Australian Biography

Betty Churcher - full interview transcript

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How did it feel for you having to come back and continue when you were supposed to be gone? Did it make any difference to the way you approached things?

Not really. No, I, er, came back with the same - I didn't, I didn't coast the last eighteen months, in other words, at all. I kept going, you know, vigorously. I had the building that I had to keep fighting for, and trying to get that underway, and, ah, make sure that it was coming in under budget. There was a lot to do. Um ...

Were you secretly a little bit pleased to have the chance to finish a few things and ... ?

Well, when I - Roy and I were doing, um, a retirement trip, a little celebration trip in Europe when all of this was happening, and I was getting phone calls from Cathy Santamaria saying, you know, "Would I consider ... "

From the department ...

Yes, from the department. "Would I consider a [sic] extension?" And I thought - I remember saying, "Well, to what end? Why?" And I was told then that the appointment was not going to be made that had been suggested. So I then spoke to Roy and Roy thought, "Oh, well, you know, this is s'posed to be your retirement trip. What's going on?" And I said, "Well look, Roy, think about it, you know. We haven't paid off the farm. It'll give us a chance to do that and we can do this and do that". And so we'd get completely ready and quite enthusiastic about going and then there'd be another phone call, "No, the Minister's changed his mind. No, he wants you to retire".

So then we'd talk ourselves into, "Yes, that was a good thing", and then there'd be another phone call. "No, the Minister wants ... " And I said, in the end I said, "Look, you make up your mind. Either I stay or I don't", but I wanted a decision now and they said, "You're staying". So I stayed and, ah, as it turned out, it was, for me, a very good thing.

Because, I hadn't paid off this vineyard, and it did - that extra 18 months - allowed me to, you know, put just about everything into that, ah, mortgage. So I retired debt free, which is, ah, a great comfort.

How did you get on with the political side of your work at the gallery? Your relationships with government and with the ministers? That's very important in that sort of a role, isn't it?

It is. I probably didn't put enough effort into that. I put so much effort into the program, the exhibition program, the acquisition program, the education program. I didn't spend all that much time currying, um, contacts in government, or in the department. I was always a very good friend of Cathy Santamaria.

I related to her very easily and enjoyed her company. And so that was just a natural - but I didn't ...

She was in charge of Arts in the department?

She was the Deputy Secretary in charge of the Arts, yes. But no, I didn't do much politing [sic] ... politicking, and when I think about it, I jolly well should have done more. I'd see other members of staff with their - not with the ministers, but with the ministers' assistants, and you know, at that level. And I'd think, "Oh, good, you know, you're doing that. That leaves me free".

But of course it turned around to bite me, because those were the very people who caused a lot of the trouble later.

In relation to your successor?

In relation to the successor, yes.

But you got on well with the prime ministers, didn't you, that were in power during the time that you ...

Yes, more with Keating than with ah, Bob Hawke, although I, I had one meeting with Bob Hawke, and that's all. With Keating it was different because he was interested in the arts, and he had a particular interest in neo-classical art, and knew a great deal about it. So we had something to chat about.

But we didn't really - when I think about it, I think, well what a fool. You had a marvellous opportunity to promote what you wanted, ah, and I didn't use it. I just used it to, ah, chat about the things that he wanted to talk about. And when I think about it, that's probably why he liked to talk to me, because I didn't - he knew I was not going to start trying to lobby or promote some project.

What would you have wanted to promote, with prime ministers and ministers, with the political side, about art policy?

Well not so much about art policy, but I think if only I had pointed out to them that they were not giving us enough money for that extension. You know, there was a wonderful opportunity. All of the problems they're now having. They talk about 36 million. They allocated me 5 million to do that extension.

Now there was an opportunity to build a large space for people - for exhibition openings to take place, to, you know, just for the want of, you know, another 5 or 6 million, it could have solved the problems of the gallery. Well now, I, I did, in order to get that 5 million, do a little bit of lobbying, I have to admit. But, ah, I didn't lobby hard enough or long enough or ask for enough. And, ah, I kicked myself for that.

