A Conversation with Richard Perram

Excerpts from an interview between Richard Perram (ACCA’s second Artistic Director, 1986-89) and Julia Powles (ACCA Archive Research Intern)

Conducted on 6 May 2013 at Il Solito Posto, Melbourne
Transcribed from audio to text in February 2014

Julia Powles: So Richard, you were saying you came on board…

Richard Perram: I came on board at ACCA in a rather strange way. I was working at the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, running the overseas studios as well as the artists grants program. The painter Jan Senbergs, who was also on the Visual Arts Board, approached me to see if I’d be interested in the role at ACCA.

The position at ACCA had already been advertised, but I hadn’t applied. It turns out they had interviewed for the position but didn’t find anyone appropriate so Jan put my name forward as someone who could actually do it. They approached me to see if I was interested in running an art museum! I thought that yes, it could be interesting – I’d never ran an art museum before. So I came down and was interviewed and then offered the position. That’s how I came to ACCA.

RP: It certainly was an interesting experience because I think it’s fair to say that Melbourne at that time was very much a painting town, even though you had people like John Nixon who were working experimentally they were still painting. It was my belief that ACCA had been under the influence of a very small group of artists at that time and I sought to expand that number of artists and broaden the range of things that were actually done. To introduce installation art which really wasn’t that big a deal at that time in Melbourne. We did things like the Lyndal Jones installation which was very ambitious.  Naturally there were certain people who weren’t sure about this new direction for ACCA and I think that was the real reason why I fell out of favour in the end – it was seen as a territorial thing at the time, and over the years you look back and think …well, it taught me a terrible lot about people.

RP: So, I suppose the thing I tried to really do during my time at ACCA was introduce social elements into what we were actually doing. This is the reason why there were two exhibitions, two really contentious exhibitions, that I did. 

One was called Moral Censorship and the Visual Arts, which I asked Alison Carroll to curate. The board was so against it because it included a lot of pornography. We eventually got money from the Australia Council to do it, which meant that it then became difficult for the board to be critical of it, however when it really was looking like it was going belly up I rang Michael Kirby because he was a personal friend of the family and I said ‘Michael I’ve got a real problem here can you actually write an introduction to a catalogue’, so then it all went ahead. 

The other was the Imaging AIDS exhibition, which was really the first full-scale exhibition in Australia about HIV AIDS, although there had been a small show in Adelaide. It went over two venues, it was at Linden and it was also at ACCA. We had an open call out for participation and the exhibition developed in such a way that if people wanted to put a work in then they could put a work in. The focus wasn’t curatorial, it was all to do with the outcome, the publication and some of the debate around the exhibition. People like Gareth Samson turned up and said “I wasn’t going to put a work in but with all the shit that’s been happening over this exhibition, here have a work!’
It was all a storm in a teacup really. It was actually a very moving exhibition. Although I do remember there was a lot of misunderstanding at the time. For example I was interviewed for television at Linden and there was a series of portraits that Lachlan Warner had done of very handsome men in the background. The television interviewer said “Oh so what are these pictures?” and I said, “Well, these men have AIDs, they’re people that are living with AIDs”. And of course she said, “Oh they don’t look sick” and I said, “I think you just got the point of this exhibition”.

JP: The feedback I’ve had from people I know is that they remember making a point of going to see the Imaging AIDS show because they thought it was an important exhibition.

RP: Well it was an important show, but let’s just say some of the art in it wasn’t. It was about a community showing their support for something that at the time was incredibly demonized because it still wasn’t known what caused AIDS and it was seen as a gay disease. It’s important to note that at that time Australia was probably the most proactive country in the world for dealing with HIV/AIDs.

I remember going to America in the 1980’s and the difference between Australia and there was that because we had good heath we had more knowledge where as in America there was still people having unprotected sex. There wasn’t that clean strong line of proactive education that was taken in Australia with needle exchanges and things like that.

JP: Were there specific goals, things you really wanted to do?

