Unveiling Buxton Contemporary

Did you hear? Melbourne Property developer and art lover Michael Buxton has gifted most of his multi-million dollar personal art collection to a new museum in Melbourne’s Arts Precinct.

Today we take you inside Buxton Contemporary, which opens this Friday, to preview the inaugural exhibition ‘The shape of things to come’.

Elle Murrell

The countdown is on! Michael Buxton’s landmark philanthropic venture, Buxton Contemporary opens to the public on Friday, March 9th. Video work on screen is by artist Kate Mitchell. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Michael pictured with Mike Parr’s ‘Bronze liars (minus 1 to minus 16) #9 #13 #16’ 1996. ‘The most rewarding part about collecting art is meeting artists and learning about their work. Many in the collection have gone on to become close friends,’ he says. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Hany Armanious, ‘Forging the energy body (Swegypt)’ 2004. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Installation view of Buxton Contemporary’s ‘The state of things to come’ exhibition, on the museum’s ground level.’Supporting education for the long term was important to ensure we continue to support our generation of visual artists,’ explains Michael. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Juan Davila’s ‘Art i$ homosexual’ 1983–86. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Pat Brassington’s ‘Starlight’ (from Gentle series) 2001, alongside ‘By the way’ 2010. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

While having his portrait shot, Michael Buxton leans nonchalantly beside an epochal trio of busts by Mike Parr. With the reminder of a shutter click, he stands up tall and jokes of already having done his yoga workout for the morning. For a Rich Lister, he’s pretty easy going really.

Perhaps the good vibes are on account of the fact that, after a week away skiing in Aspen, Michael is finally seeing the art he gifted to The University of Melbourne in 2014 hung in its inaugural exhibition. ‘It is magnificent,’ he muses. ‘We’ve seen all the art before, but when you see it here you realise it really is a beautiful collection, there is such a variety.’

The 73-year-old instigated The Michael Buxton Collection back in 1995, and museum-quality was always his disciplined goal. ‘I believe if you are going to do something, you should do it properly,’ explains the mature-aged graduate of Melbourne School of Art. ‘Initially, we were going to build on some land I owned in the Docklands precinct, but when we thought of the future of the collection and the educational offering that a university could provide, the idea to build and house the collection here made sense.’

Buxton Contemporary is embedded within Melbourne Uni’s Victorian College of the Arts – ‘a college that has helped develop many of the leading contemporary artists in this country, and allowed our vision to not only showcase the extraordinary talent our country is producing, but also help others to understand and collect challenging contemporary art,’ praises Michael.

He contrasts that the nearby Australian Centre for Contemporary Art does not have its own collection, and the neighbouring National Gallery of Victoria expands into architecture, design, and fashion. ‘Buxton Contemporary will be the location to see Australian artists in-depth, which provides the ability for all to really understand an artist’s practice.’

We’re talking about 350 works by 59 artists – the likes of Peter Booth, Emily Floyd, Bill Henson, Patricia Piccinini, David Noonan, Peter Tindell – from 1980 onwards, and estimated at a value of $10 million. And that’s not all, Michael committed $8 million to expand upon the museum’s heritage front (with the help of geniuses Fender Katsalidis), as well as donated an additional $4 million and financed a $5-million endowment fund to help cover operational costs in the years ahead.

‘The collection has been a great source of fun and education not only for me, but also for my family. The way we have collected has not only helped support our generation of visual artists but provided us with an in-depth understanding and appreciation of contemporary artistic practice,’ explains Michael. ‘It is our hope that the museum will provide this same education and enjoyment for everyone.’ Installation view of Diena Georgetti artworks, all 2006. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

You enter Buxton Contemporary from the corner of Dodd Street and Southbank Boulevard, where a widescreen is mounted to the facade (a former Victoria Police Depot building, c.1920). It’s currently a video work by Kate Mitchell. This count-down clock will appear until the opening, but will afterward present the best of Australian video art, 24 hours a day.

Inside, the space is stunning. It encompasses varying scales of galleries, allowing for the presentation of diverse forms of boundary-pushing art. You can’t miss a portrait of Michael. The canvas by artist Tim McMonagle conveys a striking likeness (be it a sunburnt one) and was a finalist in the 2012 Archibald Prize.

Glossy concrete floors reflect light and the artworks of ‘The shape of things to come’. This forward-looking showcase includes 70 pieces by 26 artists, spanning audio-video installations to sculpture, and paintings. As Buxton Contemporary Curator Melissa Keys introduces, it explores the roles of artists in culture, society, and politics, as visionaries and storytellers.

On the second level off the main gallery, a pentagram of screens currently displays the video work, ‘Whol Why Wurld’ by Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, but can also be transformed into an education zone for talks and the events. ‘A collection of the best art from the past 30 years can now be used to teach the artists of the next 30 years,’ tells Buxton Contemporary Director Ryan Johnston, guiding my tour.

Buxton Contemporary Curator Melissa Keys and Director Ryan Johnston. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

The portrait of Michael Buxton by Tim McMonagle. Painted after joining Michael on a sunburn-inducing fishing trip, the artwork was shortlisted for the 2012 Archibald Prize. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Going forward, Michael will have a seat on the Buxton Contemporary Committee that has been set up by the Uni to oversee the running of the museum. While he is obviously invested, in every sense, it comes as a bit of a surprise when the philanthropist reveals he’s also anxious. ‘You always get nervous about these things, but this has probably gone beyond being nervous. Just putting it all together… and expectations are very high because this is probably the most public thing we’ve ever done.’

What then will success look like to someone already so successful? As to be expected, Michael will be crunching numbers: the data of visitors coming through the doors. But he’s also hoping for rave reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations long into the future. ‘Everything that is new like this is attractive, but you’re always hoping it will continue – I do think our extraordinary program over the next two years will help.’

As I make for the exit, Buxton Contemporary is a hive of activity – staff affixing caption cards, artists doing last look-overs, and more media waiting to interview Michael on his legacy in-the-making. There is also literal buzzing, the audio for Nicholas Mangan’s ‘The mutant message’ installation has just been wired and is aptly unsettling and intriguing. I have no doubt that by Friday awe-struck public and wide-eyed students will be swarming through these doors!

‘The shape of things to come’
Opens Friday, March 9th
Buxton Contemporary
Corner Dodd Street and Southbank Boulevard

Gallery admission is free.

Opening Hours:
Wednesday 11am-5pm
Thursday 11am-8pm
Friday 11am-5pm
Saturday 11am-5pm
Sunday 11am-5pm

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