Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Commentary by Harold Hanson AM regarding the establishment of the Wollongong City Art Gallery

"During the period 1969 to 1979 I was an Alderman on Wollongong City Council and in 1974 also Chairman of the Council Finance Committee.

I had been interested in art, especially paintings, since my schooldays and the opportunity was then available to do something really constructive and worthwhile by establishing an Art Gallery in Wollongong. There was no Art Gallery in the City or the Region and it was firmly on my priority list as a prime objective after being elected to Council.

Wollongong had the perception of being an industrial city, with the steelworks and its smokestacks as a backdrop, the coalmines and strong Union reputation.

To my mind that did not mean that the community and particularly the children did not deserve to have access to a cultural facility such as an Art Gallery and be encouraged to become involved in art and music.

Many of the migrants who settled in the Illawarra from a broad spread of other countries had a strong interest in art and music and their talents were becoming more and more evident locally.

A strong supporter of the Gallery was John Richardson the active and energetic Editor of the influential Illawarra Mercury. I had established a strong friendship and respect for John and we talked together often. He was determined to put the resources of the paper behind supporting a vision and future for the City. He was as committed as I was to support the establishment of an Art Gallery.

The first step of course was to raise the necessary not-insignificant funding, not only to acquire a Gallery site and building, but also to make sure that there was adequate Federal, State and local support for the on-going running costs, including acquisitions.

A small informal steering committee was formed consisting of myself as Chairman, John  Richardson, Max Syer, the General Manager of the Illawarra County Council, Coralie Barr, an artist in her own right and a very efficient Secretary to the committee, and Nadia Crittenden, an experienced journalist with the Mercury.

The Committee decided to inaugurate fund-raising by preparing and contacting a list of prospective donors particularly from the large commercial industries in the area to first gauge the extent of interest

The Art Collection in 1974 was minimal, mainly comprising local works, although there were some good paintings from the Annual Art Prize. There was nothing however which could be said to be an icon.

All of this changed in 1975. I happened to be at a Public Meeting at the (old) Town Hall when I met up with Father Michael Bach, the Administrator of St. Francis Xavier’s  Roman Catholic Cathedral, and a person for whom I, and others in the City across the board, had a great deal of respect. He said that he wanted to introduce me to a gentleman who wished to donate some paintings to the City. I had been approached by people previously on this sort of basis and generally the paintings had been either by themselves or of doubtful quality. I was then introduced by Father Bach to Bob Sredersas, a lovely, very modest gentleman, who explained that he lived on his own at Cringila, right next to the Steelworks, and he had collected some paintings which he wanted to donate to the “children of Wollongong”. Bob always spoke so quietly in his broken english that one had to listen very closely. His house was not suitable to preserve paintings properly and he was worried about having them stolen – in fact his house had already been broken into and some pieces taken.

I was very interested in what he said, his general description of the paintings, so was anxious to follow up as soon as possible. It was arranged that I would go round to the Cathedral Presbytery the following day where the paintings were stored to have a look at them. Father Bach with Mr. Sredersas took me upstairs to a storeroom which turned out to be a veritable treasure chest.
There was a large collection of paintings by most prized Australian artists – Lindsay, Cossington-Smith, Buckmaster, Heysen, Fullwood, Ashton and the list went on. A wonderful collection which would propel Wollongong into the position of having one of the best Regional Galleries in Australia.
Bob very quietly, in his usual very modest way, told Fr. Bach and myself how he came to acquire the paintings and what he wanted to do with them.
He told us that he had arrived in Australia from Northern Europe. He was very reticent about his upbringing but Lithuania did get a mention. He was single, worked as a crane-driver at the Steelworks, just down the road from his house at Cringila, wasn’t interested in sport, horse-racing, or going down to the pub, and his life-style requirements were simple. He spent very little on himself.
Some years before he had acquired an Encyclopaedia of Australian painters.
He was so interested in what he read that he decided as his hobby to go up on the train to Sydney during his time off, to the auctions at Sothebys and Lawsons and check out any paintings coming up for sale.  He personally had no knowledge of Australian painters except from what he read in his book.

