What our galleries and museums collected in 2020, and why

We asked ten of our major collecting institutions nationally what they acquired in 2020, as a document of this incredible year and its impact on the visual arts.

There are moments that need documenting – so we can learn from them, heal from their repercussions and share such histories with future generations.

2020 has been one of those moments that begs documenting – from bushfires to floods, racism and protests, lockdowns and digital pandemic pivots – and artists were well positioned to capture them.

ArtsHub spoke with 10 collecting institutions nationally to see how, and what, they collected in 2020. This is what they had to say:

1. Rapid Response works, National Gallery of Victoria

‘Melbourne-based artist Scotty So’s ceramic masks draw attention to anti-Asian rhetoric and xenophobia related to the pandemic and act as a design provocateur,’ says NGV Senior Curator of Contemporary Design and Architecture, Ewan McEoin.

The Hong Kong-born artist has created a suite of ceramic masks during the COVID-19 pandemic (pictured top), drawing from his experience of COVID-19 in Australia and the SARs crisis in Hong Kong. NGV has acquired eight porcelain facemasks and three photographic prints that reflect So’s experiences of recent pandemics.

For So, wearing a mask is a normal measure to protect others from sickness spreading, but after the COVID-19 outbreak he now notes there is ‘a huge debate and fear in mask wearing’.

Through his work, So is drawing attention to the fact that masks have become a symbol of fear and led to racial assaults on the Asian community. Making porcelain ‘china’ masks, the artist finds beauty and irony in the fragile material when it’s used as safety gear.

So’s work is among a fantastic collection of rapid response works made during 2020, both bushfire and pandemic related and collected by NGV.

Others worth mentioning are: 41 posters by Australian artists working under the collective name and hashtag #BushfireBrandalism; a set of 20 facemasks illustrated by Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, each work silk-screened on cloth face masks; and works by London designer Alice Potts, who started making speculative bioplastic personal protection equipment (PPE) facemasks from food waste materials, which she dyed with flowers collected from parks during lockdown.

Tackling the Cook anniversary in 2020, the NGV also acquired works including a pair from the Battleground series (2020) by Sydney-based artist Jason Wing, centred on a shield known as the Gweagal shield held in the British Museum Collection, and examining Captain James Cook’s first landing at Botany Bay.

2. eX de Medici, the National Gallery of Australia

eX de Medici , The wreckers, 2019, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 2020. © eX de Medici

Extending across almost six chaotic metres, this watercolour artwork represents a formidable act of physical and emotional endurance, echoing the ways in which we have all had to find new sources of resilience this year.

Created over 12 months, artist eX de Medici applied her long experience as a tattoo artist to this technically brilliant and detailed work.

Against a backdrop of blackened stars and stripes, The Wreckers depicts a violent tableau – the entwined wreckage of vehicles, drones and planes. A fearless critique of capitalism and colonialism, the work was unusually prescient, being finished only weeks before Canberra’s skies filled with smoke and reports emerged overseas of a new virus.

Beneath the image, eX de Medici has pencilled a damning list of the wreckers: ‘the worst people responsible for doing the worst things in the world’. And yet there is hope – the wreckage is overrun with plants and vines, suggesting the enduring power of life even in the darkest times.

3. A climate action “tinny”, National Museum of Australia

Image supplied.

The National Museum recently launched the Momentous website, the culmination of collecting objects related to the 2019-2020 bushfires, including the Bungendore fires fridge, a melted phone booth from Cobargo, a partially destroyed boat (known colloquially as a tinny) painted with a climate change message, and an SES uniform.

The tinny is now part of the National Historical Collection. It came from a man called Jack Egan, from North Rosedale, whose house burned down in the fires at the end of 2019. Already a climate activist, Egan allowed his friend to paint the climate change message on the side of the boat as part of a campaign run by the Australian Conservation Foundation to raise awareness of the effects of climate change in the wake of the 2019/20 bushfires.

4. Olafur Eliasson, Art Gallery of South Australia

Olafur Eliasson, Dark matter collective, 2018, 217 partially silvered glass spheres. James and Diana Ramsay Fund 2019, Art Gallery of South Australia © 2018 Olafur Eliasson, photo: Jens Ziehe.

Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson lives and works in Berlin where he collaborates with climate scientists, mathematicians and architects to create sculptural and immersive works that explore visual perception and the agency of the viewer. 

