Rewind: Ambitious Thinking: the Helen Macpherson Smith Commissions at ACCA

Callum Morton: Babylonia, installation view, ACCA, 2005. Courtesy ACCA Archive

By Charlotte Day

My first arts job was as front of house/gallery assistant at ACCA; the year was 1994 and the job advertised was the Secretary. I still remember the feeling of dread when confronted on my first day with the not-so-old teal blue IBM typewriter and thinking ‘sh…, I don’t even know how to turn the blasted thing on…’ Aside from this shaky start, I have fond memories of my early time at ACCA where, as an inexperienced recent graduate, I felt warmly welcomed and encouraged to learn fast! ACCA’s program was ambitious, outward looking and internationally engaged. The bar was set high to present exhibitions and events that were important and relevant.

Wind forward ten years to when Juliana Engberg invited me to help with ACCA’s program for Melbourne Festival; I returned to an organisation housed in a building that much better matched its aspirations. The Helen MacPherson Smith commissions, which I worked on over a period of six years (1), perfectly exemplify the important role ACCA has played: encouraging and also crucially supporting artists (with substantial financial and curatorial back-up) to think and make work of ambition in both scale and concept.

The Helen Macpherson Smith Commission emerged out of a visionary multi-year partnership driven by Liz Gillies of the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust and Kay Campbell of ACCA. The Trust wanted to help the new ACCA establish a substantial opportunity for artists as well as achieving public benefits. The idea of a generous annual commission for a Victorian artist which would manifest in ACCA’s large gallery space, with an associated work later gifted to a regional gallery came out of the Trust’s special interest in regional Victoria. This unusual twist empowered regional galleries to collect some important contemporary works and in some cases, where space allowed, resulted in the restaging of the commissions themselves in places like Mildura and Ballarat.

Daniel von Sturmer: The Field Equation, installation view, ACCA, 2006. Courtesy ACCA Archive

As Artistic Director, Juliana Engberg developed the concept, commissioned each of the 6 artists and worked with them to establish the scope of the project. My role was to bring the projects to fruition with the artist. These were exciting and heady times in art and exhibition making! Each project had many moments in which we questioned whether we could actually make it happen.  Would it work? What I really liked about working at ACCA on these and other projects was the organization’s willingness to embrace such challenges. But I am getting ahead of myself, because, in the first instance, each Helen Macpherson Smith Commission recipient had to confront the reality of a big problem, the elephant in the room so to speak: how to deal with ACCA’s monumental gallery space? It’s just not something that you can ignore…

In his determined way, the first recipient, Callum Morton deftly confronted one architecture with another with his rocky, inwardly focused Babylonia, functioning like the mummy inside the tomb. In contrast, Daniel von Sturmer broke down the space into smaller units, a field of 100 white plinths on top of which he posited his experiments with objects and videos. Sonia Leber and David Chesworth returned to the idea of inserting one architecture into another with a Panopticon structure, which opened up to a soundscape elevating the upper strata of the gallery with heavenly voices. David Noonan softened the acoustics and evoked a 1960s casual living or performance space with a wall-to-wall sisal rug backdrop to his screen-printed collages of experimental theatre projects.

Rosslynd Piggott elected to forgo ACCA’s largest space for the sequential three side galleries to present her elegant and delicate slow reveal installation of film and mirrored surfaces. Finally, Bianca Hester’s interest in spatial practice led her back to the large gallery space to re-construct a human-scaled arena of concrete blocks, soil, timber screens and props ready for open and unregulated forms of movement and play.

I don’t think its an overstatement to say that these kinds of commissions can be game-changers for the artists who take them on and this has certainly been the case for many of the Helen Macpherson Smith commissions. They have also had a profound effect on all of us who worked on them, for ACCA, and I hope for the audiences who experienced them too.

David Noonan: Scenes, installation view, ACCA, 2009. Courtesy ACCA Archive


Bianca Hester, installation view, ACCA, 2010. Courtesy the artist and the ACCA Archive