Interest in fine arts blossomed in the 1930s in parallel with a renewed interest outside in the wider society enthusiastically encouraged by the proprietor of the Melbourne Herald, Sir Keith Murdoch. The connection was made explicit when the newspaper endowed the first chair of Fine Arts in Australia taken up by J.T.(Joe) Burke in 1946. His role was not simply to develop a teaching department, but to work to widen the opportunities to experience the fine arts both within the University and in the wider community.
The University had an outstanding collection of Australian paintings (housed in a gallery in Union House) provided by the Melbourne doctor Samuel A Ewing.
The rest of the University’s collection was scattered around the faculties until 1966 when the Vice-Principal, R.D. Marginson in collaboration with Professor Burke established the Works of Art Committee which used a trust fund to begin a modest program of acquisitions as well as locating and cataloguing the existing collection.
A curator was appointed in 1968 and a catalogue prepared by 1971. A program of exhibitions was begun in unallocated space in the Medley building and when Physics moved to its new building part of Old Physics was refurbished to house the University’s collection.
It opened in 1975 endowed with grants for exhibitions (and provision for an artist-in-residence in their ‘Fairy Hills’, Ivanhoe, property bequeathed to the University by Norman and May Macgeorge). Nearby, in the Union Building, the George Paton Gallery was flourishing and was a critical focus for innovative art events in Melbourne.
During 1997-8, the old Bacteriology building on Swanston Street was architecturally transformed into the Ian Potter Museum of Art and associated Ian Potter Art Conservation Centre. A centrepiece of the stairwell in the building is the Leckie window, designed and executed by M. Napier Waller for the old Wilson Hall in 1935, and salvaged from the blaze.