Around two hours’ drive from Melbourne – on the lands of the Yorta Yorta people – a striking cube-like structure soars 30 metres into the sky, on top of a hill.
Designed by acclaimed architects Denton Corker Marshall – the local firm behind Melbourne Museum and the Australian Pavilion built for the 56th Venice Biennale – it’s the $50 million new Shepparton Art Museum.
SAM, as it’s known, doesn’t give away many secrets about its interior from afar. With its rich, ochre-red facade, on the shore of Victoria Park Lake, it’s designed to speak to the surrounding red river gums and the river plain, both inside and out. According to Rebecca Coates, outgoing artistic director and CEO of SAM, “The building is about hope and aspiration, with a range of welcoming spaces and places designed to invite all members of the public to meet, enjoy and call their own.” As well as the museum, it’s home to Kaiela Arts, Shepparton’s local Aboriginal arts centre, a visitor centre and a bright, airy cafe with a picturesque outlook over the lake and surrounding bushland.
Those views are also on offer from inside the museum itself: enormous multi-storey glass windows give another opportunity to take it all in and reflect on the connection between landscape, people and culture – a theme that’s explored in many of the works in the museum’s significant Aboriginal-art collection. This includes its inaugural exhibition, Flow: Stories of River, Earth and Sky. Showcasing more than 60 artists, one highlight of the show is the bringing together of dozens of watercolour on paper works by iconic Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira, and his extended family. Installed side by side – and above and below one another, salon-style – each artist captures the light on ghost gums, rolling mountains and the desert earth in their own subtle way.
Also on display are a number of newly commissioned, large-scale artworks – installed inside and out. In the museum’s forecourt sits the largest work to enter the collection to date: House of Discards, a five-metre-high triangular structure made of stacked steel playing cards showing precarity and strength, by Girramay and Kuku Yalanji artist Tony Albert. In the atrium and central void spaces hang sweeping mobile installations by Melbourne-based artist Anne-Marie May. Her Everything Joyful Is Mobile sums up SAM’s joyful art vibe. It’s made of large pieces of cut acrylic sheets in glowing yellows, blues, reds and other colours, playfully suspended from knotted ropes. The artist explains that the luminous shadow “effects are part of the work … they change throughout the day”. As well as the shifting light, the coloured sheets twist ever so gently. “You have to be patient,” she says. “That’s part of the work too – that kinetic, ephemeral nature of [it], and the ropes are a counterpoint to the rigidity.”
One of the many other exhibitions on show is a major retrospective of the works of Lin Onus. The late, renowned Onus was a Yorta Yorta man, known for his signature postmodern style of melding Western-inspired photorealism with traditional Aboriginal imagery and patterning. The exhibition is especially significant because of its location – being the first exhibition of Onus’s on his own Country.
In total, there are nine entirely free exhibitions, featuring more than 200 artists. Other highlights include a playful video installation by Amrita Hepi in the dedicated Children’s Gallery (also for the young at heart); the featuring of SAM’s extensive ceramics collection throughout purpose-made vitrines in the building; and the large-scale lenticular lightboxes of acclaimed Yorta Yorta/Wamba Wamba/Mutti Mutti/Boonwurrung artist Maree Clarke, which are visible from the street.
“Every surface presents an opportunity to display and be surrounded by art and experience, whether you go to the cafe, drop into the shop or even drive past at night,” says Coates. And with that, our next great culture trip awaits.