This attractive exhibition should ensure the sustainability of the National School of Fine Arts

The governor looks at us from his photo and some small photographic portraits of Daniel Boyd. There is also Louisa Collins, the one and only woman to be hanged, whose execution in 1889 was so botched that she assured no other woman would suffer such a fate. Another famous figure hanged at Darlinghurst was Captain Moonlight, the so-called ‘gay bushranger’, celebrated as a queer icon in a work by Todd Fuller.

Governor John Read Scrapbook PagesCredit:Collection of the National School of Fine Arts

Other inmates fared better, including Henry Bertrand, “the demon dentist of Wynyard Square”, who murdered his mistress’s husband and narrowly escaped the gallows. Instead, Bertrand painted, sculpted, and made music, mentoring outlaw Frank Pearson (aka Captain Starlight), who would show considerable talent as a painter.

In addition to a bloody collection of whips, hangman’s ropes, irons and straitjackets, the show contains paintings by Bertrand and Captain Starlight, as well as a scrapbook full of art and other memorabilia, kept by John Cecil Reid, the governor of the prison. from 1861-88. Although he was forced to preside over a bottomless pit of misery, Reid seems to have been a human character who encouraged the artistic endeavors of the inmates. Famous cultural figures who have spent time behind bars in Darlinghurst include local bard Henry Lawson and journalist JF Archibald, whose legacy has spawned an obscure portrait award.

One of the most touching aspects of Captivate it is to see these first incursions into art which foreshadow the future of the site. It came full circle when NAS students began researching and doing assignments on the history of the prison and its inmates.

The rest of the exhibition, including a lively encyclopedic exhibit on the upper floor of the NAS gallery, tells the story of the art school, in all its ups and downs, in times of war, counter- culture and finally pandemic. We see how the courses evolved under the visionary leadership of teachers like Rayner Hoff (1894-1937) and cult figures like John Passmore and Godfrey Miller.

NAS students 1960, photographer unknown.  The students are Ann Thomson, Martin Sharp, Leonie Ferrier, Vivienne Binns (on bike) and Rose Vickers.

NAS students 1960, photographer unknown. The students are Ann Thomson, Martin Sharp, Leonie Ferrier, Vivienne Binns (on bike) and Rose Vickers.Credit:Collection of the National School of Fine Arts

NAS’s policy of always employing practicing artists has ensured that its teaching staff have become a who’s who of Australian art. The emphasis on drawing has retained a certain character, even at a time (like today) when contemporary art is plagued by all sorts of political and conceptual obsessions.

It is a pleasure to follow the bewildering variety of creative activities generated by the students and friendly staff. These range from the annual Artists’ Balls, with their extravagant designs for props and costumes, to a long list of theatrical productions, local and imported. Many well-known musicians originally studied to be artists at NAS, including all members of Mental as Anything. The O’Doherty brothers, Peter and Chris (aka Reg Mombassa), are still making music but are probably best known as artists these days.

Among the famous visitors to the campus, one of the most memorable was legendary Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, who created a series of pots in front of a large audience. A film of the event is screened in the Rayner Hoff Project Space.

It is inspiring to see how students, staff, friends and supporters have met the successive challenges of the school’s existence, including a disastrous restructuring in 1975, when the art classes were moved Offsite. The entire institution had to be virtually resurrected from the dead. In 1985 a new threat was averted through petitions, protests and public action, including the collaborative painting of a 40m canvas in the park opposite the Art Gallery of NSW.

There were huge cheers in 1996 when new Prime Minister Bob Carr granted the NAS independence. A rather different sentiment prevailed in 2006 when the Carr government began exploring options to merge the school with other institutions. In 2009, NAS seemed safe again, but in 2016 merger proposals were back on the table.

2016 National School of Fine Arts protest rally

2016 National School of Fine Arts protest rallyCredit:Deborah Beck

No institution of comparable importance should have to tolerate such see-saw attitudes on the part of the government in power. The health and independence of the NAS is an indicator of the value our politicians place on the arts, higher education, culture and heritage – and it has been a dismal performance. For nearly 50 years, the very survival of the school has demanded the most strenuous and sustained efforts of its defenders.

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For all his inconsistencies as Minister of the Arts, Don Harwin successfully fended off the vandals and got the NAS back on track, something he will always be fondly remembered for in Darlinghurst. As for his successors? Well, as the Smiths sang, referring to a “sweet and tender hooligan,” they’ll never do it again. Not until next time.

Captivate: Stories from the National School of Art and Darlinghurst Prison until October 30.

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Kayleen C. Rice