Culture Victoria

Craft in Context - interview Shepparton Art Museum and the Stephen Benwell ceramic archive

By Craft Victoria Posted Under Craft in Context interviews

Stephen Benwell remains one of Australia’s most distinguished and celebrated ceramicists. Based in Melbourne, he regularly exhibits locally, nationally and internationally and his work features in a large number of private and public collections.

The Shepparton Art Museum has developed a unique survey of Benwell’s practice, consistently collecting pieces throughout his career. The resulting collection is a showcase that demonstrates the inspiration, developments and evolution of his practice across a thirty year trajectory.

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Stephen Benwell, Fragments (2010), 69 earthenware fragments in Perspex display case, 25 x 50 x 50 cm (case), Collection Shepparton Art Museum, acquired through the Sidney Myer Fund, Australian Ceramic Award, 2011© the artist

Is there a consistency of conceptual explorations and techniques represented with the existing Stephen Benwell collection at SAM, or are there notable shifts in conceptual focus and technical developments over the years?
There is a strong consistency of interest throughout Stephen’s practise. Perhaps the most notable shift was a development from the decorated vessel/sculptural form which pervaded his work throughout the 80’s and 90’s to figurative sculpture and more recently the use of the multiple. His interest in Greek classicism and depictions of masculinity and also the work of Museums in compiling collections of objects, fragments and shards has potentially led to a reinvigorated interest in his work.

What is the scope of the Benwell collection archive within the SAM Ceramics collection? Are there plans to continue developing this particular archive and are there any gaps or a refined focus in play given the current size of the Stephen Benwell archive?
There are 27 works by Benwell in the SAM collection. These range from the late seventies with a strong representation across the eighties and nineties. The most recent was two bodies of work acquired when he won the Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award 2010, (Australian category), Fragments, 2010, comprised of 69 glazed earthenware fragments in a Perspex case and Busts, 2010, comprised of 13 glazed earthenware parts in a Perspex case.

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Stephen Benwell, Vase (1994), glazed earthenware with underglaze, 52.5 x 35 x 24 cm, Collection Shepparton Art Museum, Sidney Myer Fund Australia Day Invitation Ceramic Award, 1995, © the artist

Given the extent and breadth of the current Ceramics Collection at SAM, is there an ongoing focus to collect significant bodies of work from individual leading/emerging practitioners from an archival perspective, or is the current acquisitions focus aimed at developing the a broad cross section of makers, material and technique practising in Australia at this given time?

No this is not the case at the present time. SAM’s acquisition strategy with respect to our purchasing of art (ie not relating to gifts and donations) is focussed on not leaving significant gaps in the collection of contemporary Australian art. Beyond this we are particularly concerned to ensure that within the Contemporary Art Collection there is a strong representation of ceramic as a medium. Historical gaps in the ceramic and other collections we endeavour to fill by the attraction of gifts and bequests and promote the Federal Governments Cultural Gift Program to this end. We do consider the value of holding more than one work by an artist particularly where they are from different moments in their career or there may be a very large acquisition which is well supported by a body of supporting work for example. Also with respect to contemporary artists we are particularly interested to collect works by artists who are making work in ceramic as well as other media if there is a connection between the two.
Occasionally contemporary artists also offer their own works to the Museum as gifts, and utilise the Cultural Gift Program in this way. Generally with the consideration of gifts we are attempting to not replicate existing collection works with additional examples which are similar, so we are not always able to accept all works which are offered to the Museum.

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Stephen Benwell, Vase (1980), stoneware, 27.8 x 39.5 cm, Collection Shepparton Art Museum, purchased with assistance from the Crafts Board of the Australia Council, 1981 © the artist

Is there any advice you could share with young or emerging crafts people who may be keen to have their work noticed by those public collections actively collecting craft? Are there initiatives that SAM sponsors that may assist this process?

Participating in awards is a good way to get noticed and in view of public galleries and curators, even if you aren’t shortlisted it can still be useful exposure. With respect to ceramics SAM runs the Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award which is a $50,000 acquisition prize, but also 5 artists are shortlisted for solo exhibition which gives artists fantastic exposure, and also the opportunity to have their work written about and published upon. The award is being held this year at the Museum and is a flagship event in the gallery’s calendar.

Interview conducted with Kirsten Paisley, Director Shepparton Art Museum.

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