Gallery director, art adviser, collector and erstwhile documentary film-maker John Cruthers tells Luise Guest about his ambition to connect Australian audiences with Asia through art.
TEXT: Luise Guest
IMAGES: Courtesy of 16albermarle Project Space
Art adviser, collector, (in a previous life) documentary film-maker, and director of Sydney’s 16albermarle Project Space John Cruthers describes himself as “a bit of a bowerbird”. He has been collecting art—and, later, advising private collectors—since the late 1970s when he and his mother, Lady Sheila Cruthers, began to collect work by Australian women artists. The significant Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, gifted to the University of Western Australia, is Australia’s largest specialist collection of women’s art. [i] Cruthers is an advocate for the significance of private collections, which tell different stories than official art histories presented by national museum collections. “I’m particularly interested in the act of collecting and in what people collect and why,” he says. “Private collections provide an alternative view of the art history of a country.” [ii]
I spoke with Cruthers about his ambitions for the gallery and project space he established in 2019, his passion for the contemporary art of southeast Asia, and his hopes that the Australian audience will share his enthusiasm. Having advised private collectors since 1985 on Australian contemporary art, and on Indigenous art since the early 2000s, by 2013 Cruthers was ready for a new challenge. He found it at the first Sydney Contemporary Art Fair, where a number of Asian galleries exhibited at Carriageworks. Cruthers left the fair feeling he had encountered something entirely new and exciting. “I was quite inspired by the work that I saw. I thought the work was lively, passionate, nearly always committed in a political sense, nearly always engaged with issues or with society. Every country [in southeast Asia] is different. Each has their own colonial history that brings a legacy to the present that was expressed in really different ways in each of those countries.”
Voyages of Discovery
Keen to learn more, Cruthers met gallerists from across Asia at the 2013 Singapore Biennale. In 2014, looking at Singapore Art Stage’s curated national platforms he began to learn about each of the participating countries. At Gilman Barracks, visiting Filipino gallery Silverlens he was encouraged to go to Art Fair Philippines. At other galleries he was introduced to fairs such as ARTJOG in Indonesia and Art Expo Malaysia. “I heard about a fantastic array of art fairs that would accelerate my learning—and I went to all of them,” says Cruthers. He found artists collaborating with their communities on important social issues, artists convinced of art’s meaningful role beyond commodification. “It connected with something in me and my belief that art can connect with society and take a position,” he says.
Since then, Cruthers has travelled regularly across the region, forging connections and enduring friendships in a journey of learning and looking. His enthusiasm is infectious. “I go out there and try to make myself a sponge in these countries,” he says. You’ve got to look at everything, you’ve got to go out and find stuff.” Serendipitously, opportunities arose to share his enthusiasm with others. In 2018 Darren Knight suggested he organise an exhibition of Indonesian art at his eponymous Sydney gallery. “Termasuk: Contemporary Art from Indonesia”, co-curated with the cross-cultural networking organisation Indo Art Link led by Lauren Parker with Melissa Burnet Rice, featured 12 early-career, emerging and established artists, with equal numbers of men and women. Termasuk means “belonging” or “togetherness” in Bahasa Indonesia, and it became a metaphor for Cruthers’ inclusive and collaborative approach to curating.
The exhibition was a precursor of how he wanted to work when he opened his own gallery in Sydney’s Newtown later that same year. Chloe Wolifson’s review noted the rigour of the exhibition. “… Each artist is introduced via a suite of recent works, public programs include a presentation on the history of contemporary Indonesian art by academic Brigitta Isabella and a panel discussion on collecting Indonesian art, and the show is accompanied by a catalogue including a foreword by Aaron Seeto, Director of Museum MACAN, Jakarta.” [iii] To Cruthers’ delight, “Termasuk” drew interested audiences and sold 65% of the exhibition, including seven works to the National Gallery of Victoria. “I took that as an endorsement of what we were doing and my belief that Australian audiences would connect with what we were doing,” he says. “Straight away I thought: I should start a gallery.’” Cruthers opened 16albermarle Project Space in October 2019 with his son, Sam. Their first exhibition “Three Artists From Indonesia”, featuring printmakers Fitriani Dwi Kurniasih and Prihatmoko Moki, and ceramicist Sekarputri Sidhiawati revealed their interest in socially engaged, often political, contemporary art—and a commitment to exhibiting an equal or greater number of works by women.
