Photograph ©Kerry Cross

I arrived at TarraWarra Museum of Art for my interview with Maudie Palmer with a head full of curiosity, a notepad full of questions and more than my usual anticipation. As has consistently been the case at TWMA, I was shown the sort of hospitality that immediately made me feel like an honoured guest in a trusted friend’s home. I began to understand that a welcome of this sort is typical of the magic of Maudie Palmer. Her own efforts to make visitors to TWMA feel comfortable, trickle down to every staff member and every volunteer… more about that later. Within minutes I was swept up by her charm, and inspired by her passion for excellence in all things, particularly the arts.

For the uninitiated overseas reader, a little bit of background might be useful. Maudie is an arts legend in Melbourne.

Standouts in her illustrious career are easy to find. She cut her teeth as curator at the University Gallery, University of Melbourne (now the Ian Potter Museum), set up the Herring Island Environmental Sculpture Park and was the inaugural director of Heide Museum of Modern Art when Heide made its transition from the home of John and Sunday Reed to a public art gallery. In 1999, after her outstanding success at Heide, Marc and Eva Besen invited Maudie to become inaugural director of TarraWarra Museum of Art, the first significant privately funded public art museum in the country. I’m guessing that the Besens have never had any reason to doubt their choice.

Her first task was to oversee the creation of a building that could adequately house the Besen’s vast collection and support contemporary artists. (As Maudie recounted the process of writing the brief for the building and selecting the architect, I found myself wishing that we had filmed the interview so that you, dear reader, could see Maudie’s eyes light up.) Of the five shortlisted architects, Allan Powell’s architectural vision fitted the brief perfectly. The board’s selection committee saw what Maudie described as its  “everlasting quality” as well as the potential for its earthy exterior palette to sit in glorious harmony with the landscape.  Who could argue with that. Now that the building has taken up its place in the Yarra Valley, it looks like it’s been there forever and will be there for centuries to come. Maudie also explained that Powell’s design was inspired by the idea of the Tuscan Village on a hilltop, with the hearth at its beginning (the restaurant) and a vista walk toward the ultimate view (that window).

The building’s interior has consistently vindicated Maudie’s initial brief.  It was important to her that the interior provide a space that would equal the temporary exhibition space at the the Art Gallery of New South Wales (home of the Archibald).  How thankful we are for her vision.  Last year, the Archibald was exhibited at TWMA for the first time. Around fifty thousand art lovers made the trip out to TarraWarra to see it.  It was a howling success, due in part to the gorgeous, elegant spaces in which it was hung.

It’s a source of pride for Maudie that eight and a half years after TWMA opened to the public, the original pristine state of the building has been maintained, both inside and out.  She is adamant that,

“It should be preserved in this form for posterity.”

With the building solidly in place, the work of turning the spaces into a thriving museum was Maudie’s next challenge. She has done this, in part, by establishing a programme of contemporary art exhibitions and exhibitions which focus on the TWMA collection of Australian modern art post 1950, and keeping to a budget. Along with a passion for curating and filling a space with artworks, Maudie enjoys cutting her garment to suit her cloth. It’s a winning combination for a museum director.

Maudie is largely self taught, though art and aesthetics has always been woven through the fabric of her life. She trained in sculpture as a young woman. In addition, she says,

“I was fortunate to travel abroad and to have marvellous teachers who taught me the wonder of art.  They were inspirational.”

She is quick to acknowledge the assistance of mentors who guided her along the way, in particular Ray Marginson (Vice Principal of The University of Melbourne), Georges Mora and Barrett Reid, long term associates of Heide and the Angry Penguins.  She also knew patrons Sunday and John Reed, the originators of Heide, and has had the pleasure of working directly for visionaries Eva and Marc Besen.

She explains that in the early days at the Melbourne University Gallery (where she worked for Marginson), it was essential to have the support of volunteers. Maudie learnt the value of having a volunteer program in place and subsequently developed very successful volunteer programs at both Heide and TWMA.

“I set the bar high for myself, and with my remarkable staff, ask others to jump over it with us. The volunteers keep coming back because they know that here we all work together towards achieving excellence.”

Local painters, sculptors and art lovers have truly embraced the opportunities that volunteering provides. Maudie makes sure that they know how much their work is appreciated, thanking them publicly on every occasion.

I was curious about what her advice might be to an aspiring student of arts management. Her quick reply, brilliant in its simplicity was,

“Make sure you visit museums and galleries and develop a passion for the visual arts!”

Passion for the visual arts is in plentiful supply at TWMA. Collecting is still the Besen’s passion. For Maudie, it brings to mind Kenneth Clarke’s observation that, private collectors acquire artworks “for initial excitement and for lasting satisfaction.”  Maudie acknowledges that the unique ongoing process for collecting at TWMA has greatly contributed to its success. The collection committee, known as the “Works of Art Committee”, is made up of Eva and Marc Besen, Maudie and Victoria Lynn. (Maudie will remain on that committee when the renowned curator Victoria Lynn takes over as the new director.) The committee’s mission is to fill the gaps and continue to acquire contemporary work. Not surprisingly, Maudie is effusive in acknowledging the Besen’s overall contribution at TWMA,

“They have been prepared to gift their collection, build this acclaimed building, and to continue to fund the museum through the Besen Family Foundation.  It’s the most far sighted, generous contribution imaginable!”

With the combination of the Besen’s extraordinary generosity, Maudie’s unparalleled directorship and the outstanding beauty of the building and its surrounds, TWMA has taken its place amongst the best public art museums here and overseas. Maudie is confident that she has achieved all of the goals that were set for her and that she set for herself at TWMA.  She is leaving TWMA in the capable hands of Victoria Lynn, who takes up the position of director in April 2012. Of her decision to hand the baton on, Maudie says,

“I’m thrilled that we have found a passionate curator who as director will take the museum into the future. All my life my work has been about taking up a vision and running with it and for my part I believe I’ve achieved what I wanted to do in establishing this museum.”

Visitors to TWMA will enjoy the solid foundations she has put in place for many many years to come.

Maudie wasn’t telling what her next step would be. She did however say that she has three projects on the boil. She will no doubt apply her passion and her pursuit of excellence to whatever she does next.

I’ll finish with this great photo (thanks Kerry) of Maudie in front of Fred William’s painting Lysterfield, currently showing at TWMA as part of an exhibition of work from TWMA’s own collection titled Before the imperative of scale.


TWMA Inaugural Director, Maudie Palmer, AO in front of the Fred Williams painting, Lysterfield, c. 1966 Gift of Eva and Marc Besen 2001, Collection of TarraWarra Museum of Art.(Photograph ©Kerry Cross)

My sincerest thanks to Maudie Palmer and TarraWarra Museum of Art for making this post possible.  Maudie, it was a great pleasure and privilege to meet you. Isiiad thanks you for your part in making TWMA an outstanding home of art in the Yarra Valley and wishes you all the very best in whatever comes next.