Justin Art House Museum

Justin Art House Museum


3 Lumley Court, Prahran

Reviewed by Robert Nelson | TheAge

The concept of a house museum is relatively new. There are plenty of precedents where families invited guests to peruse their collections – like the Medici in Florence or the Reeds at Heide – and there are many houses that become public through a bequest, such as the Frick Museum in Manhattan.

A house museum is different. It means a living household that invites the general public into the domestic domain, usually in the company of the owners. You get to see not just specimens of art but what the collectors have done with them and how they talk about them.

Melbourne already has the Lyon Housemuseum in Kew and a fresh arrival is the Justin Art House Museum in Prahran. Symbolically enough, the building adapts an undistinguished triple-storey suburban block of flats and gives it a smart grey cloak with a hood in angular cladding to spearhead the corner.

The interior is literally electrified , with interactive lighting on the staircase created by Ilan El and strong colour marking out the spaces. Even the lift interior is an immersive artwork of stripes by Paul Snell. The double garage has been cleared of its cars to accommodate a screen gallery, on this occasion showing a computergenerated video by Peter Daverington with a mutating cage that grows into architecture and landscape .

The current exhibition Divine abstraction contains some excellent pieces, from traditional work by Gabriella Possum Nungarrayi to a conceptual optical piece by Gina Jones; but the whole experience of seeing them is more than the sum of its parts. You’re conscious throughout that you’re looking at the enthusiasm of the collector.

The house museum is a hybrid art entity which may at first seem disorienting because it has neither the purity of a gallery nor the informality of a home. Getting over this discomfort is worthwhile and instructive.

Art is created by artists but it doesn’t stop with them. The person who buys the artwork is likely to have as much passion for the object as the creator; and in the ideal circumstance , the collector is moved to communicate the interest, to bring people in on the charm and create conversations around it. Both the collector and the viewer actively make meaning around the art.

The artwork, even when conceived with formalist purity, becomes the backdrop for another kind of artwork, a performance, where the host and the guest share perceptions and build an experience together which was never envisaged by the artist.

Bringing art to the domestic is far from a retreat but an exploration of the wider socialisation of art. In domestic circumstances, art naturally encourages what it was intended for, namely to attract contemplation and encourage conversations .

In the early part of the industrial revolution, domestic environments sometimes served a leading role in the inspiration of new work. Especially in musical history, certain soirees in Vienna mark the development of a forceful romantic style of great significance .

Musical friends met in one another’s apartments—usually somewhat palatial, like the Sonnleithners’ —for performances and conversation. These events, which attracted writers and painters, involved new compositions, most famously those of Franz Schubert, to whom they owe the name Schubertiade.

Maybe now it could be art’s turn in Melbourne. Unlike a gallery, the Justin Art House Museum is not a white cube that recedes in favour of the artworks within it, even though the architecture is sympathetic to the autonomy of each work. Rather, you join a tour, where Leah and Charles Justin personally lead discussions around the artistic concepts with the condiment of morning or afternoon coffee.

The works still have their own presence and are not compromised by the domesticity. The Penelope Davis, especially, seems to have extra monumentality, perhaps because the book-like forms seem to belong in a house.

Among the knottier questions of arts policy is how to increase participation , a theme tackled critically on Monday this week by Alasdair Foster in a public lecture at RMIT. One response is to understand participation not merely as making art but collecting it and *especially* talking about it. If we talk about art, we participate in art; and the development of house museums is a step in the right direction.

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