But in time - the real question was in terms of policy. Oh, one of the things I really wanted to do - which this, um, new director has done - was to remove a restraint, which had been in from the beginning of time, from the gallery's beginning, where any purchase over a certain amount of money had to get ministerial approval.

Now when a wonderful thing comes, an opportunity comes on the market, by the time - to get ministerial approval, I have to say first, you had to get three expert opinions. Now experts, because they're experts, are very busy people, you know, and they're, you know, often in America or Great Britain or France or wherever. Those three expert opinions could be anything up to two months in coming.

By this time, the thing has gone to someone else, and the thing that really I regretted missing and, you know, that the gallery could have had was this most marvellous ceramic bust by Salvador Dali. A thing about that big, with this wonderful woman's head and shoulders. She had, I think I remember, a bread roll on her head, and ants crawling all over.

Beautifully painted, wonderful thing. The Museum of Modern Art moved in like a sea hawk, you know, and just swooped it up and it was gone. And that, but I hade the money - we had the council approval. We could have been the sea hawk that got it, but that silly clause - and the new director has managed to get rid of that. So that's a, a real plus.

You'd been interested in the broader picture of support for the visual arts for a long time, hadn't you, Betty? When did that officially begin for you in terms of an opportunity and a public role to be able to influence the way things were done, in terms of support for the arts in Australia?

I suppose when I first was invited onto the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council - not as a member - but as a, like the Queensland representative. They didn't want to have a member from Queensland, and I'd have to think hard when that was, because a little bit later - after I'd gone to Melbourne, this would have been in the early '80s - I was, ah, made the Chair of the Visual Arts Board.

So I then moved in in a formal capacity, with some influence. When I was the Queensland representative, I had no voting rights, I had no real ability to speak, although I did speak, but, ah, I wasn't supposed to. I was supposed to just look and listen and report back. But as the chair, of course, I had more of a, an opportunity and I could see what the value of the, um, Australia Council was and what it could do for art.

It was a great initiative, to set that up for contemporary artists. And some of the things that I thought were most useful was the, ah, scholarships that allowed artists in residencies overseas, where artists could go overseas, but furthermore, have a studio to work overseas. One of the problems with travel for artists is that they can very seldom work.

You know, they can either go and look, or they can go and work, but they can't do both. And these, um, overseas studios, dotted around Europe and America and Japan, allowed artists to go and work, sit in that environment and become part of that environment. And I thought that was very, very good.

Ah, I enjoyed my time on the Visual Arts Board. It gave me an overview of the arts in Australia that I wouldn't have ever got otherwise. I was conscious of the fact that ... that there was a funny sort of ingrown perpetuation of choice, of who was to be sponsored and who wouldn't. And that was because we'd get a group of people in to make the selection.

The artist would have to select - send in ten or twelve slides - and you'd make a selection of people who would make the decision, we didn't. Then we'd ask them to nominate the next panel. But of course they were all nominating their own - and that was the - that - I realised that that was the - a flaw, you know, because you were never moving outside a certain parameter of art making in Australia.

And that doesn't - didn't really greatly matter 'cause I'm sure that has now changed - but during my time, it was, it was worrying me because the same names kept coming up for sponsorship, for studios, for grants, etcetera, etcetera.

Have you ever had any doubt about the need for the public, through the government, to support the arts? Have you - there's always this argument that goes on about the fact that public funding shouldn't be made available for the arts. What - what's your perspective on that?

Well I think the only people that put that argument forward are fairly successful artists, who have, luckily, managed to become successful and self-sufficient. No, I think - there is a need now, simply because, er, when we go back in history, there was an actual physical need for artists, you know, through the guilds, and artists had an, a role to play, even if they were just painting the little cherubs, you know, flying around the main subjects.

There was a role for artists to play. And there was a role for art to play, because there were no cameras, there were no cinemas, there was no, no other recording method. When art became something else - as it did, you know, when the other recording methods came in - I think then that the ability for artists to get up and start running on their own, was, ah, much reduced, because they didn't have a system to work in, like the old guild system.

