Hugh Williamson and the Foundation he set up had an abiding interest in the Art Gallery of Ballarat long before I became its Director in 2004. However, it was only after taking up the position that I started to have a feeling for the way in which the Hugh Williamson Foundation operated and the extent of its benefaction, not just to the Gallery but to the region.
In addition to truly generous contributions towards the building program of 1999–2001, the Art Gallery of Ballarat has benefitted from financial support from the Foundation in four distinct areas.
Firstly, support from the Foundation has enabled a number of major acquisitions, including the work by Robert Clinch, Gracenotes, which features in our publication Ballarat in Pictures.
Funding from the Foundation has enabled the Gallery to present itself to the local community. Some of this funding was still unspent when I appeared on the scene, and I was amazed at the latitude given to spend those funds. 'We entrusted the money to the Gallery to build new audiences and we expect you to find the means to do just that…' was the advice I received. For several years this funding enabled us to expand our programs for children and to run concerts and other events in tandem with our exhibition program, notably a series of poetry readings inspired by the Eureka Rebellion and held during the life of our Eureka Revisited exhibition at the beginning of 2005.
The trustees of the Hugh Williamson Foundation have a broad interest in the preservation of cultural heritage throughout Victoria and have frequently supported the conservation of works of art both in this institution and in others. A grant from the Foundation in 2008 saw the conservation of the frame of one of the Gallery's earliest acquisitions, Gathering the Herd: Isle of Skye by Alfred Williams. This particular project was used by the Gallery as an exemplar for its Adopt an Artwork program, which called on private individuals and corporate entities from this community to appreciate the enormous changes that could be wrought from making a financial contribution towards the conservation of works of art.
The initial grant was like the planting of a seed. It became a catalyst for change. The community has now contributed to more than $300,000 of conservation works in the Gallery's collection and other philanthropic bodies have been stimulated to support the program.
The fourth area of active support has been funding for exhibition catalogues. Regional galleries across the state make a valiant attempt to contribute to the art scholarship of this nation by mounting exhibitions on a range of themes and by presenting surveys and retrospectives for specific artists. Without the support of the Hugh Williamson Foundation, a number of the Art Gallery of Ballarat's catalogues would not have been possible. While an exhibition might be excellent, it is a passing thing. The catalogue is the lasting record.
The trustees of the Hugh Williamson Foundation have shown an extraordinary interest in the life of this community. Trustees are regular visitors to Ballarat and have a genuine interest not just about how their projects are faring, but about the general well-being of the institutions they have chosen to support. They encourage dialogue and would think nothing of being approached on an informal basis to act as a sounding board on any particular project that might be in the offing.
The Gallery is not the only beneficiary of Hugh Williamson's injunction not to forget Ballarat. Her Majesty's Theatre and the Mechanics' Institute have been utterly transformed by major projects of renovation and refurbishment extensively supported by the Foundation. These venues are integral to the cultural and economic life of the city. The Ballarat Mechanics' Institute, with its charter to be a place where ordinary citizens can meet in an intellectually stimulating environment, would undoubtedly have been dear to Hugh Williamson himself. The Foundation has helped to save the building from a slow death. Her Majesty's Theatre has been part of the cultural life of Ballarat since it first opened its doors in 1875. Hosting a diverse range of professional and amateur performances, it is the home of the Royal South Street Society and its famous and venerable Competitions. The Royal South Street Society was specifically named by Williamson as an object of consideration by the Trustees of his Foundation. It seems Williamson was particularly interested in the Brass Band competitions and indeed this particular aspect of performance has been a regular beneficiary of funding.
The Williamson Foundation is not only a supporter of the arts, it has supported projects in education, health and community wellbeing across the Goldfields region. The impact of this support is clearly seen in Clunes, a fascinating and picturesque old gold mining town 30 kilometres north of Ballarat. While much of this regeneration can be attributed to the dynamism and flair of people from within that community, it is no surprise to discover that the Hugh Williamson Foundation has been involved from the very beginning of this period of renaissance.
Working in a regional centre can have its tough moments and there is rarely enough funding to do all the things that one wants to do. One often gets told that compared to roads, drains and rubbish, one's work is not vital or even worthwhile. That was not the thinking of Hugh Williamson and it certainly has never been the philosophy of his Trustees. The work they have done within this community has been transformative in the most wonderful way and it has been my great pleasure and privilege to have worked with such urbane and intelligent individuals.
Director, Art Gallery of Ballarat