Anyone wishing to understand the contemporary art scene in Melbourne during the 1970s and 1980s need look no further than the program of events at the Ewing and George Paton Galleries. In addition to launching the careers of some of Australia’s finest artists, the gallery provided a training ground for some of our most influential Curators.
Anyone wishing to understand the contemporary art scene in Melbourne during the 1970s and 1980s need look no further than the program of events at the Ewing and George Paton Galleries. In addition to launching the careers of some of Australia's finest artists, the gallery provided a training ground for some of our most influential Curators. For example, Judy Annear (April 1980 – May 1982) went on to be the founding Director of Artspace in Sydney; Denise Robinson (May 1982 – Jan 1986) became Director of the Australian Centre for Photography; and Juliana Engberg (Feb 1986 – 1989), is now Director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. The list of eminent artists, writers and curators who began their careers at the Ewing and George Paton is very long.
In a unique position at the beginning of the 1970s as Australia’s only avant-garde gallery with institutional support, the Ewing and George Paton benefited from the investment of energy made by a large group of young experimental artists and associated students and academics. Amongst the diverse range of exhibitions and events held during the 1970s can be found most of Australia’s acclaimed contemporary artists of today (see Appendix – Exhibition Program). The gallery fostered experimentation, encouraged new media such as video and performance art and provided a forum for ideas and innovation.
The Ewing and George Paton also supported women artists, making a significant contribution to the women’s art movement through the establishment of the Women’s Art Register and through several seminal exhibitions and forums. Meredith Rogers Assistant Director from 1974 to 1979 was on the management collective of the feminist magazine Lip and a regular contributor. Seminal lectures on women in the arts were given by Mary Kelly, Lucy Lippard, Laura Mulvey and many others.
There are several distinct phases in the gallery program, the first ebullient nine years under Kiffy Rubbo’s directorship were marked by large audiences, diversity and experimentation in the art, and an inclusive management style with a large contributing support base. It should be noted though that the gallery always exhibited historical exhibitions as well as the Ewing collection alongside its avant-garde program. Mostly the historical element of the program was confined to the Ewing Gallery and over the years it was the George Paton which came to be known as the leading contemporary art space. In the late 80s the Ewing was dropped from the gallery title and it became known as the upstairs gallery of the George Paton.
The gallery continued to play a central role in the 80s but from 1981 onwards reduced funding and instability depleted the vigour of the earlier years. By the early 80s postmodernism was transforming the art scene. The Ewing and George Paton embraced debate inviting a list of eminent speakers including Conrad Atkinson, Jean Baudrillard, Germano Celant, Umberto Eco, Geeta Kapur, Meaghan Morris, Gayatri Spivak, Paul Taylor and many more. The tradition of excellence in public programs, particularly lectures and seminars, continued throughout the 80s.
Each of the Directors in the historic era of the gallery made their mark imparting a different flavour to the gallery program, Kiffy Rubbo (1972 – 1980), Judy Annear (April 1980 – May 1982), Denise Robinson (May 1982 – Jan 1986), Juliana Engberg (Feb 1986 – 1989), Stuart Koop (1990).
The Ewing and George Paton was a publishing gallery which produced many important catalogues. In addition, the Gallery began publication of Arts Melbourne in 1976, a quarterly magazine which was an expansion of the highly successful Art Almanac, founded by the Directors in 1974. Arts Melbourne was run by a collective comprising Kiffy Carter, Gary Catalano, Lynne Cooke, Suzanne Davies, Ann Galbally, Memory Holloway, G. R. Lansell, Charles Merewether, Bruce Pollard, Meredith Rogers and Ann Stephen.
From 1994, the gallery redirected its focus to student exhibitions and events, serving the university community and inviting all students from all departments to exhibit in the gallery, including the Victorian College of the Arts and other creative departments such as Creative Arts, Curatorship, Arts Management, and the Grimwade Centre. Directors Susan Hewitt (1994-2013) and Sandie Bridie (2004-today), worked to create a pedagogical spirit of exploration, and experimentation in the gallery - a learn-by-doing approach to exhibition practice.
In 2022 the George Paton Gallery moved from its Union House address to the Arts and Cultural Building on Monash Road. With greater visibility, and a break from the historic connection of its iconic status - due to the move and the interruption of Covid lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 - the gallery is finding new audiences and sectors to represent with a renewed interest in performance and the process of making. The gallery sits next to the making laboratory The Arts Lab and many of its programs intersect and spill out to activity related to it exhibition content.
Sandie Bridie and Channon Goodwin run programs in the George Paton Gallery and Arts Lab.
Read more about the exhibition program history from 1971-2022 here.