And, um - or even in England in the 19th century, you know, with the, um, the old salons and the, the, ah, academies. All of those were worth, in effect, what the Australia Council later became - a way of supporting artists, a place for artists to exhibit, and an opportunity for artists to make a name.

So why do we need it? Why do we need art, Betty?

Well, I think we - we, the lookers, I think, as this world that we live in becomes more and more mechanised and more and more - the speed of things, the internet, you know, everything happens as quick [sic], fast information, you know, flashing past, masses of information. I think the need to sit quietly with something that does not change, something that has not changed since the 17th century, something that just sort of connects us in a quiet way with the way other people live and the way other people work, I think is going to become increasingly important.

I sat, just recently, a couple of weeks ago in the National Gallery in London and just watched people. Not watched the paintings, watched people looking at the paintings, and it was fascinating to see, you know, the numbers of people. The numbers of people that are visiting art galleries now is increasing, not decreasing. And the only reason for that that I can think of is that, um, that the, the quiet, you know, imaginative contemplation, and that art allows - gives you that room to contemplate and to, to build your own little fantasies around it.

For the person who makes art, I think, it's hugely important. I remember thinking back to when I was a little girl and I felt I didn't do anything terribly well but oh yes, I could draw, thank God, I could draw. You know, and it was that ability - and I think it's the same for music, or for theatre, or for anything - it gives you an outlet. And I think it's a very, very important outlet. Human beings need it, and I don't think the computer chip is going to solve that problem, that deep-seated need of human beings to find a way of articulating a particular feeling about the world, or a particular feeling about how you relate to the world.

When you stopped painting yourself, and you started your other life, as it were, did you still use your ability to draw?

I did. I, um, one of the things I did when I travelled, because I had to keep my eyes very sharp, because when exhibitions came up I had to remember where that picture - where was that Turbell [sic], where was that Ruisdael, you know, where were they, which museum did I see that in? So I used to keep a notebook. And I would make little drawings of the pictures, because once you've drawn something, you've imprinted in your memory cell.

And you notice things that you don't necessarily notice when you just look. Because when you're drawing, you suddenly notice there's a line, a very purposeful line. And you think, what's he done that for, and then you suddenly see, "Ah, I see. That's actually, a lance, you know, that's coming across here, that this man's holding, but you hadn't see it before". It just helps you look and it helps you remember.

So that's the only way I've used my drawing since. But I don't use it in a way of fulfilling my personal needs. What has happened to me is that I've sort of switched that, into first teaching, and then into, ah, managing galleries and now into the television things that I produce.

Yes, so I was going to ask you about that. After you left the gallery, you didn't decide to sort of put on your slippers and relax. You've been doing other things. What, what have you been doing since you left the gallery?

Well I've been - I was very active on the Centenary of Federation Committee. I was the Chair of the Major Events and Celebrations, which really was putting me in the hot seat, and I said to Tony Eggleton who was this marvellous Chief Executive of the Centenary - it was great meeting him. I wished I'd met him, er, earlier in my life, and watched him, how he managed things. A great politician and - without being a politician.

But, ah, I greatly enjoyed working with Tony, and when Tony put me on this, I said, "Tony, I'm the original party pooper. I hate parties. I hate cele- ... I hate crowded people [sic]. I'm a hermit. I don't want to do this". He said, "Oh, yes you do. Yes you do". And of course, I, I did it and I actually enjoyed doing it. So that, that took a lot.

I'm on quite a lot of different committees and etceteras. I do a - did do an awful lot of opening and launching and - I was saying to Roy I get to the point now where I was opening so many exhibitions, in schools, in all the, you know, and they were all worthy and it's terribly hard to say no - but I said to Roy, I felt that every - when I opened a can of sardines, I expected them all to stand up and applaud. It had got into this sort of thing of opening things.

So I've really tried to step back from that judging and opening and after dinner speeches and all that. Nobody wants to listen to you but they seem to feel that you've got to have someone there, and I'm really trying stop doing some of that. But I have loved my little short programs that I've been doing with the ABC.

