Kiffy Rubbo: Curating the 70’s

· Thursday December 1, 2016

Kiffy Rubbo was a pioneering art curator during the 1970’s. She was in charge of the George Paton Gallery at the University of Melbourne and brought a lot of fresh ideas to the art and curating game that we now, apparently, take for granted.

DISCLAIMER: I didn’t do an art history degree.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: This book is v v good despite that.

The first part of this book features essays by people who knew and worked with Kiffy – a mix of artists, critics, and other curators. As I mentioned, I never studied this stuff, and so have little appreciation for many of the names and references, but I guess that’s why I wanted to tell everyone about the book – that this collection is so fascinating and entertaining you don’t need to be an art-aficionado to get really into it.

The second part is a collection of letters between Kiffy and her brother, Mike, that go for about 15 years until her death in 1980. These are illuminating in a heart-wrenching way. Kiffy took her own life after struggling with depression for years and you can watch it slowly happen through the correspondence. In the introduction to the book her daughter says: “As much as she my mum was passionate, she was sad. As much as she loved deeply, she could not be. Some people, I believe, are not for this world. It’s too difficult, too brittle, too hard.”

If you’re any kind of creative, or you’re interested in mental health, or women, or the 70’s, then you’ll like this book. If you don’t identify with any of the aforementioned themes then you’ll have to forgive me for promptly forgetting your name if we ever meet.

Kiffy Rubbo’s obituary in The Age (Monday 10 November, 1980) read: “The particular quality marking her enterprises was a capacity to bring people together, observe them and see possibilities in creative situations.” Her awesome legacy includes feminist enterprises like the Women's Art Movement and the Women's Art Register, housed in the gallery she managed. She championed contemporary art from Papua New Guinea that was mostly considered to be “folksy” or just-kind-of-an-interesting-thing but definitely not “art”. She had kids and still kicked ass at her job.

I think this book is one of those examples where the exploration of a single life has the ability to illuminate the social and political context in which it existed. For example, I didn’t fully understand the impact of Gough Whitlam’s government on the arts. The book does a really good job of showing how the art world was an alternative to the conservative political ideas of the time. Honestly, it gives me faith in the power of art (and I mean all kinds of art, not just visual) to unite people in these weird right-wing times. Get all up in this book. You won’t regret it.