A Collector's Perspective: An Interview with Will Owen

Posted on January 01, 2013 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, winter 2013
An interview with collector Will Owen, conducted during the recently opened Crossing Cultures exhibition, by Stephen Gilchrist, Curator of Indigenous Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art and curator of the exhibition

Stephen Gilchrist (SG): Will, it was only two years after you and Harvey saw the significant 1988 exhibition Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia in New York that you decided to go to Australia. What were you looking for in Australia, and what did you find? What did this and subsequent trips to Australia teach you about Indigenous Art?

Will Owen (WO): Naturally, we were interested in seeing more Indigenous art, but we were also keen to see the country and the iconic natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru. What we hadn't anticipated was how hard it was to find Indigenous art in Australian museums in 1990. We also weren't truly prepared for the convergence of art and land that we learned was fundamental to Aboriginal art. We arrived in Alice Springs on New Year's Eve and were fortunate to have found a guide on January 1 to take us out into the Western Macdonnell Ranges. We were even more fortunate that our guide was a knowledgeable Aussie who was both learned about and sympathetic to Indigenous issues. He explained the Dreaming to us in the context of the country we drove through that day and ignited our curiosity about culture with respect to art. I remembered we looked in the window of Papunya Tula's shop in Alice, but because of the holidays, it was closed; and so it wasn't until our next trip, three years later, that we bought our first paintings from them. As I said, it was quite hard to find fine art on our early trips, and we were very naïve about the ethics of buying from community art centers. After all, in those days, many of the desert centers were only a few years old, and most galleries specializing in Aboriginal art in the cities were often geared more to the tourist market than to fine art. It took us the better part of four trips and eight years to become really informed collectors. Meeting Daphne Williams at Papunya Tula in 1996 was hugely important in that respect.

SG: How important was it for you to see the places the paintings depict and to meet the artists?

WO: For a long time I don't think we even realized that it was a possibility to meet artists or to travel to remote communities without prior permission. Again, it was Daphne Williams who first introduced us to an artist whose work we admired and had acquired, Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra. I remember being awed by his tall tranquil presence. Since those early days we've traveled to many communities and met many artists, but I can't pretend that being in country is as meaningful for us as it is to them. It is thrilling to share photographs of a painting hanging in our home with the artist who created it, and it never fails to delight the artists as well to know that their paintings have traveled all the way to North America. They always want to see more photos of work by their countrymen in our home.

SG: What have been some of the highlights from your trips to Australia?

WO: It's a very long list. Certainly the two weeks that I spent there in 2007 visiting 24 art centers from the Top End through the Central Desert and the Kimberley was the most amazing immersion into country and culture. The excitement of our first attendance at the NATSIA (National Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Art Award, an annual Art Award that is now in its 29th year) is memorable, as was seeing the Maningrida garage band Nabarlek perform live on the Darwin Esplanade. Sitting in the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in front of the Yirrkala Church Panels with Djambawa Marawili and listening to him explain the connections to country that they embody. Seeing Bangarra (an Indigenous dance theatre company) perform at the Sydney Opera House. Getting caught up in a protest march against the abolition of bilingual education in Alice Springs. Walking through Kata Tjuta or around the base of Uluru at dawn.

SG: What prompted you to gift more than five hundred works from your collection to the Hood Museum of Art?

WO: It was the enormous enthusiasm that we encountered for the art among the faculty, the students, and the community when we first visited the Dartmouth campus for the opening of the exhibition Dreaming Their Way, to which we had loaned a dozen works. Since we had tried to build a collection that was broadly representative of the many styles of Indigenous artistic creation, we hoped that the collection could be kept together somewhere, and that it would be in a place where it could be studied, used, and enjoyed. The Hood Museum's commitment to engagement with the classroom and with research seemed perfect. And the commitment that the museum staff has made to the collection, evidenced in many ways and most spectacularly in Crossing Cultures itself, has confirmed our wish.

SG: Have you met any of the students and faculty who have been studying and researching these works?

WO: Kirk Endicott and Deb Nichols have been great supporters and friends. At the symposium that was held in honor of Kirk's retirement from teaching in March 2011, a first-year undergraduate student bounded down the aisle of the auditorium to present me with a copy of a term paper for her Art History class. It was a study of a painting by Dorothy Napangardi that was on display in the student-curated Space For Dialogue in the museum that term. It was thrilling to see the excitement in her eyes as she described falling in love with that painting.

SG: I was lucky enough to be with you when you saw Crossing Cultures for the first time. Could you share some of these responses with our readers?

WO: I'd say that we were staggered by the sheer beauty of the presentation. Even though we have lived with all of these works, we felt like we were seeing them for the first time. At home we could never put six bark paintings from Maningrida or four canvases from the Tiwi Islands together where we could encompass them all in one gaze. Seeing them hung together here lets us watch them talk to one another in new ways: it's been a startling education for us.

SG: Finally, you have been championing Indigenous Australian art in America for a number of years now. Do you think there is a noticeable difference in the appreciation and understanding of it since you first began collecting?

WO: We've been collecting Indigenous art from our base in America for over two decades, but I would like to think that we've been championing this art internationally. We have seen a noticeable difference worldwide in the appreciation of Aboriginal art since we first encountered it in 1988. Even in Australia, the scope of its presence in major art galleries and in the commercial marketplace has increased enormously. In London, we acquired the painting by Naata Nungurrayi shown on the cover of the Fall 2012 issue of the Hood Quarterly. We stopped there on our way to Paris to attend the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly and the unveiling of the Australian Indigenous Art commission there. In the last nine months alone, visitors to my blog, Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye, have come from almost every country in the world, the only exceptions being Central Asia and Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa. We are thrilled to partner with the Hood Museum of Art in continuing to bring the vitality of Indigenous Australian art to the attention of the world, which Crossing Cultures has certainly done.

SG: Thank you for chatting to me, Will, and for your incredible gift to the Hood from you and Harvey.

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Written January 01, 2013 by Kristin Swan