In the last two decades of the 20th century, many of Victoria’s psychiatric hospitals, more commonly referred to as ‘mental asylums’, were decommissioned and closed. As these institutions closed, a psychiatrist, Dr Eric Cunningham Dax, began to collect artwork made by psychiatric patients from these hospitals. The works were created as part of the art therapy programs that ran within these hospitals from the 1940s to 1970s. Dr Dax, whilst working within these institutions had pioneered art as a means of communication to understand patients’ needs. His observations lead to the wider use of art in a therapeutic context.
In total, Dr Dax assembled a collection of 8,000 works, now known as the Cunningham Dax Collection, housed at The Dax Centre. The Centre now has a collection of 15,000 works – mostly on paper, but also including ceramics, canvases and textile-based works as well as poetry. All of the works were made by people with experience of mental ill-health or psychological trauma. The works range in age from early 1940s therapy pieces through to contemporary artworks, which are donated by community groups, families of artists and individual artists themselves. Visitors can engage with the artwork through exhibitions at the Parkville gallery space and in a number of educational programs run by The Dax Centre.
I first came across The Dax Centre whilst leading a campus tour with a group of high school students. What struck me was how easily the artworks allowed the students to connect and
empathise with the artists’ individual experiences of mental illness. The empathy involved in this exchange between artist and viewer helps to break down the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, reminding us that these are shared human experiences rather than isolated cases.
On a visit to The Dax Centre you will find both a gallery space and a library of resources on art history, art therapy and a variety of other related topics that are accessible in-house to the public.
The gallery’s current exhibition focuses on anxiety and depression, with artworks offering a diverse range of experiences and interpretations on these illnesses. This exhibition, entitled A Mind Beginning to Know Itself, runs until 24 June and features an audio installation of poets reading their work aloud as well as an array of sculptural, canvas and paper artwork. The institutional works on display within the exhibition often do not include the artist’s information, as this is kept confidential. Works from the remainder of the collection however, are frequently accompanied by information from the artist to further explain their ideas and feelings.
There are many things that make The Dax Centre unique, but largely it is the respect that it, as an institution, shows for people that wider society often neglects. Through the display of art, and through educational programs, The Dax Center destigmatises the experiences of the mentally ill and promotes positive mental health and wellness for us all.
The Dax Centre is an independent, not-for-profit organisation on our campus that relies on donations to continue its work destigmatising and understanding mental ill-health using art.
You will find the Dax Centre at the back of the ground floor of the Kenneth Myer building at Number 30, Royal Parade.