that".
And David very wisely said, "No, if you do that, you won't get their loans because they'll sense that it's just another 'Treasures from the Borghese Collection'. You've got to give it a little bit of academic rigour, you know, to make them want to lend". And he was, he was absolutely right. So we - it was a very odd threesome - David Jaffe, Gough Whitlam and I toured around Italy, convincing the different superintendents of, you know, the various regions of Italy to lend to this exhibition.
And although it had been written about, David's uncle, Michael Jaffe, had written about this, ah, connection of Rubens and the Italian Renaissance, it had never been exhibited, and they were fascinated that this was coming from Australia. So we got loans, fabulous loans that I don't think we would probably have got if it hadn't been such a new idea.
That whole - that was the beginning of something that really put your stamp on the gallery. You became known as 'Betty Blockbuster', and you had a series of these blockbuster [sic]. Could you talk a little bit more about the idea behind that and just describe the rest of them?
Yeah, well the idea of the blockbuster was really, if you remember back to Betty Cameron in Brisbane in the '30s, not seeing anything, and knowing that Australia, beginning collecting as we did, inheriting no great Royal collections, like the collection of the Hapsburgs, or the collection of Catherine the Great, as various, you know, national galleries around Europe did inherit, having no Gettys or, um, Carnegies, you know, to endow art collections.
What we couldn't buy we'd have to borrow. And I was determined that Australians would get to see the very best. And that's when we were getting these wonderful loans, these wonderful Caravaggios and Correggios and Titians and Tintorettos. And I was just so thrilled to think that young people, Australian students, Australian school children were going to see the very best, you know, in their original form, you know, to the proper scale, not just reproduced in a book, either under-reproduced or souped up in colour or whatever.
Of course, that was very, um- a lot of the curators thought that that was all I was interested in. They thought I wasn't interested in the permanent collection. And I got a lot of criticism for that. There was a lot of derogatory thing in that 'Betty Blockbuster' nickname, you know. Not all of them, by any means. Certainly those who had the opportunity to stretch their curatorial wings and their scholarship, you know,and able to produce a major exhibition, they weren't critical, but a lot of the curators were.
And they thought that, for instance, like the curators of prints you'd never make a blockbuster exhibition out of prints, because it just wouldn't be a blockbuster. The whole thing about a blockbuster is it's bloody expensive. You know, you've got to bring these very expensive works very large distances. Every work has to have a courier that travels with it. You're talking millions.
So you've got to be sure that you can make at least enough. You never want to make money out of it. You've just got to cover costs. So you've got to be sure that you can attract the right number of people. Now in a population the size of London or New York, you can put on a very esoteric exhibition of, say, drawings and it'll work a dream. [INTERRUPTION]
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