Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Message for Marcel

Tom Robert's Mosman's Bay, the painting at the centre of the Hinton Bequest case.

Marcel, I have begun putting up the story of the Hinton case. You will find it here. It will take me some time to write properly.

I got depressed as I went through the material.

My father used to joke that anything that had his name attached to it was bound to vanish. And indeed there was some truth in this. The block named after him at the University of New England burnt down, the part of the University Union bearing his name was demolished.

No one can halt the course of history. Yet it can be hard when you see past dreams tarnished by the brush of time.

When the Armidale Teacher's College was established in 1928 as the first non-metro tertiary institution, it was not just a 'a country college for country kids', it was the first building block in what was seen as the infrastructure required to support self-government for New England. This comes through clearly in David Drummond's emphasis that the College must be seen not as an Armidale institution, but as one for all the people of the North.

The progressive donation by Howard Hinton to the College from 1929 of 1100 paintings and 700 art books created a collection that matched those in many capital city galleries and is today worth over a $100 million. Probably a fair bit more than that.

Unlike galleries where you visit, these paintings were hung on the College walls and were part of the daily life of students, many of whom had never seen a work of art.

Hinton was determined that his collection would not be broken up. He tied it up in such a way that when the vagaries of changing Commonwealth Government policy made the College a College of Advanced Education and then forced its merger with the University of New England, a merger that I opposed to the point of orchestrating opposition that blocked it for a period, control of the collection passed to the Armidale City Council.

By the time the New England Regional Art Museum was created in 1983 to hold the Hinton collection as well as the smaller Armidale City collection, the original dream was already badly faded.

Those creating NERAM did not promote the new venture as a gallery for all of the North, but as a Tablelands, venture. I thought then as I do now that this was a fundamental error, because it meant that NERAM was seen as essentially an Armidale thing.

This remains true, leaving the Armidale Council to try to support what is in fact a major national collection, including as it does now not only the Hinton and Armidale City collections, but also the Chaney Coventry collection.

Chaney was a New England grazier who fell in love with art and was to establish a major Sydney private gallery. I remember going to a showing in his Sydney motel room in 1967 where he had on display some of his latest purchases.

In the late 1970s after having given some works of art to Armidale, Coventry offered his collection on the understanding that an art museum would be built to house both his and Hinton's collections. Through a huge community effort and with assistance from government funding NERAM was opened in 1983.

The Chandler Coventry Collection was described by James Mollison, the former Director of the Australian National Gallery, as one of the most important private collections of contemporary Australian Art.

The collection currently has over 400 works of art and strongly reflects recent art movements.

The focus is on expressionist and abstractionist painters with some figurative artists and includes paintings by Ralph Balson, Peter Booth, Gunter Christmann, Janet Dawson, Elaine Haxton, Leah MacKinnon, Michael Taylor, Dick Watkins and Brett Whiteley.

So NERAM is home to two very different art collections, both of national significance. In addition, the museum also has the museum of printing dedicated to the printing industry and based on the Wimble collection.

Now the very existence of NERAM and these collections are under threat, a threat made worse by a botched attempt to sell a half share in Tom Robert's Mosman's Bay to the NSW Art Gallery, an attempt that has thrown a legal cloud over the Hinton collection itself.


I have still (28 July) not made any progress on the Hinton story. In the meantime, Marcel's comments have been helpful in clarifying my views.

As I said in a response, I do admire the clarity of English that some lawyers/barristers like Marcel can bring to bear upon a problem. I stand in awe.


marcelproust said...

I think that waiting for the re-establishment of "the" Teachers Training College (not, as Justice Young seems to think, "a" Teachers Training College) is a bit like waiting for the return of the Messiah.

Obviously, I'm not so big on New England particularism as you are, but I don't quite understand what you mean by saying that the "botched" attempt to sell the picture part-time to the NSW Gallery has caused the problem: do you think it would have been OK if the attempt was successful?