Although I'm, I'm sick of the small format. I don't want to do that any more. But, ah, that was really just an extension of what I'd been doing both as a teacher and as an art gallery director. Trying to get people to look more carefully, and with curiosity - as soon as you can arouse a person's curiosity, you're tw-thirds there. The minute they think - and if you talk about what the, the motive of the artist was, what the subject was, something interesting about the subject, something curious about how it got into the country, all of those things - you've given them something that you've engaged their curiosity, and they've been looking at the image and by that time, they've become interested in the image.

Because people don't give art long enough, I don't think, to let it - you know, what it's really about - get into their heads. And I've just enjoyed that. I, I love - er, the last series I did was the provenance of works of arts in Australian collections.

And there's really fascinating stories about how they got here, like the story of 'Blue Poles', how 'Blue Poles' got into the country, and so many things. And that was, that was really enjoyable.

You had an association with the ANU too, didn't you?

Yes. Well the ANU were wonderful. When I retired - well, even before I retired, I remember Ian McCalman at the HRC came to see me, and asked me if I would like to do this. And I was just overwhelmed, because it gave me an office, it gave me the support system of the university, it gave me all the equipment, you know, that I would need and, ah, and I have done that since retirement.

I don't know how much longer this wonderful thing will last, but while it lasts, I'm really enjoying it. And I enjoy the ... company of the people at the ANU. I'm in the Centre of Cross-Cultural Research, and I feel I'm a sort of ... an anomaly in that school, but not really. You know, I said this to them and they say, "Oh no, no, no, not at all. We trot you out from time to time..." And I'm not doing the sort of research that most of them are doing, but it is relevant.

And so it's a base for the research that you're doing in order to make the television programs.

Yes. That's where, that's where I've done all of the television programs for, and that's why I insist that the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research gets a mention on everything, because without them, I wouldn't be able to do - I wouldn't have been able to do them.

Do you have any other obligations there?

No, not really. I chair their um, Advisory Committee, which is a committee of outsiders that come in, but that's really all I do. But no obligations in relation to students. At first I thought that that's what it was, and I thought, "No, I don't want to go there again". And be correcting, reading, you know, papers and correcting and ... I didn't want to do that.

But no, there were [sic] none of that. It was simply - it is a research centre, and all I had to do was keep producing and these television programs filled that bill, so it's been a great thing for me.

You own a vineyard here. Do you do anything in it?

I used to. When we first came in 1990, I'd be out there pruning, I'd be out there picking. As I've grown older, though, less and less - Roy still does, but fortunately, Paul our second son, who lives here but not with us in another site, he's sort of taken the vineyard over and that's a very good thing, because, ah, I think we're ... well I don't think Roy's getting too old, but I am.

Do you make your own wine?

No, we don't. We sell our grapes to Lark Hill. Very, very good winemakers, fortunately. And what we do, when we can get a crop, when the frost doesn't destroy us, if we get a crop, we, we sell one paddock - because we never want the vineyard to do more than be self-sufficient - put the money we make from that back into the vineyard, you know, to buy the lime and the sprays, etcetera, that you've got to use.

We give one paddock to Lark Hill, and Sue Carpenter, makes the most marvellous pinot let's say, and we get half of that back in bottles. But she gets the other half to make and sell as - and it's a great deal, you know. And I think we, um - the same with the cabernet, we get the cabernet made up, and she makes it up for us, and we have that to drink. And Roy and I work hard at that. We get that done pretty well. We're ...

One of our great achievements is drinking a garage full of wine.

You have to do a lot of judging, and you've had to do a lot of judging of art, in the course of your life. How do you distinguish between really special and good art and all the other art that one sees about? What is the difference? Can you characterise it?

Oh well, it's so very subjective and it's so very relative, you know. I've just been up to the Pilbara, for instance, and that's judging the art of the region. So that's judging the art of Tom Price and Karratha and Cossack. Little communities. Well you're clearly there not looking for the sort of thing that you might be looking if you're judging a sort of like a Sydney Biennale. You've got, you know, it depends.

