Secret Spaces: The George Paton Gallery

31 August 2020

“There’s no gallery on the Parkville campus!”
This was me in 2017. Unfortunately, I hear my sentiments echoed across the campus. There is, in fact, a gallery on campus – a rather important gallery. The George Paton Gallery (GPG) Founded in 1971 as the Ewing and George Paton Gallery, GPG is located on level 2 of Union House.

Named after Sir George Whitecross Paton, our former university vice-chancellor who was known for student advocacy, GPG is a gallery for students.  At first conception, the gallery served the function of a gathering place, providing University of Melbourne students a place to be introduced to new ideas, while witnessing contemporary art history take place before their eyes.

GPG owes a debt to its first director, Kiffy Rubbo, who solidified the gallery as Australia’s home for experimental contemporary art practice in the 1970s through her encouragement of new forms of media. She also played a pivotal role in the Australian feminist art movement.

In 1975, recent graduate Janine Burke curated the exhibition Australian Women Artists: One Hundred Years 1840-1940, at GPG. This was the first exhibition to survey Australian women artists and went on to tour nationally, culminating in a book, of the same name, published in 1980. 

In 1975, after a visit from New York City’s ground-breaking feminist curator Lucy Lippard, who encouraged female artists to “stick together”, the team at GPG created the Women’s Art Register. A groundbreaking idea at the time, the Women’s Art Register is simply that – a register of female Australian artists and accompanying documentation, held at the GPG. Soon swelling beyond the capacity of the gallery’s space, the archive is now held at the Richmond Public Library and contains information on more than 5,000 female artists.

During this first incarnation as a student gathering point, GPG looked to students as the front line of innovative arts practice and the work of student artists was exhibited alongside that of emerging and established artists, such as Mike Parr, Ann Newmarch and Jill Orr. This arguably helped to kickstart the careers of artists such as Howard Arkely, Charles and Lyndell Green, and Peter Cripps. 

However, due to the changing landscape and needs of the Melbourne contemporary art scene, 1994 saw GPG reborn as a solely student gallery. This second incarnation saw the gallery become a space where students could gain hands-on experience in the creation and curation of art. It is within this space that GPG navigates itself today, with the current GPG team – Director Sandra Bridie and Arts Project Officer David Attwood – offering free access to University of Melbourne student artists and curators.

Given the current COVID-19 situation, GPG has switched from the physical to the virtual sphere, launching GPG VIRTUAL. This space aims to connect students through online projects, workshops, and virtual exhibitions. Current online project Survival 2020, is a reprise of the 1975 exhibition, Survival Kits, and asks students to display objects that are helping them through these “unprecedented times”.


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