Farewell to Marea

Ex-Director of Crafts Council of Australia, Jane Burns, gave this tribute to Marea Gazzard, along with Cristine France and David Malouf.

Marea

A remarkable and most distinguished Australian.

I had the privilege of working closely with her in the 1970s and 1980s when she was including national and international crafts organizational responsibilities among her huge bag of activities.

I’m really thankful to be asked to say a few things about her this evening and in Utopia Gallery which was so very important to her. I’d like to dwell briefly on her role as an organizational and visionary leader .It’s a sort of cliché I suppose but Marea had the rare ability to see the big picture and take big and risky steps and she enthused everyone on the way to achieve results.

Marea in the 1960s, – artist, wife, mother of Nicholas and Clea, activist in movements such as the Save Paddington Society and the Save The Queen Victoria Building – was among a select few studio artists in the mediums of ceramics, metal, textile, wood, glass in Australia who understood the need for there to be support systems which would enable them to undertake tertiary training within their discipline, exhibit their work in commercial and other galleries, and for their audience to learn about them and their work. Nowadays we take all those things somewhat for granted. But in the 1960s it was a vastly different story.

No arts white pages directories or internet existed. Without contact points other than personal friendships the select few (including Helge Larsen, Les Blakebrough, Heather Dorrough, Mary White, Joy Warren, Moira Kerr, Fay Bottrell, Peter Travis here in NSW and Milton Moon, Carl McConnel, Joan Campbell and others interstate) formed a Steering Committee in Sydney which set out the ways and means to establishment of a national crafts organization. Marea became the chief of this select group in 1970 when their efforts bore fruit and the Commonwealth Government issued a cheque for the princely sum of $12,000 for the Crafts Council of Australia to come into existence, with Marea as its first President. Sir John Gorton was then the PM and he personally directed Dr. Nugget Coombes and Dr Jean Battersby of the then Australian Council for the Performing Arts to administer this grant rather than the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board. That in itself was extraordinarily prescient because with the election of Mr. Whitlam as Prime Minister, the Australia Council was completely restructured. Marea was invited by Gough Whitlam to be Chair of The first Crafts Board and to develop policies and plans to place the contemporary crafts on an equal footing with art forms of the other seven Boards and within the spectrum of the visual arts. This meant that she had to resign from the fledgling Crafts Council of Australia Presidency, six months after she was elected, and the Vice President, Marcia del Thomas from South Australia replaced her there. In the space of a year Marea went from being Chair of a Steering Commiitee, to President of a new non governmental crafts organization (The Crafts Council of Australia) to Chair of the major governmental crafts organization (The Crafts Board of the Australia Council). Breathless activity by any standard.

When Gough Whitlam asked Marea, along with the other Board Chairs, to nominate a budget figure to cover possible needs she had took an educated guess and asked for 2 million dollars – an unheard of amount then and to put it in perspective, overnight the grant allocation to the Australia Council from the Federal Government went from $4,000,000 annually to $14,000,000. Wise heads and capable hands were needed to administer these funds. Marea surrounded herself with those she trusted to sit on her Board and those who would join the public service on the staff of the Australia Council in the Crafts Board. Moira Kerr and Felicity Abraham were among the latter. Wisdom personified.

It wasn’t a coincidence then of course that Marea was invited from Australia as one of the select group of people from North America, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa to take up the challenge of the American philanthropist Mrs. Vanderbilt Webb to form the World Crafts Council. Mrs. Vanderbilt Webb intended this to be a networking link for craftspeople world wide to provide the strength of numbers and opinion, to influence governments.

Marea had artist friends and colleagues as personal contacts in each of those regions, friendships which remained strong throughout her life, and like her these people recognized what a huge advantage the network of these connections could be. The World Crafts Council gradually included over 50 countries and Marea became World President in 1980. It was during her Presidency (again by judicious use of the right contacts and right approaches) that the organization achieved unheard of Category A Status as an NGO with UNESCO. This gave it an annual subvention to establish its own secretariat. And this made it possible for Marea to undertake travel to each of the five regions of the WCC and to play a part in the necessary high level discussions with individual governments which gave national organizations necessary support. She acted in the manner of a diplomat, meeting official people at the highest level and bringing great distinction to the WCC as well as to Australia because of this.

Here in Australia, the Asian Zone of the WCC was set up within the offices of the Crafts Council of Australia and Pat Thompson (writer, scholar and former co-warrior with Marea in the Paddington Society) became its Hon. Secretary.

Many of the legendary stories of these extraordinary times and Marea’s part in the contemporary crafts renaissance of forty or so years ago have been captured in Grace Cochrane’s marvellous history but I hope I’ve given you some inkling of just how pivotal she was in leading the change in the contemporary crafts landscape nationally and internationally.

And also maybe what an extraordinarly busy and interesting life she had.

And throughout all of this heady activity on the organizational front she was also trying at a very high level to pursue her own artistic career. The exhibition with Mona Hessing in 1973 Clay and Fibre at the National Gallery of Victoria which was such a hit with gallery audiences certainly gave the critics of the time something to think about. I remember the outrage when Donald Brook, art critic for the SMH, wrote, with outrage showing in each word, something to the effect that these were crafts people and Marea should get back to making ceramic mugs and Mona to making useful woven rugs. Marea and Mona were completely confident in their work but this was understandably annoying. However, in fact it illustrated so well why they wanted attitudes and awareness to alter.

As an aside here and one of those whose professional life has been in administration of the arts rather than in the practice of it I am always amazed at the generosity of artists who are prepared to give time and energy away from their professional career to ensure the fight for the arts as a government priority goes on.

I’d like to finish with an illustration of Marea’s practical skill and capacity always to see solutions rather than problems.

In 1973 The WCC Secretariat asked her to find a Polish fibre artist Ewa Pachucka who had defected to Australia and could possibly need support to find her feet in this new country. Marea drove a blue mini minor at the time and one morning she arrived at CCA and together we tooled off to Carramar where Ewa and her husband were living in a migrant hostel. How Marea tracked her down I’ve forgotten but such was her brilliance at this sort of tricky thing that I remember it didn’t faze me at all. Ewa and her husband Romek were surprised and overjoyed to see us and even more flummoxed when within weeks Marea had arranged rental accommodation for them in a cottage in Milsons Point and Rudi Komon, had offered Ewa a solo exhibition at his Paddington Gallery for six months time. He knew of her work from exhibitions she had had in London and Denmark. The exhibition at the Rudi Komon Gallery was a sensation and James Mollison acquired major works from it for the national collection. And Ewa began her life as an artist anew in this new country. The sort of fairy story ending in a way to this extraordinary train of events which Marea set in motion, is that both Marea and Ewa were among artists commissioned by Aldo Girgulo and Pamille Berg to undertake major works for Parliament House in Canberra when it opened in 1988, Marea’s bronze sculpture in the Executive Courtyard at the formal entrance to the Prime Minister’s office suite, and Ewa’s stone sculpture in the Lobby Courtyard Garden adjacent to the House of Representatives.

Marea’s place in Australian art history is well assured. It will always be recognized by those who see the Judy Cassab portrait of her at the National Portrait Gallery and through her work in public and private collections. For her friends and colleagues it will be in the knowledge of a myriad of little and big things which she managed so intuitively. She was absolutely a remarkable person and it was a privilege to have known her.

Jane Burns

November 25 2013

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