Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline

By Elizabeth Mansfield | Go to book overview

6

COLONIZING CULTURE

The origins of art history in Australia

Jacqueline Strecker

Over the last three decades there has been an unprecedented growth of writing on the institutional origins of art history in Australia. The tendency has been to construct art history's history in Australia as an essentially twentieth-century phenomenon which originated with the establishment of art history departments at Australian universities in the first half of the twentieth century. 1 If one accepts, however, a definition of art history as research in the history of art, then the institutional origins of art history in Australia lie in the nineteenth century, which saw the emergence of a range of cultural institutions and endeavors devoted to broadening public knowledge about the history of art.

From the 1830s to the 1880s art institutes, artists' societies and public art museums flourished in four of the six Australian colonies. This chapter explores the history of Australia's earliest cultural institutions, which emerged in Hobart, Sydney, Adelaide, and Melbourne in the early to mid-nineteenth century following European settlement of Australia in 1788. From a postcolonial perspective it is easy to dismiss these early cultural institutions as a form of cultural imperialism which developed in what were then British colonies situated on the periphery of the empire. But what Australian art historiographies have not sufficiently taken into account is the significance of these institutions as the first manifestations of antipodean culture combining imperial models with the unique local situation of colonial culture.

It is surprising that the colonial origins of art history have largely been overlooked compared to the period after 1880, which has been exhaustively studied and is usually assumed to mark the beginning of a uniquely Australian sense of culture and identity. The study and promotion of fine arts through lectures and the establishment of public art institutions were placed high on the cultural agendas of each of the colonies during the middle of the nineteenth century. By the 1880s all four colonies had established a publicly funded art gallery. 2 The fact that Australia's first cultural institutions originated within a context of colonial regionalism is important for this set a pattern of fierce regional competition between cultural institutions which survives to the present day.

The Eurocentric nature of colonial culture is revealed in the earliest comments relating to the fine arts in Australia. Reports on Sydney's emerging

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