Connecting Australian Audiences Through Art
Cruthers explains how 16albermarle Project Space differs from a commercial gallery. “We always considered the space to be a project space rather than a commercial gallery representing artists…we didn’t want to be tied to that fixed model. For example, since the first exhibition we’ve had two solo shows, five group shows and two fundraisers.” (These were for Indonesian artists affected by the global pandemic and for artists in Myanmar). Two weeks after the military coup in Myanmar he decided on a fundraising exhibition that would give artists an opportunity to voice their opposition. [iv] “We had to develop a whole production system and get the artists to send digital files to Sydney to be printed here,” he says. “A totally radical way of working—and that’s what a project space is about. You can devise ways to respond to situations in the most appropriate or relevant way and get your message out really quickly.”
Having recently mounted its 10th exhibition, “Other Possible Worlds: Contemporary Art from Thailand”, the gallery has, since its opening, introduced local audiences to contemporary batik works by Indonesian artist Dias Prabu, contemporary Thai drawings, the feminist work of Thai Berlin-based artist Bussaraporn Thongchai, contemporary art from Bali and Bandung, and dissident artists from Myanmar, in addition to mounting one Australian show each year. It’s been a steep learning curve, with a focus on building an audience that was interrupted by a global pandemic, making the milestone of 10 exhibitions even more remarkable.
Since Sydney Contemporary in 2013, Cruthers’ connections with artists, curators, scholars, gallerists and collectors across the Asian region have become as important as the acquisition of objects. In January 2020 he travelled the length and breadth of Thailand in a minibus with co-curator Haisang Javanalikhikara, selecting artists for his largest and most ambitious exhibition. “Other Possible Worlds” presented the work of 12 emerging and established Thai artists to Sydney audiences at two venues: 16 Albermarle Street and Delmar Gallery, together with a rich program of public talks, a panel discussion, artist workshops, educational resources and a catalogue. [v]
Reflecting on this Thailand trip, Cruthers says, “as a curator or director of a space or gallery those experiences just bring you to life and make you think, ‘This is why I’m doing this. And this is what I want to bring back and show people in Australia’. A Thai curator said to me, ‘John, these artists are not the “usual suspects”’. So, I thought I had succeeded!”
Cruthers believes the educational aspect of 16albermarle Project Space will become even more important as it transitions into a new yet undecided organisational structure. “What I’ve learned is that in my desire to get more cultural value out of what we show, we have to operate as widely as we can,” he says. “I’m looking at high school kids, at university students, and I want to run internships for young curators, artists and art historians. Residencies too—I would love to have an ongoing residency program, and connecting with other existing residency programs as well. The organisation can be a hub that people can come to for all sorts of things, primarily for information and connections.”
Breaking down barriers to draw in diverse audiences and assisting them to understand and appreciate unfamiliar Asian art is no mean feat in these globally uncertain times. Cruthers’ aim, though, goes beyond showing and selling art. He sees the role of 16albermarle Project Space and its future exhibitions as a form of cultural diplomacy, in which audience encounters with art are supported by panel discussions, artist and curator talks, as well as discussions of broader social issues. He is passionate about crossing divides of language and culture. “If we have a mission statement, it is to connect people in Australia with the region through art,” he says.
[i] The Cruthers Collection was gifted to the University of Western Australia in 2007. It is Australia’s largest stand-alone collection of women’s art. See more here.
[ii] The author interviewed John Cruthers via Zoom in July 2022. All quotes are excerpted from that conversation, they have been lightly edited.
[iii] Chloe Wolifson, Coming together: ‘Termasuk: Contemporary Art from Indonesia’ at Darren Knight Gallery, Art Monthly Australasia Blog, 8 February 2019
[iv] “Fighting Fear: #whatshappeninginmyanmar” in May–June 2021 was an exhibition in solidarity with the artists and arts workers of Myanmar as they have worked online and on the streets to support the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) since the military coup of 1 February 2021. Presented in partnership with Myanm/art, a contemporary art space in Yangon, the exhibition was a multifaceted social art project showing and distributing protest posters and other visual responses made by Myanm/art artists and others involved in the struggles. See more here.
[v] As the gallery website describes: Other Possible Worlds presents contemporary art from Thailand to Australian audiences. Reflecting Thai art, the exhibition includes works in many media—painting, sculpture, photography, installation, neon, video, prints and works on paper—and from many parts of the country. While Thailand is a major destination for Australian tourists, few Australians engage with Thai culture. But as co-curator John Cruthers reports, “Thai art, becoming more established on the world stage, is a fantastic entry point to the country and its diverse cultures. It is creative, sophisticated and often politically engaged. While it has not been easy to see, learn about or collect Thai art outside Thailand, Other Possible Worlds brings a range of work by leading younger artists to Australia.” The catalogue of the exhibition is available here.
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