What I look for in a judge, and I've been helped in this in the Professor John Passmore's book, 'Serious Art', what I look for is an indication of serious intent on the part of the artist. Not to show their skill, how clever they are at it, but a serious intent that they wanted to paint that person, or they wanted to paint that landscape, or wanted to do this.

Not because they've seen it in a book, or they think it's a thing that the judge will like, but something that they have personally, seriously wanted to do, and the emphasis is on the word 'serious'. And I think you can, ah, often, that's probably the only thing you can go at, because good and bad are such relative, ah, values, that what's good in the Pilbara may not be good in Sydney, you know, and what's bad in the Pilbara may be even worse in Sydney.

How important is technique, though, in producing that result?

If the intent, the serious intent is strong enough, generally the technique will muddle behind. Um, the most depressing thing is when the technique is paramount and there's been no real, deep commitment driving it, because then you just get this facile, smart, you know, almost commercial art result. Um, I find that if they really try - like there was I remember in the Pilbara there was this little dark little painting, which I really loved.

If I could have carried one off, I'd have carried that off, and it was very inept technically, but it was a real image that he'd seen of these tents in the dark, with a red tank, you know. In the dark, but you know, just, just seeing through the dark you could make out this red tank. And it was a real image that he had in his mind. Or she. I can't remember if it was a man or a woman.

But it wasn't terribly skilfully done but by joves, it was a powerful image. And it was only powerful, I think, because it was a genuine, deeply felt thing that he'd seen and wanted to put down.

You'd be familiar, from the Visual Arts Board, with the great debate between the value of craft in the whole visual arts scene. How do you, how do you see that? The whole issue of the sort of craft versus art debate?

Well I wish it wasn't a debate. I wish it wasn't craft versus art. And I wish craft people didn't feel, ah, second rate when they're making just a beautiful pot, or when they're making just the most marvellous join in wood. You know, that they've got to turn it into art. I think that's when it turns disastrous, when it's, you know, they - it becomes so called 'modern art'.

I just love the most beautifully crafted thing and again, the, the serious intent to make a beautiful table, or to make the perfect bowl or to make a most beautiful piece of weaving, I think that that - the same things still apply. But then when you see a sort of like a wall hanging with bits of sort of shells and seaweed sticking out, you know, they lose me when we get to that.

Because I think it is neither one thing nor the other, really. It's neither craft, nor is it art. Ah, but a beautiful piece of weaving, a beautiful piece of joinery, a beautiful piece of pottery, to my mind is art in the best sense of the word. And I don't want to sort of divide it into craft or into art.

Do you think that there's an element too with which sort of fashion affects things? Does that - as an observer of the arts scene, do you see a sort of issue of fashion coming in and affecting things? What have you noticed about that in Australia?

Well fashion is a problem, because fashions do come and go, and fashions does not just apply to the way we dress. Fashions apply to what we paint and what we eat off and how we surround ourselves in our home. So fashions come and go, and one of the things that really used to worry me, when I was teaching in art school, was that students were often being taught to produce the current fashion.

For instance, when it was all about hard edge abstractions, you know, everything was going on in acrylic with rollers and masking tape, they were all being told to do that, because they all wanted to be in fashion. Now when that fashion moved on, those kids were left high and dry, like a rockpool when the tide's gone out.

You know, there's nothing more depressing than a sea anemone when there's no water around and really, they had nothing to fall back on. And, ah, but it still happens. That was the most, ah, outstanding case. I remember, ah, that appalled me. You know, everybody was being told to turn up, you know, with their masking tape and their acrylic paint and their paint rollers.

And they were all doing these great big, Kenneth Noland, you know, colour field paintings. And that, as I said earlier about the design of this gallery here, I think it was designed to take those great big colour paintings. But that didn't - that wasn't how painting continued and it never is. I'm always impressed by a remark that Brancusi, the sculptor, the, um, wonderful sculptor, Brancusi, he said, um, he said, "I don't aspire to be in fashion, because what's in fashion goes out of fashion".

