An acquisitions renaissance


In 2020–21, Sydney Living Museums has experienced something of a renaissance in our acquisition of contemporary art. This has been driven by the opportunity to acquire some exciting artworks, and the engagement of a specialist curator of Indigenous art. 

Historians and curators are constantly interpreting and reinterpreting primary source material such as archival records, oral histories, objects, artefacts, heritage sites and buildings. Contemporary artists do the same; however, creativity and the imagination are their tools of trade. Contemporary art in all its wonderfully diverse forms can provide a powerful medium to interpret places, events and people, and to carry these insights to audiences near, far and in the virtual realm. This combination of elements is perfectly suited to the work of SLM. 

Reframing histories 

A recent acquisition is the work with whom I was united by every tie (Captain Moonlite) by Sydney-based artist Todd Fuller. This hand-drawn animation engages with the story of bushranger ‘Captain Moonlite’, aka Andrew George Scott (c1842–1880), through the lens of Australian queer histories. Fuller drew inspiration from a letter held in the NSW State Archives Collection that Moonlite wrote concerning fellow gang member James ‘Jim’ Nesbitt while awaiting execution: 

My dying wish is to be buried beside my beloved James Nesbitt, the man with whom I was united by every tie which could bind human friendship, we were one in hopes, in heart and soul and this unity lasted until he died in my arms …1 

The animation is an important addition to the collection of Moonlite-related material held at the Justice & Police Museum, including the pistol used during his final shootout with police and a death mask made after his execution at Darlinghurst Gaol in 1880. 

Another acquisition is Transubstantiation by Danie Mellor, an artist whose practice explores his connection to place through Aboriginal heritage. Mellor was commissioned by NSW State Archives to create an artwork for the Marriage: Love and Law exhibition (2019), and he developed Transubstantiation by engaging with a set of Colonial Secretary records from the State Archives Collection about a ‘marriage portions’ scheme introduced by Governor Ralph Darling. This ran from 1828 to 1831 and granted land to women from the ‘respectable’ classes who were promised in marriage. Mellor’s work speaks to how the ‘side effect of an apparently well-intended initiative was the displacement of Aboriginal people’.2 Transubstantiation has been generously donated by Mellor to SLM – a significant gift which we’re truly grateful for. 

Christopher Zanko, an early career artist from the Wollongong area, was commissioned by SLM in December 2020 to create an acquisitive work for the 70th anniversary of Rose Seidler House. The Rose Seidler House is an extension of Zanko’s interest in and depictions of mid-20th-century houses and their once ubiquitous but gradually disappearing presence in Australia’s towns and suburbs. Importantly, it documents one of SLM’s most popular properties through a lens that isn’t only conceptually contemporaneous but also situates the subject within a broader study of suburban Australian architecture. 

Also acquired in 2020 was Gordon Syron’s Invasion III, joining two other paintings in the Invasion series that have been on display at the Museum of Sydney for some time. The three works combine to channel Syron’s anger at the idea of terra nullius (land belonging to no‑one) – a concept that’s proven false by his depictions of Aboriginal people and Mimi spirits watching from the shore as the invaders arrive. 

Curatorial directions

As well as the Mellor and Syron works, SLM acquired Truism Australia by Blak Douglas for the Museum of Sydney collection (see Unlocked, Spring 2020). The opportunity to acquire works by these three leading Indigenous artists in 2020 was not to be missed. However, SLM also recognised the need to develop a longer term, phased and multi-pronged approach to the acquisition of contemporary Indigenous art. To this end, SLM has engaged independent curator Tess Allas to develop a five-year Indigenous contemporary art acquisition strategy for the Museum of Sydney, which is on Gadigal land. 

Allas, who has worked in the Indigenous cultural arena for close to three decades, is the author of numerous publications and has curated groundbreaking exhibitions, including With Secrecy and Despatch (Campbelltown Arts Centre, 2016), and shows across Sydney, Wollongong and transnational jurisdictions.

Recently, Allas facilitated a coup for SLM: securing a landmark work by Dennis Golding, winner of the 2020 NSW Visual Arts Emerging Fellowship. Golding is the first Aboriginal artist to receive the award in its more than 100-year history. As a university student, Golding was mentored by Allas. With the critical acclaim and accolades coming in fast, Golding and Allas speak warmly of their changed relationship. He’s no longer her student; she’s no longer his mentor: they’re friends, equals and peers. 

Later this year, SLM will combine these and other recent acquisitions at the Museum of Sydney in a specially curated exhibition.

  • 1. Extract of a letter written by Andrew George Scott, 20 January 1880, NSW State Archives Collection, Colonial Secretary Special Bundles, NRS 906 4-825/2.
  • 2. Danie Mellor, quoted in Penny Stannard, Marriage: Love and Law, NSW State Archives, Kingswood, 2019, p40.
  • Circular cropped hand-drawn image of man holding another man who is prone on the ground.

    with whom I was united by every tie (Captain Moonlite), Todd Fuller, 2018, animation still.

    Sydney Living Museums. © Todd Fuller

  • oil painting on Belgian linen stretched on frame. Depicts the arrival of a rowing boat of invading redcoats on a deep blue background.

    Invasion III, Gordon Syron, 1999.

    Sydney Living Museums. © Gordon Syron

  • Digital image for Transubstantiation realised as photographic print on aluminium panel.,

    Transubstantiation, Danie Mellor, photographic print on aluminium panel, 2019, image Danie Mellor.

    Sydney Living Museums. © Danie Mellor

  • Man to left and woman to right of long white-walled ramp up to white wall of house in background.

    Christopher Zanko and Penelope Seidler AM at Rose Seidler House.

    Photo Kim Ho © Sydney Living Museums

About the Author

Portrait of woman smiling, wearing a patterned shirt.
Dr Penny Stannard
Head, Curatorial
Penelope (Penny) Stannard grew up learning about the stories, memories and mysteries of her family, and the places and events that defined the artists, writers, diplomats and scientists who make up her ancestral tree.
This story originally appeared in Unlocked: The Sydney Living Museums’ Gazette, our quarterly members’ magazine.

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