Elaine and Jim Wolfensohn Gift Exhibition

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The Glasshouse Regional Gallery hosts many exhibitions – the stunning, the unusual, the quirky, and the thought-provoking. But the Elaine and Jim Wolfensohn Gift is truly in a class of its own, as it could probably claim all of these adjectives – and more! The Travelling Exhibitions Team at the National Gallery of Australia tell us why this exhibition is so special …

Please tell us a bit about the National Gallery of Australia and its touring exhibitions …

The National Gallery contributes to the cultural enrichment of all Australians by providing access to the national collection in a wide variety of ways. We want to inspire people and enhance people’s experience of, and access to, the visual arts.  One of the ways we do this is through our touring exhibitions.

For more than 25 years, the Gallery has toured our exhibitions to audiences in remote, regional and metropolitan areas throughout Australia and internationally. The Travelling Exhibitions team at the NGA co-ordinates the touring of these exhibitions. Our role is varied and involves all parts of the exhibition touring process, from administrative details and organisation to the installation of the exhibition.

Some of these exhibitions have been on display at the National Gallery in Canberra, while other exhibitions are curated and designed from the collection specifically to travel across Australia.

We want to show the NGA’s collection, which belongs to all Australians, to as many different communities around Australia as we can. At the moment we have six different exhibitions touring Australia, including Lightmoves: contemporary Australian Video art; Bodywork: Australian jewellery from 1970-2012 and William Kentridge – Drawn From Africa.

What can you tell us about Jim and Elaine Wolfensohn and their connection to the exhibition that takes their name?

In addition to our larger exhibitions, an integral part of the Travelling Exhibitions programme is the Elaine and Jim Wolfensohn Gift.

In 1988 Jim Wolfensohn, an Australian-born lawyer, banker, and the President of the World Bank for 10 years, and Elaine Wolfensohn, Jim’s wife, an educator and arts patron, generously donated funds to the National Gallery of Australia to purchase museum-quality artworks for the enjoyment of people throughout Australia.

Elaine and Jim Wolfensohn are both strong advocates for the arts. Jim Wolfensohn’s passion for art stems from early experiences of handling beautiful objects, and he recognises that the impulse to touch is part of experiencing the full measure of an object. Remembering the delights of handling works of art when he was a boy, Jim Wolfensohn‘s wish for people to experience and handle art has materialised in the form of three suitcases and the 1888 Melbourne Cup that travel all over Australia as the Elaine and Jim Wolfensohn Gift.

Two suitcases – one yellow and one red – will travel to Port Macquarie for the exhibition. Please explain how the contents of both these suitcases are grouped/organised …

Beginning as a pair of suitcases, the red case entitled Myths and rituals is filled with works that draw upon beliefs and symbols from countries around the world – India, China, Africa and Australia. These exotic and curious works range from a ceremonial teapot to an Ankus (elephant goad) and are created out of a range of media, including bronze, wood and pearl shell.

Works featured in the yellow case, Form, space, design, present a mixture of concepts that show great humour and originality: Neil Roberts’ small bronze sculpture The space inside my fist captures just that – the invisible space between the fingers and palm when made into a fist – which remains as mere air or “a memory” when the hand is unfurled; Ian Howard’s darkly comedic The arms of the people highlight’s the artist’s concerns about war; other curious items include Mary Oliver’s music sticks and David Wallace’s bush toys of stockmen on horses from Santa Teresa near Alice Springs. Richard Byrnes bronze Digestion Haiku draws together the familiar forms of a tap, teeth, and fish bones, among others.


What was the process behind selecting the objects that travel in each suitcase?

The works in the Red and Yellow cases were chosen from the National Gallery of Australia’s collection. We sourced works appropriate to the theme of each of these suitcases which would interest and excite people and have the potential to generate discussion. It was also important that the works were strong and resilient and safe enough to be handled by a wide range of people, with different abilities, as well as being able to last through the years.

The two suitcases generated such widespread support from schools and community groups across Australia that, in 2003, the Wolfensohn Foundation generously provided an additional donation for the development of a third Blue suitcase kit. This suitcase, entitled Technology, showcases the works of six contemporary Australian artists and designers, who focus on function, innovative design and construction.

The works in this suitcase were commissioned specifically to travel with the Blue case. Technology includes Lionel Bawden’s lateral pencil constructions to create a multifaceted brain; Matthew Harding’s exquisitely carved, heart-shaped pill box; Cinnamon Lee’s playful palm light, Karl Millard’s animated metallic pepper grinder; Gilbert Riedelbauch’s elliptic bowl made using rapid prototyped composite nylon and Emily O’Brien’s anodised aluminium Hair Chairs. By employing a wealth of skills and ideas, the artists have created irresistible works of art that compel people to explore the objects, and share the experience with one another.

The Red and Yellow suitcases always travel together. The Blue case and the 1888 Melbourne Cup both tour independently.The 1888 Melbourne Cup trophy or “Centennial Cup” features three magnificent horses and was made to celebrate 100 years of British settlement in Australia.

This exhibition differs from most, in that it’s much more accessible to the public. How do you feel this exhibition is able to inspire/move people from all walks of life, regardless of age and ability?

The cases travel all around Australia and are used by a range of groups, including young children through to high school students, people in libraries and galleries, nursing homes, hospices and community centres, people with dementia and people with disabilities. The Elaine and Jim Wolfensohn Gift has been enjoyed by literally hundreds of thousands of children and adults throughout Australia.

Through this programme we are given a unique and exciting opportunity to handle original and contemporary works of art, as well as works from other cultures and times. People enjoy the way the objects spark story-telling, memories and discussion, allowing each person to experience the works in a powerful and intimate way.

The Elaine and Jim Wolfensohn Gift is a project that is at the heart of the Gallery’s Travelling Exhibitions programme. The Gallery is delighted to continue to provide such a distinctive art experience to the Australian community and is grateful for the generosity of Elaine and Jim Wolfensohn.

Interview by Jo Atkins.



View the Elaine and Jim Wolfensohn Gift at the Glasshouse Regional Gallery: Sept 11 to Oct 14. Set days/times are allocated for the artworks to be handled; please check with the Glasshouse for more info.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Elaine and Jim Wolfensohn Gift, please visit 
www.nga.gov.au/exhibitions/TravEx.cfm or if you would like to host the cases, please contact Camilla Greville in Travelling Exhibitions at the National Gallery of Australia on (02) 6240 6614.

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