And he, he really tried not to be in fashion. And, ah, of course his work is timeless, and, ah, will last forever.

Betty, what are you feeling that you most want to get out of the next phase of your life now?

A little bit more peace, which sounds a bit defeating, but I want a little bit more time to myself. I, I want to do less sort of official openings and judgings and speaking. I still want to research. I do love research, I love working and finding out about things that I didn't know before. Like I'm working now on the art of the First and Second World War, and I'm just - it's just opening out a whole area for me that I'd never even thought about.

Well, I love to keep doing that. When I did my work on Aboriginal art. Now I'd been buying Aboriginal art for the National Gallery, all through Wally Caruana's selection, but, you know, my approval, but I'd never had the opportunity to really study it, to really look at it. To try and follow the work of an artist, let's say, Clifford Possum, Tjapaltjarri, he's the one that's just died.

But to look at Clifford Possum from his first beginnings, how he developed as an artist, what themes he encompassed, how he then sort of honed down the themes from big, you know, epic map paintings to sort of more specific stories relating to his particular dreaming.

And you know, it was fascinating, and I'd never had a chance to do that. And I love doing that, and I think I will love that till I'll die. Whether I'll continue to do it until I die is another matter, but I might do it just as a private satisfaction.

So when you say you want more time to yourself, it's to do that sort of thing?

To do that sort of thing, but also, I have to say, I always imagined when I retired I thought I'm going to - I've got, we've got the whole recording of 'Ulysses' on tape. I thought I shall sit in the sun on the verandah, and I will have 'Ulysses' on my lap and I'll have the recording and I'll listen to it and I'll read it and I'll get more out of 'Ulysses' than I've ever got before.

I haven't even played a single 'Ulysses' tape. You know, that - that's just not happened. And there's, you know, lots of things. You know, music I want to listen to, books I want to read. Um, sort of self-indulgent stuff.

Do you think, though, that you'd miss the public life?

I don't think so, because I'm a very, very private person. But you don't know. You know, I say that, but perhaps it may not be what I want. You really don't know. I think you - I just sort of go with the flow, as you probably gathered, you know, and something is offered to me like, I never thought of the National Gallery as being something I wanted to do but it was offered to me. You know, "Come on".

You know, so I take it and then I just go with it. And, and my whole life has been that. So I'm not absolutely certain as to what I really want to do or what I really should be doing. But my instinct always is to be a very private person. You know, I'm not a great party person. I don't even like great big dinner parties.

I like little dinner parties, where you can talk. I'm no good at small talk, in other words, chat. And, um, I'm always in - at those openings, great big openings at the galleries, I used to loathe them. I'd sit up in my office before going down and swallowing aspirin and digesics to get myself into something of a state where I could cope.

Why, did, did they bring on a headache?

Oh, I had headaches almost daily at the National Gallery - purely tension, you know. Stress headaches. But as soon as I retired, they vanished. Didn't have another headache. But, ah, that was just apprehension and stress of having to deal with all of these people at all different levels. And also, the panic of knowing the person but not remembering the name, and that was a sort of - I've almost programmed myself to do this, not to remember people's names, and I'm no good at it.

Is there an element too, that you're nervous about a sort of sense of personal exposure, that when you expose yourself, either through art or through standing up in front of people ...

Yeah, I don't like doing that. I do it, but I don't actually enjoy standing up. I don't enjoy talking to a large number of people. I've enjoyed talking to you, because - but if this had been a room full of people, I wouldn't have been anywhere near as relaxed as I am now.

So here is one of many paradoxes that you're - in your life, that you are, as you say, a self-described hermit who has had a very public life.

Well that is the great paradox, that really is. Yes, because probably, the, er, cloistered life of the studio, which I first devised for myself was actually what, psychologically, I needed, personally. And somehow, life has just propelled me into another thing. But I really think that quiet, self-contained quiet life of the studio - and it is a lonely life, the artist's life in the studio is very lonely.

You're on your own. But I loved it. I just loved it.

Did you ever feel lonely?

No. I've never felt lonely in my life.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 9