Closed, open, connected: the Archibald Prize in Moree

BAMM is located within the 1910 Commercial Banking Company of Sydney heritage building

Three-and-a-half days! That’s how long Australia’s favourite exhibition, the Archibald Prize for Portraiture, was on show at Bank Art Museum Moree (BAMM) this March before its closure due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Happily for Moree, which is the fourth stop on the 2019 Archibald Prize regional tour, BAMM reopened its doors on 1 June and once again welcomed its community to enjoy the portrait prize. Heather Tralaggan, our touring exhibitions assistant, spoke to Kate Tuart, interim director of BAMM, about resilience, the enduring appeal of the Archibald Prize, and how she and her colleagues have connected with the people in the paintings.

Kate, introduce us to your hometown of Moree and Bank Art Museum Moree.

Moree is a charismatic agricultural and artistic community of around 9000 people. Tucked inland in Northern NSW, we’re almost smack-bang between Sydney and Brisbane. Despite the implication of ‘rural isolation’, we’re a bustling town of cafes, with the best sourdough you’ll find anywhere, and enough art to keep you entertained all day.

BAMM has worked passionately to enhance the cultural life of Moree for over 30 years. We entertain locals and visitors to the region with the latest in contemporary touring art exhibitions from the likes of the Art Gallery of NSW, and proudly showcase works drawn from our own nationally significant collection featuring the largest group of contemporary Aboriginal art in regional NSW.

It must have been such a blow to have to close after just a few days with the Archie on your walls. But BAMM’s closure didn’t prevent you sharing art with your audience, with the introduction of ‘An Archie a day’. What inspired this idea?

The Archibald Prize was on our walls, but our doors were closed. The term ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ came to mind and I thought, why not the same for the Archies? The idea was to entertain our virtual ‘visitors’ with videos and photos of the artworks. This sustained the momentum for what we hoped was our inevitable reopening. We also had Archibald Prize artists eager to share virtual studio tours and commentary on their entries. By the time the reopened show concludes, we’ll have had the 2019 Archibald Prize on our walls for just over four months – that’s longer than even the Art Gallery of NSW had it!

Installation view of the 2019 Archibald Prize regional tour at Bank Art Museum Moree

Have regional communities experienced the impacts of COVID-19 differently to urban centres in NSW? How would you describe Moree’s spirit?

In Moree we know our neighbours. When a fundraiser happens the whole town gets behind it, and simply going to the shops can turn into a two-hour social outing. So when you lose those connections and lose economic stimulation, it hits hard. Add in drought and you’re on the edge.

Thankfully, resilience is something we know well and is a defining feature of our spirit. We have long been considered the richest agricultural shire in Australia, but we are now also viewed as the cultural heart of the North West. Diversifying is the future, but it relies on support from urban centres and travellers – when you can, why not make the trip and see what we’re all about?

How has your community reacted to the reopening of the 2019 Archibald Prize?

The Archibald Prize only visits Moree once every nine years, so it has been the perfect prompt for locals to get out and re-energise community spirit. We have had avid art lovers, and those simply looking for something to do, make the trip from neighbouring towns and shires.

The slower pace of rural life means that there is a steady and enthusiastic attendance, but never a crowd obscuring the view. The common remark is, ‘I’ve seen the Archies in Sydney, but I can’t believe I have the show to myself!’

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Installation view of the 2019 Archibald Prize regional tour at Bank Art Museum Moree

You work in an incredibly small but energetic team. I’d love to hear about their favourite Archibald Prize works?

Of course. Following up in advance on this question has reminded me what a challenge the judges face!

First there’s Sarah, our modest but wonderfully knowledgeable exhibitions officer. Sarah spent months planning for painter and People’s Choice winner David Darcy to reconnect during an artist talk with his sitter, Indigenous elder Daisy Ward, who was set to travel from remote Warakurna, WA. The trip was ultimately cancelled but Sarah has an affinity for the strong gaze of Daisy’s portrait, which rightfully demands the viewer’s attention from the minute you step into the space.

Next comes Anna, our education officer, who you’ll often find wearing a bright pink BAMM apron as she works on art activities in the studio. Anna’s Archibald Prize choice is Johnathan Dalton’s Sally. And her boys., an artwork that resonates with her as a mother.

Sarah Vickerman with 2019 People’s Choice winner David Darcy’s portrait of Indigenous elder Daisy Ward

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Anna Jackman with Jonathan Daltons’ Sally. And her boys.

David is our all-round, can-do museum assistant who won’t take no for an answer. He seconds the Gallery’s own Packing Room Prize choice, Tessa Mackay’s Through the looking glass with its amazingly rendered reflections.

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David Briggs with 2019 Packing Room Prize winner Tessa Mackay’s Through the looking glass

As for me, BAMM’s interim director, it’s been a trial by fire as I’ve stepped into the role while our usual director takes 12 months leave. With the COVID-19 closure to manage, I credit the last three months especially for the appearance of grey hairs. I think these challenges have something to do with my attraction to Benjamin Aitken’s portrait of Fiona Lowry. I was drawn first to its scale, flat mauve background and hint of soft pink colour. However, I have come to feel a connection with the expression of rapture and awe; the intricate details of the face washed over to create a feeling of slowed motion – very much reflecting the hyper-aware intensity and time-altering sensation of the COVID-19 experience, as well as the Archibald Prize experience in general!

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Kate Tuart with Benjamin Aitken’s portrait of Fiona Lowry

There has been a fantastic response to Young Archie Moree. Tell us a little bit about it.

For our small community we had a huge number of entries to the Young Archie Moree competition. Coincidentally we received 51 of them, which is also the number of Archibald Prize finalists. In lieu of an official ceremony, we decided to announce our winners via social media and added a personal touch by linking each winning kid’s artwork with an Archibald Prize artwork.

We also shared the Young Archie exhibition via street view, by showcasing all entries in our front windows during the nine weeks of closure for families to walk by as they did some isolation exercise. A way to stay connected even while we were disconnected.

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The Young Archie 2019 exhibition at Bank Art Museum Moree

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Young Archie winner Leo points to his work