Dark matter collective (2018) was acquired from the artist’s studio after the gallery’s curators saw a similar piece at Art Basel Hong Kong, saying: ‘The work is truly mesmeric and relies upon the movement of the viewer in the space as it shifts from light to dark to light while reflecting the entire room inverted 217 times. The work refers to the 27% of the universe that is invisible, and to recent quantum physics studies that suggest dark matter could comprise an entire parallel universe.’

The acquisition was made possible through the generosity of James and Diana Ramsay. Although the work was acquired many months ago, it was not possible to install the sculpture – which weighs over 600kg – until December.

In fact, curator Leigh Robb created an entire exhibition around the work entitled, Dark Matter, Bright Light, which includes other momentous recent acquisitions such as photograms by Nalini Malani from the late 1970s and a ‘bullet drawing’ from Cornelia Parker.

5. Davida Allen, Queensland Art Gallery

Davida Allen Sisters 1991. Gift of Dr Michael Shera through the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2020. © Davida Allen.

In a year in which we have become acutely aware of our personal connections, ironically through enforced isolation and social distancing, a recent donation to Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) became particularly poignant.

In June, the Gallery acquired a dynamic painting by Queensland artist Davida Allen, Sisters (1991), donated by Allen’s husband Dr Michael Shera. Sadly, Shera passed away soon after gifting the painting, which now serves as a tribute to the couple’s loving and productive partnership.

‘In many ways, Sisters is a homage to Allen’s family, being one of many paintings she has made of her daughters over the course of her career. As a young and committed feminist determined to make art despite domestic pressures, Allen looked to her life as a woman, wife and mother, and has continued to draw on these experiences.

‘Imbued with her ebullient spirit, Sisters conveys Allen’s commitment to capturing the world around her, and the strength of her familial ties,’ writes Samantha Littley, Curator, Australian Art.

6. Works by Martu artists in lockdown, WA Museum

Helen Samson, Jigalong. Image courtesy the artist.

A State of Emergency was declared in mid-March, and Western Australia went into lockdown at the end of the same month. Additional restrictions under both Commonwealth and State law were put in place for remote and vulnerable Aboriginal communities.

Towards the end of April, the WA Museum commenced its Collecting COVID-19 project, focussing on two areas: Collecting the State and Collecting the Community. Perth photographer Rebecca Mansell was commissioned to photograph Perth and Fremantle during lockdown and to produce a series of leader portraits for the Museum’s first COVID-19 related exhibition State of Emergency: Western’s Australia’s Response to COVID-19.

Collecting the Community involved the creation of a webpage seeking contributions from the public about the impact COVID-19 had on their plans for 2020, and the collection of a series of works from Aboriginal Arts Centres in the Mid West, Pilbara and Kimberley.

Closed since the declared State of Emergency, access to the remote Martu communities of Parnngurr, Punmu, Kunawarritji, Warralong and Jigalong was prohibited. Yet those artists who found themselves on Country continued to paint.

Martumilli Arts Centre staff found ingenuous ways of getting supplies into locked-down communities, including specially sized canvases to fit in the mail plane so they could be delivered to the artists. The Martumili collection, Nyina-ya ngurrangka ngampurrpa (stay in your home safely) is the WA Museum’s acquisition that best represents 2020.

Other participating Arts Centres included Yamaji Arts (Geraldton), Martumilli Artists (Newman), Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency (Fitzroy Crossing) and Waringarri Aboriginal Arts (Kununurra).

7. Virus countdown sign, Tasmanian Museum and Gallery

Senior Curator of Cultural Heritage at TMAG, Kirstie Ross collecting the ‘Countdown to Burning the Virus’ sign from David Dieckfoss. Photo: Daniel Rose.

Initially, the pandemic prompted the question: how do you preserve the impact of a huge global medical catastrophe unleashed by a tiny virus measured in microns?

There were many ways in which individuals and communities responded to circumstances they had little or no control over, often with humour and creativity. One example is now part of the TMAG collection. This is the countdown sign made for a ‘virus burning’ event held at the end of July 2020 at the Longley International Hotel, southwest of Hobart.

Mimicking a fire warning sign, this one boldly declared the build-up towards the ceremonial burning of a large wooden coronavirus effigy, replete with distinctive SARS-CoV-2 protrusions.

TMAG couldn’t collect the ashes of the burnt effigy but the sign, tracked down through the pub’s Facebook page, was the next best thing. It shows how Tasmanians were still able to have a laugh despite the grave global situation. And, as the sign’s maker and donor David Dieckfoss told the ABC at the time: ‘If we could burn this dirty, big virus, it’d be good for people, and good for the pub, and good for the community’.