What this case shows is just how unhelpful the combination of a gadfly judge (who loves finding difficulties and exhibiting his learning) and trust law (which concentrates on maintaining the original purposes of the trust unless that can be shown to be impossible) is. Things are very unwieldy when a private-law (but, because cloaked with the charitable intent, also part-public) means of setting something up for perpetuity comes up against changes of circumstances which it cannot control, but it is possible to imagine a judge who could have taken a more constructive attitude than Justice Young has so far exhibited.

Jim Belshaw said...

No doubt you are right, Marcel. But as I see it, it is an issue with many facets.

The genesis of the case lay in the Gallery's continuing financial problems. The decision to sell the earlier paintings met local opposition from those wanting to keep the collection together, but finally went through on the grounds of necessity. So this time Council, now in control of the Gallery, met opposition that it found very hard to manage.

A number of those opposing the sale were involved in earlier attempts to protect and preserve Armidale assets, the Teachers College building itself, from externally imposed changes. So there is a history.

In all the local debate, however, there was little focus on the intent and circumstances of the original bequest. The broader history kind of got lost.

This seems to have carried through to the court case with its apparent lack of focus by Council on intent. The matter sems to have been presented simply as a the resolution of a financial problem in isolation from the past.

This is a nationally important collection in artistic terms. It is a significant historical symbol in the evolution of NSW education. And it has deep resonances in the history of New England itself.

Now I would have thought as a non-lawyer and given all this, that if you want to do something in apparent breach of the original trust deed - Mr Hinton and others including my grandfather were determined that the collection not be broken up -then you need to link your actions to the intent of the trust.

This is where loss of history becomes a real problem.. Those involved apparently either did not understand or present the past. And it would have been possible to present a case that the sale was consistent.

Now I am not a lawyer so my focus on the intent of the trust may not have legal validity. I would be interested in your views here. Certainly from a purely personal perspective, I am concerned at the number of examples I have seen in recent years where past intent has simply been swept aside to meet present exigencies.

I have to leave for work. I will add a few more comments tonight.

Jim Belshaw said...

Marcel, continuing very briefly.

If you look at what I was saying, the sale was botched at at least two levels.

Level one was the local one, the failure to manage the opposition. Level two was the legal one, the failure as I see it to properly address the trust deed. Both are linked to a failure to understand, to be sympathetic to, the history.

marcelproust said...


I agree that the sale was "botched" in the way that you have said.

So far as this involved "management" of disputing views, of course there is no manager god who sits above everything - management of disputing views is a shared responsibility for all people with those disputing views, especially so far as they presumably at some level share a desire to keep the collection viably in New England.

I'm still not sure if, given your allegiance to the original intentions of the donors, you think that, if not botched, the sale would have been a good thing.

I think the bottom line of Justice Young's judgment, leaving aside the sport he has allowed himself with the legal advisers (and he is famous or infamous for this), is that because of the viability (or rather, unviability) of carrying out the terms of the trust as originally envisaged, some modification of those terms will be necessary, because he has rejected the bandaid solution of selling off half the painting as being inconsistent with those terms.

As to my own view, I don't think it is the botched sale which has thrown a legal cloud over the Hinton collection: that cloud was definitely already there. The botched sale has failed to dispel that cloud, and along the way has exposed the legal difficulties under which the trust and the collection presently operate.

Jim Belshaw said...

Marcel, I do admire the clarity of your thought and the way that you are able to translate it into English. I was going to say that it comes of being a lawyer - Legal Eagle has the same capacity - but I have spent too much time dealing with lawyers and in advising law firms on management issues to believe this.

However, at the best of law the disciplines of the professional are a great aid to clarity.

All this is a long winded way of saying that you have captured my problem with great precision. If the judgement forces a viable outcome closer to the original intent then I would be happy. On the other hand, there is a very real risk of an outcome that might destroy the intent. In this event, I would be have been much happier if Justice Young had held his tongue.