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Talking art and architecture with Michael Rayner AM


Michael Rayner AM

In 2014 architect Michael Rayner AM generously donated 90 artworks to The University of Queensland. This major gift comprises works by 33 artists, many of whom have made a substantial contribution to the visual arts in Australia. This month we caught up with Michael to talk about his early introduction to art, his approach to collecting and why he chose The University of Queensland as the benefactor of his generosity.

Q: UQ Art Museum was the very grateful recipient of a significant donation of artworks from your private collection. What motivated you to choose UQ Art Museum as the custodian for this collection?
A: A few reasons – I’ve been an Adjunct Professor in Architecture at UQ since 2000. Although I do many things for the School in this role (lectures, tasks, design crits mainly), I see my donation in some way as reinforcing my sense of belonging. Secondly, I took the advice of respected private art gallery director Andrew Baker, who said that UQ is the best place to ensure that my works are looked after and curated into shows. Thirdly, my son goes to UQ and loves the Art Museum – so all in all, a compelling argument. I must admit I did consider the notion of gifting the works to a regional gallery that might lack collections, but the knowledge that they will be cared for at UQ prevailed in my mind. I guess, lastly, is my hope that UQ will be able to put some of the artwork into curated shows with other works by similar artists or within cohesive themes.

Q: Have you always been passionate about art and from where did that interest stem?
A: My mother imbued me with a love of art, tripping me to galleries in Sydney in the 1960s. She once won an international art photography competition in the Netherlands in the 1940s with an image of her then boyfriend traipsing up a beach trailed by his deep footprints. I still have a print of it. We were not well off enough to collect original works, but she bought lithographs of artists like Lloyd Rees to put on our walls. I swore in my pre-teens that, if I could, I would one day collect original works of art. Philip Cox, my employer and mentor in architecture in Sydney, was also influential because, unlike most architectural offices, ours was a drop-in place for many Australian artists like Clifford Possum, Colin Lanceley, Michael Johnson and John Firth-Smith. I found them inspiring. I often went at lunchtimes to Rudy Komon’s gallery in Paddington just to browse, and also to the photographer Max Dupain’s studio. He photographed our architectural projects, but when I went around to collect the prints, I would stay in his darkroom while he printed images like Sunbaker all afternoon – kind of wagging school you might say.

Q: From your professional perspective, what is the role of art in the design of buildings and public spaces?
A: Due to several buildings on which we have collaborated with artists, I am often cited as a champion of public art. To be frank, that is not the case. I find most so-called public art gratuitous and decorative. What I’m interested in is getting to know artists and how they process the world around us, and then working collaboratively with them to enrich the meaning and content of our buildings. A good example is our Ipswich Courthouse, where we worked with ten artists who either related to cultures relevant to the place, came from Ipswich (like Gwyn Hanssen Pigott) or practised in a way that reveals the process of making the work, like our architecture.

Q: What genres of art appeal to you as a collector, and has that changed over time.
A: My collection is almost entirely abstract; my choices are, however, intuitive rather than rationalised into some sort of curatorial composition. Things that influence me are works that I find either architecturally inspiring or just convey a sense of unmitigated freedom that architecture doesn’t possess. I also buy works from artists I’ve got to know and understand through architectural projects – Madonna Staunton, Bruce Reynolds, Lincoln Austin for example. I’m attracted to artists from the Torres Strait and from Aurukun, the latter due to my knowing Arthur Koo-ekka Pambegan Jnr through his work. I occasionally buy works of renowned Australian artists who have been part of a bigger, intriguing story about the evolution of Australian art, like Joy Hester from the Heide years, and Robert Klippel, who my dad knew in the navy. I’m always on the lookout for undiscovered artists whose work reveals a different way of interpreting our cultural or physical context. I do think Queensland has an amazing array of artists somewhat unappreciated, like Sandra Selig, Lincoln Austin and Leonard Brown. However, I guess if I scan over what I have, the majority of work I own reveals aspects of how it was made, again, inspiring for my architecture.

Q: As an art lover and experienced collector, what advice would you give to someone just starting their own art collection?
A: I truly believe buying art is the most personal type of buying experience, and that’s how it should be. You can’t really have that with a car or a handbag. I think, because an artwork is bound to be part of your everyday living experience, it has to mean something to you and your experiences – perhaps of travel or from reading or something else in your life. Having said that, if you don’t want your works to de-value over time, you need to do some research, not by reading art journals with articles like ‘the 50 most collectible artists’ (often flawed by dealer attempts to push certain artists), but by going to exhibitions of well-established galleries like Andrew Baker and Milani in Brisbane. Andrew in particular helps you to appreciate what’s behind certain artists without thrusting works on you – the knowledge gained from talking to him can be used to develop your own thoughts and likes, and look further afield. He is currently collecting works by now deceased PNG artist Mathias Kauage and researching to do a book on him. This is different from a dealer just latching onto someone perceivably ‘saleable’. Kauage’s life and art go together, so there is reward in buying a work of his having appreciated that. I also only buy artwork of dedicated artists who I get convinced are going to be still practising in twenty or so years’ time. Again that takes learning about where they started and whether they are evolving (as against ‘stuck’ with nowhere to go next). This awareness can mean not having to fork out a fortune for artists at their peak prices that occur at the major auctions. I think many people who do that would do so to ‘have’ a particular artist. Each to their own, but I have no interest in that pursuit.

Visit the UQ Art Museum website to browse the Michael Rayner Collection online or see Marian Drew’s Three light forms 1999, one of the artworks from the donated collection, in Light Play: Ideas, Optics, Atmosphere, on show until 15 November 2015.

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