RP: The first part of my tenure there was getting the extension of the existing gallery finished, the Loti Smorgon Gallery. It was being built when I arrived. The back of the building had been taken off and it was quite a small gallery where Young Contemporaries was actually was going on. The first show that opened in the renovation was Imants Tillers’ Paintings from Venice which was the work shown at the Venice Biennale.

RP: There was another show that was quite interesting called Evenings Without Andy Warhol. We invited young emerging artists (who had never exhibited before at ACCA) to be involved in a series of short exhibitions. We broke the gallery up into five spaces and each Wednesday night there was an opening of new work, so it was this massive change over every week.

JP: That has a nice link to the NEW series that ACCA holds annually now in which younger or new artists have the opportunity to develop a more major work. Although the format is different, ACCA is still a venue that can offer a real opportunity. It must be amazing when you go to ACCA now and see the different scale?

RP: Absolutely. It’s hard to believe now but the old ACCA, after the new extension, would have been the largest of all the contemporary art spaces in Melbourne. I was at the Australia Council at the time ACCA was established and supposedly the funding was only for three years and then it was going to be self-sufficient. But we knew that was never going to happen, we were going to be there for the long haul!

JP: Henry Gillespie told me that funding always been a challenge for ACCA.

RP: The funding from the Australia Council was secure and the funding from Arts Victoria was there. It might have been $100,000 or it might have been $50,000 – something like that. But it was doing the other things that were difficult, such as the E3: European Installation Art exhibition that ended up nearly cancelled as we just couldn’t physically raise the money.  And then Lyn (Williams), bless her socks, came in and we spent the whole day on the phone and by the end of the day we’d raised $75,000 for the show.

JP: That’s amazing!  Henry told me that when he first started establishing the Friends of ACCA he sent a hand written letter to about a thousand people after going through the 1983 edition of ‘Who’s Who’. I guess that’s a totally different proposition to fundraising today isn’t it?

RP: Well, I guess today on the internet you get a lot of people and a little bit of money to make a large amount of money. But when we did things like the E3 catalogue all we had were faxes so it came in bits of A4 paper and we then sticky taped it together… there was no computers to do this stuff.

I guess I recall that the program was a little bit all over the place. We did things like try to represent young artists who didn’t get a look in and make shows with those people like Peter Tyndal who were quite major and seemed to have slipped off the radar.

Peter’s show at ACCA was really fantastic, it was really just extraordinary. It had been initiated by Sue (Cramer). The ACCA Board, on appointing me, told me that if I wanted to drop the Peter Tyndall show I could. I said “No, absolutely not” and they had no choice but to go along with Sue and I. Once the exhibition was up they looked at the works and said, ‘He can paint!’ and I said, ‘Yes of course he can paint” but that’s not what it’s actually about!

Peter’s catalogue was a nightmare to produce because all the paintings were exactly the same, with the same title, yet they all had different dimensions. It was very difficult to make sure that everything matched up. And we did a big poster, which had all the information on the back. And there was a book published on Peter, but it may have been published by Gertrude Street. It’s called Dagger Definitions: selected works – 1952 – 1987. It was around about the time that the Picasso went missing.

JP: The Weeping Woman?

RP: Yes, Peter had a work in a show that we borrowed from the Art Gallery of South Australia. It was a spot on the wall with two cords hanging down, and that was it. 

JP: A cheeky reference to the missing Picasso?

RP: Well…

JP: Do you remember any other stories?

RP: Jill Orr also came in to the gallery and we talked about the possibility of doing something. She was talking about wanting to do something that summarised her career and the difficulty of actually doing it. I suggested we do it as a series of photographs of her performances with some texts that explained it. And so that’s how that show actually happened. Things had been at an impasse for her and I think this show and the fantastic catalogue that was published really helped move things on.

Richard Perram was Director of ACCA from 1986-1989. He has been Director of the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery since 2004 and has held many other roles in the arts, including Executive Officer of Arts Queensland, Executive Officer of Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, Program Officer at the Visual Art Board of the Australia Council and as the Special Events Coordinator for South Sydney Council. He has been a member of many arts boards including Res Artis, the Visual Arts Reference Group for Museums & Galleries NSW and the Arts NSW Youth Panel.