It's clear that a great art gallery can and should be the town square in today's world, a place where people gather, toss up ideas, engage in deep and meaningful discussions - or at the very least, have a good laugh over a difference of opinion.
Since Gerry Bobsien took over the reins as director of the Maitland Regional Art Gallery, she's busted her butt to make sure Maitland public gallery is that kind of place - where big ideas come to life, create discussion and grab your attention.
Late last year, Bobsien summarised the 2023 offerings as a program that "demonstrates what we are aiming to achieve here: to let artists bring out ideas that are relevant to the community, issues of the day, but spark excitement, thrill and interest. Terrifying, challenging, beautiful, meditative".
She's boldly achieved those goals.
On the heels of the ambitious Upriver Downriver show that offered an incredibly intelligent survey of the best of Hunter artists reflecting on their sense of place, comes the opening of CrownLand at the gallery, a timely exhibition sure to cause reflection about our relationship with not only the Crown, but the indigenous community past and present on the soil.
CrownLand opens on Saturday afternoon. It's an artist-driven show that was in development for more than two years with Bobsien and her staff in consultation with leading contemporary Australian artists Ben Quilty (and his fellow artist and good mate Vincent Namatjira), Megan Cope, Andrew Quilty and Karla Dickens about the loose concept of the Crown - long before Queen Elizabeth's death, long before The Voice referendum on a constitutional amendment about whether to change the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice was finalised.
The show's own promotion says it features artists "vigorously engaged in timely discussions of sovereignty and power."
Art Gallery of South Australia assistant director Lisa Slade writes in the CrownLand exhibition essay: "The weight of the colonial crown is subverted in a project led by Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens, who poses the seemingly simple question of 'who wears a crown?' to the women of the Mindaribba Local Aboriginal Land Council. The answer is a dramatic series of performative photographs, in which local Elders, including those young and emerging, are adorned by self-made crowns that carry Country.
"Shells, feathers, seeds and string assert a new/ancient sovereignty and supplant the stolen gemstones of Commonwealth crowns."
Gerry Bobsien offers her insight into the development of CrownLand: "Over time, the conversation shifted and turned but it all came back to the idea of life in an unreconciled nation.
"Karla Dickens worked with women here in a series of workshops and was very keen to honour these strong women who lead their community. Ben and Vincent are great mates and were also collaborating in Ben's studio."
As if this exhibition needed a wild card, it got one anyway, as Ben Quilty convinced revered contemporary British artist Jake Chapman to commit to producing a new work for this show.
Chapman, famed for his own provocative works (many with his brother Dinos) and his role in the YBA (Young British Artists) movement will not be in attendance, but his contribution will weigh prominently in the show.
Quilty vouches for Chapman, who he admires greatly.
"The courage of making work that you know will offend people but you know has an important message," he says of Jake Chapman. "It's been a inspiration to watch that happen."
The exact nature of Chapman's work in CrownLand remains a bit of surprise.
"I know people have been offended in the past by things he's done," Quilty says, "but to hear him speak about his work - he can't come for the opening - but to hear him speak about the work will dispel anyone's misgivings about the content, there is such a layer of humour and satire. He's very self deprecating, and just so obvious for this show."
Bobsien says the focus of the exhibition emerged from that a moment between Ben and Vincent when they pondered life after the death of Queen Elizabeth ("I'll paint the King now," Namatjira said). And she notes, the theme of Empire and monarchy has always been part of Karla Dickens' work.
"Karla Dickens has made a new body of work for the Maitland show where she reclaims 'Australiana' and the things she finds and collects to create dioramas that talk about death and dispossession," Bobsien says.
"There is also dark humour and this thread runs throughout the work in CrownLand. It is very obvious in the collaborative work of Ben and Vincent and through the work of Jake Chapman who in true punk 'tradition' has very firm views around the privilege of those born into power. His work is bitingly caustic, often abject, and satirical."
With The Voice referendum voting date announced this week (October 14), the timing for an exhibition that tackles indigenous views (albeit artistic) on the ruling class could not be better.
A gallery director's dream, yes?
"This exhibition was conceived long before the referendum was announced," Bobsien says. "Because of its timing it is likely to be a lightning rod for discussion and this is something that art has and always will do.
"Art like this provides a space to engage with complex and challenging conversations highlighting aspects of our lives that are relevant in the community."
Quilty and Namatjira
Ben Quilty has long been an advocate of Australia coming to terms with its relationship with indigenous people. It's been part of his work, and something he has not shied away from in public forums.
He credits his friend and artistic collaborator Vincent Namatjira with the idea for CrownLand.
"When Vince and I were making the work for this show, the Queen passed away a few days before Vincent got to my studio. And he's been making paintings about him and the Queen, and the Queen and Bon Scott, and the Queen and Gina Rinehart. He walked in the door and said, 'I'm not going to be painting the Queen any more. I'm going to start painting the King'. I said, 'Well, let's do that. It's a great idea'
"And just as a vehicle for two mates to have a conversation. It opened up all sorts of conversations between us that we hadn't discussed."
The exhibition offers a collection of works the two have collaborated on, including a piece called The Crown which they painted together.
"That's both of us working together, not at the same time," Quilty says. "And we've made several works like that. They are generally the hardest works to make. You need to have great faith and trust and friendship to manage that, to not step on each's others toes literally and metaphorically, and visually."
But the rewards are priceless to Quilty.
"That painting, the further I get away from it, the further since we made it, I think, 'wow, that was cool', Quilty says. "It was a really great thing to do. And it's strong. I think it will stand up in the show really well."
This show is the first time Quilty and Namatjira's joint works have been shown publicly. Their art partnership and friendship is real.
"He and I have been talking about collaborating for years and years," Quilty says. "And it's only over the last two years that we've actually done it. And it's been so natural and such a nice thing to do we're planning to keep the work together for as long as we can and just see where it leads. It feels like breaking it up now, and I mean it's fine to go to Maitland and we'll get it back... but one day maybe the whole lot can be seen together.
"I've tried with other people. There's a magic to it that it's hard to quantify. It's funny... I don't know if it's more complicated with music, but if you're both instrumentalists or both lyricists, it's gotta be more difficult, and that's the thing with Vincent and I, we are both painters, and we work in a similar way.
"Except the way in for us was for me to teach Vincent how to use oil, to allow him to use oil in my studio. It's too hard to use in remote communities, on a number of levels - the toxicity of the materials, the dust in the environment, the slow drying time.
"And that was just such a natural way in, to let him go to town in my studio, that I think that's what facilitated the successful beginning. And now it's just getting easier and easier. And both of us I think miss working with each other when we're not together."
Bobsien's commitment has been deep. And the dividends are evident. She recalls the workshops that Karla Dickens led in creating her work for the show - "the incredibly powerful, moving and funny days spent making crowns with members of the Mindaribba women's group".
"Stopping everything and spending time with these incredible women, talking about nothing and everything. Sharing stories and listening. The images of the Wonnarua elders, and the young leaders are extraordinary and form a very important part of the exhibition," she says. ""When Karla Dickens posed the question to the group 'who gets to wear a crown?' the resounding response was 'we do.'
"Karla led this project with a full heart and it was an intensely joyous and emotional experience."
Bobsien also met with Vincent Namatjira in Indulkana where he lives in South Australia's Aangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. She also met one of the subjects in his paintings - his dog called 'Dingo', who appears in one of the portraits regaled in the exhibition.