What he did do after finding out how the painting auction system worked was to bid for any paintings reasonable priced where the painter involved was mentioned in his book.

He said that he didn’t need to know anything himself about the quality or the subject-matter of the painters or paintings provided that they were listed creditably in the Encyclopaedia.

And so his collection started.

At that time during the 1950s and 1960s Australian painters were not highly regarded and most paintings in that category could be obtained for very few pounds.

 Bob wanted to show his gratitude to Wollongong for giving him a home, by donating his collection to the City to be available to be seen by the children. He knew that he was getting older and he wanted to make sure that the gift was in the care of the City before he died.

He also wanted to be sure that they, or at least a rotating selection of them, would be put on permanent display so that the children of his adopted City would be able to see them whenever the Gallery was open.

His collection and magnificent donation – worth a very substantial amount of money indeed – was the catalyst on which the Art Gallery and its collection were built.

With his consent the fund-raising Committee was able to publicise the donation and use it as a platform to launch a much larger fund-raising project.

The Mercury gave Bob Sredersas and the collection a tremendous amount of publicity in support of the Gallery project.

Publicity was not limited to local cover - the national media was equally interested in the quality of the paintings and the modest and shy migrant donor.

I remember that the Woman’s Weekly gave the event front cover.

The fund-raising committee was given a tremendous boost by the donation and the list of contributors began to grow.

Wollongong City Council was prepared to throw its support behind the Project and on March 1st. 1977 City Council approved calling tenders for the establishment of the City Art Gallery in the old Paddy’s Market Building standing on the corner of Keira and Burelli Streets. The building was owned by the Illawarra County Council which was prepared to negotiate with Wollongong city Council to transfer ownership.

The story was not quite finished with the Council resolution.

I was told one day that the County Council had decided to sell the Keira Street property to the City Council for about $200 thousand. I immediately rang Max Syer, the County Council Manager, and a strong supporter of the Art Gallery project and arranged to go over straightaway to talk with him and Ald Tobin the Chairman. Ald. Tobin confirmed the proposed sale. I said “Rubbish, they (the County Council) will give it to us. He said that County Council could not do that under the relevant Act of Parliament as the County Council was a commercial entity and must deal commercially.

I said “We will get the Act changed”.

I rang the Premier’s Department and arranged to send a letter from Wollongong city Council setting out the facts and requesting a meeting with the Premier. I was well aware that the Premier was a strong supporter of Galleries, and it must be said, aware that at that time Wollongong did not have a great deal in the way of cultural outlets.

A meeting was arranged quite quickly with Premier Wran – within three weeks - and I drove up to his office in Macquarie Street in company with the Town Clerk.

When we walked into his office, he said immediately “I am aware of why you are here. I am in agreement with what you are proposing. The Government will change the Act to allow the donation of the property to proceed. In addition we will donate $50 thousand to the Fund-raising Appeal plus there will be another $50 thousand if you can match it dollar for dollar.

Not too long after that the funds had been raised, stimulated by Bob’s unexpected magnificent gift, and work started on the Paddy’s Market Building to renovate and equip it as Wollongong’s first Art Gallery.

In order to acknowledge the substantial moneys donated by local companies and private citizens a plaque with a list of names was placed near the door of the new Gallery. It was moved to the old Council Chambers to where the Gallery was transferred after Council built its new office block. Unfortunately the plaque, an important part of Wollongong’s history and self-help progress, appears to have been taken down and now cannot be located.

A room in the newer Gallery was named the Sredersas Room to commemorate Bob’s name where his paintings were intended to be put on permanent display as he had asked “for the children of the City”.

And so the Art Gallery came into being, in large part thanks to Bob Sredersas, a modest new-comer to the City from the far side of the world, thankful for how he had been welcomed in his new country and who wanted, in his own special way, to express his appreciation."

Harold Hanson AM

No comments:

Post a Comment