8. The Legacy Dress, Bendigo Art Gallery

Peggy Griffiths wears the Legacy Dress, ceramic necklace and bracelet (2019). Photo: Grace Lillian Lee and Chris Baker.

In 2020, Bendigo Art Gallery made numerous acquisitions to establish an Australian Fashion Collection, including this monumental dress which won the inaugural National Indigenous Fashion Award for Cultural Adornment and Wearable Art.

Senior Miriwoong artist Peggy Griffiths created this work in collaboration with fellow textile ladies from Waringarri Arts, including her daughter and grand-daughters (Delany Griffiths, Anita Churchill, Cathy Ward, and Kelly-Anne Drill).

Griffiths explains: ‘Doing this and putting all the material together made the dress strong and made me and my granddaughters stronger. Working with young artists can be a tool to pass [on] knowledge and history through art and fashion.’

2020 has brought into sharp focus the global challenges of ecological crisis and social precarity. This year has also highlighted the need for community connection, as well as understanding of the environment and living sustainably within it. The Legacy Dress embodies the power of First Nations fashion to imagine a future built around community collaboration and respect for Country.

Griffiths’ daughter Jan describes the lineage and storytelling in the dress: ‘It’s stories from my old people. Each of the layers represents each artist’s story.’

2020 has been a phenomenal year for the blossoming Indigenous fashion industry in Australia. The key preoccupations of First Nations designers around slow fashion, sustainability, community connection, and cultural integrity speak strongly to the social and ecological crises which have been highlighted in 2020, during bushfires, destruction of cultural heritage sites, a global surge in the Black Lives Matter movement, and social precarity in a time of pandemic.

9. Khadim Ali, Art Gallery of NSW

Khadim Ali, Untitled (from the Flowers of Evil series) 2019, acrylic paint, embroidery stitched on fabric and dye. Photo AGNSW.

Khadim Ali weaves history and fable into an incisive commentary on contemporary life in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In this major textile work, demons and winged figures occupy the same field as poignant markers of contemporary conflict: Taliban fighters wading through poppy fields, Western flags burning, American soldiers loading ammunitions. The folkloric filters into the present day as the delicacy of Ali’s imagery belies its subject.

This is a work about the mythology of heroism and its deployment as a means to justify violence. Stories of saviours and heroes are as corrosive as they are comforting. Together they institute a cycle of violence, the lived effects of which, as Ali well understands, are still being felt. 

An astute response to contemporary politics, this work is a testament to the ongoing resonance of Ali’s practice as well as his growing international standing. Untitled (from the Flowers of Evil series) was a vital acquisition for 2020 as the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) looks towards growing our collections for the new spaces of the Sydney Modern Project. AGNSW remains committed to collecting ambitious and outstanding works by significant Australian artists to ensure their voices continue to anchor the stories it tells. 

10. Powerhouse Museum (MAAS)

Mamanya mukulya kura tjuta kulira wantima (Look after one another, love one another) 2020, from the ‘Follow these rules to help keep you safe from that virus’ COVID-19 series, from Ernabella Arts, Pukatja Community (APY Lands), South Australia. Image supplied.

The Powerhouse Museum has been acquiring materials which capture the social and scientific stories about the unfolding pandemic and communities’ responses as part of their COVID-19 Collection.

‘This “bush billboard” is part of a series we acquired called, Pika nyanga kura wiyaring kunyyjaku (Follow these rules to help keep you safe from that virus). Made by artists Anne Thompson, Vivian Thompson, Marissa Thompson, Nicole Rupert and Lynette Lewis, this sign titled, Mamanya mukulya kura tjuta kulira wantima (Look after one another, love one another), is a beautiful and pragmatic reflection of the self-determination of the Anangu in Ernabella (Pukatja) to protect their community,’ said Katie Dyer, the Powerhouse’s Senior Curator Contemporary.

‘The work captures their creative, resilient spirit and use of available resources to communicate messages of care and support for each other. The women collaborated to make signs in Pitjantjara language to share important health and wellbeing messages at the early stages of the pandemic (public health messages were only getting to them in English).’

Hand-painted on repurposed car bonnets and positioned in prominent places, Mel George, Art Centre Manager at Ernabella Arts, explained: ‘This one done bush way – many signs around the community are done on junk car doors, bonnets and old windmill blades.’

Note: Other institutions we approached, such at the Museum and Gallery Northern Territory, have also collected classic 2020-date stamped artworks, but due their acquisition processes, details could not be disclosed at the date of publishing.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina