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In the archives with Ian Milliss


In the Archives with Ian Milliss

Last Friday we descended into the bowels of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Our mission? To dig up documents in an attempt to discover:

a). if Ian really did propose an exhibition about Yeomans at AGNSW in the mid 1970s (ie, we’d like to know that he’s not hallucinating about all this history);
b). that the AGNSW did actually consider the show, and subsequently refused to exhibit it;
c). what possible reasons they might have given for not going ahead with the show.

To bring readers who are not familiar with our story so far up to speed:
…according to Ian, early in 1975 he was negotiating with various luminaries at the art gallery (including Daniel Thomas) with the idea of putting on an exhibition about the work of Percy Alfred Yeomans, the great Aussie agricultural inventor. As Ian tells it, the show was all the go and then was nixed by the trustees of the gallery, never to see the light of day. So it was this thread of events that we were hunting for…

At the gallery, Ian explained what we wanted to the nice lady behind the desk. She disappeared, and returned shortly after with this gorgeous dusty tome:

In the Archives with Ian Milliss

It’s the minutes book for meetings of the board of trustees, Jan-Dec 1975.*

Man it’s a gorgeous thing. I’d love to be able to display it, as an object, at the exhibition we’ll be having later on this year. The pages are thick and crinkled. After each meeting, pages of minutes are typed up, photcopied and glued in. So the book has a really fat feel about it, and the pages crackle as you turn ’em.

Anyway, here’s what we found, huddled around the minutebook in the study cubicle: Ian’s original project proposal!

So, he wasn’t hallucinating. I have transcribed the minute from the book here (liberally correcting the many spelling mistakes of the obviously overworked typist):

Proposal No. 1
P.A. Yeomans – “Keyline”
Exhibition proposed by Ian Milliss. Gallery Organizer, Frances McCarthy.
From Duchamp onwards artists have increasingly questioned the concept of art as a “precious object”, and have concerned themselves with breaking down the barriers between art, life and nature.
From the late sixties one of the main movements has been ‘ecology’ art, so called because it is concerned with the landscape and environment. It is art removed from the context of museums, that recognizes that almost anyone can be an artist in the way of his work, in the area of his interests, in the manner that he views the world.

P.A. Yeomans is regarded as an “artist” who has contributed more to Australia than any “recognised” artist. Yeomans might never have attached the title “artist” to himself, yet much farming activity – tree-planting, dam building – does have a consciously aesthetic motivation, and farmers are always willing, perhaps shyly, to admit it. Yeoman’s philosophy of land development and his achievements in the agricultural field make him a man of national and international significance.

Yeomans’ Keyline system of irrigation is “land sculpture” on a large scale, though practical in its end result, it is art that makes the work of American artists such as Smithson and Serra pale in comparison.

The exhibition will comprise: –

(a) Photographs, maps, diagrams, explanatory notes.
(b) Videotapes.
(c) Implements and equipment.
(Publication “The Challenge of Landscape” by P.A. Yeomans tabled).

…and here’s an image from the book itself:

In the Archives with Ian Milliss - Ians Project Proposal in 1975

Interesting things to note from this proposal:

1). Ian’s use of language (straightforward, manifesto-like) hasn’t changed much at all over the last 35 years.
2). Nor has Ian’s key idea changed much, that he’s always banging on about: that anyone can be an artist; it’s all about how you approach what you do in life, and what kind of contribution you make to society. Not only practically, but also aesthetically.
3). And this is possibly the biggest discovery for me: – the artist under whose name this exhibition was put forward was not “Ian Milliss”, but P.A. Yeomans. Ian (alongside Frances McCarthy) was mooted, rather humbly, as the exhibition’s “organiser” (more evidence of this is on this page of the minutes).

As for what the trustees made of all this… well, it’s a pretty brief dismissal, I’m sad to say. All they could say was this:

RESOLVED by majority that P.A. Yeomans "Keyline" be not accepted as project number (1) for 1976.

In the Archives with Ian Milliss - RESOLVED not to accept Yeomans project

Note – the resolution to not accept the project was “by majority”, not “unanimously”. Who disagreed? And what did they say?

I’ll leave Ian to speculate on this (and some of the other juicy tidbits we gleaned from the minute books…)

– – –

*According to the intermaweb, a trustee is “an individual person or member of a board given control or powers of administration of property in trust with a legal obligation to administer it solely for the purposes specified”.

The AGNSW lists its current trustees here.

2 responses to “In the archives with Ian Milliss”

  1. In the archives with Lucas

    […] are turning out to be fun. Lucas is good company especially because he is uncommonly polite – his suggestion that I might be “hallucinating” when anyone else would have said “bullshitting” is an illustration of his politeness […]

  2. The Culture in Agriculture

    […] like Yeomans could be regarded as an artist. So absurd in fact that the Art Gallery of NSW Trustees intervened to cancel the exhibition on the basis that it wasn’t […]

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