To see the Degas pastel at Mildura Gallery a while ago you either took an ancient DC3 from Essendon Airport, or spent a very long time on the train, or hoped your leaky radiator would last beyond Ouyen in the heat. Even then, it was worth the trouble.
Now, it’s just a comfortable drift up the Calder, with side excursions to Swan Hill, Benalla and Shepparton galleries on the way back.
It’s important that these museums should not be seen as merely the remote outposts of an NGV headquarters, a slavish reflection of some curatorial received wisdom from on high.
But it seems that their independence, robust rural flavour and local history are being properly nurtured: for example, by exploiting the important gold-rush social background of Bendigo, Ballarat and Castlemaine.
Time was when deserted country galleries here or in Europe showed the stuff that had gone out of fashion: big green landscape-with-duck; forlorn academic leftovers; sentimental anecdotes, grim Victorian portraits.
None of these places could be written off as aesthetic backwaters, since many of the works would certainly become modish before long.
It was also a sobering reminder that the confident choices of today can have their own time in limbo tomorrow.
In some French country galleries, you can find some grand Australian paintings, bought when the painters were neglected here: Rupert Bunny, Ethel Carrick, Phillips Fox, John Russell.
We don’t yet have galleries that celebrate the birthplace or workplace of heroic names: Monet at Giverny, Lautrec at Albi, Chagall and Matisse at Nice. So there’s no Boyd museum at Murrumbeena, no Brack museum in Surrey Hills.
But happily, the Victorian regional art scene now is vital and professional, with a healthy eye on contemporary action, and well connected with local communities. You can get a different, more intimate experience of art through a provincial museum than you might have while being hustled through the city blockbuster shows.
In the past, with less generous government largesse available, regional galleries attracted new work through prizes. You get the money; they get your picture. Geelong had a Corio whisky prize, Mildura a triennial sculpture prize, Ballarat the Crouch prize; Shepparton and Swan Hill too. Bendigo, Geelong and Ballarat still offer prizes.
For some critics, and many artists, the prize system was and is still an odd form of patronage, since any one of a dozen works might be of equal merit, each possibly aiming at a different artistic winning post; but, after all, even offering each competitor a similar reward involves a selective invitation at first, and that’s the prerogative of judges.
Ballarat has the oldest regional museum in Australia, though with the recent extensions to Bendigo, it may not still be the biggest. But it’s one of the most beautiful. High ceilings, wonderful light, imposing staircase, historical gravitas combined with the here and now.
In short, a typical high-Victorian Heritage affair with a quasi-Renaissance façade, purpose-built at a time when its most cultivated citizens found it unthinkable that a thriving country town should be without an art gallery.
Various extensions and renovations have made its spaces more flexible: programs for the young, cultivation of local talent, shows like the IKON display a few months ago that would have looked wonderful in any European gallery and drew big crowds here and visitors from abroad.
Today, it’s the quality and balance of the permanent collections that impress. Not just good, but great examples of work, beginning with a famous von Guerard painting of Ballarat as a tent town in the 1850s, but especially from the 1960s and 70s; some rare medieval manuscripts and if you need reminding about those early troubles on the gold field, the original Eureka flag, which has been loaned to the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka nearby.
In October and November, Ballarat becomes the only Victorian venue for the Archibald prize this year.
Geelong Gallery, only marginally younger than Ballarat, also has a classical façade that proclaims its civic confidence in the transformative power of art.
For a winter special exhibition (until August) it has put together an historic group of works that first came together when the present building was opened 100 years ago.
Splendidly restored to its original condition for its current exposure is a painting by an artist born in Geelong, James Peele, whose reputation rests on his views of the wilder moods of nature, in this case of New Zealand.
There’s a von Guerard painting of what Geelong must have looked like in the 1850s, presented by Alfred Felton, the celebrated patron without whom the NGV itself could never have acquired many of its masterpieces.
Elsewhere in the gallery, and as you would expect from a major provincial centre, you find a representative selection of new and older. A complex and key work in the collection is John Brack’s late work The Hunt, from 1988.
Earlier, a stalwart British painter, once described unfairly as a good unsentimental painter, Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947), has a work that reflects much the same vivid French influence as affected Australians Fox and Bunny.
Bendigo Gallery has embraced the most confronting of contemporary themes even as its roots in its golden past are solidly entrenched in the collection’s rich colonial holdings.
Beginning as an army orderly room in the 19th century, it has gone through many redevelopments, the most recent being a massive new exhibition wing, an underground storage facility and the sort of attractive modern aspect that puts it in the top rank of Australia’s most popular regional galleries.
It evidently aims to redress a gender imbalance in the history of Australian art, which has been lamentably late in paying attention to artists such as Bessie Davidson, Agnes Goodsir and Mary Cecil Allen.
This is also apparent in the strong representation of contemporary women artists here: Patricia Piccinini, Jenny Watson, Tracy Moffatt and Louise Forthun, for example.
The Piccinini family sculpture, part humanoid, part mutant animal, suggestive of some weird genetic experiment gone wrong, is made somehow endearing because of a strong feeling of maternal connection between the mother and the offspring.
Endearing for some, no doubt repulsive for others; but the gallery thinks so highly of this artist that in summer this year another important Piccinini will be on loan to Bendigo from the Australian National Gallery.
Other regional galleries
Several other regional galleries are changing. Benalla and Castlemaine both have new young directors, who may or may not take their cue from the more successful bigger regionals. Hamilton Gallery, famous for its collection of ceramics, Paul Sandby watercolours and an impressive bronze Buddha, lacks a director just now; so does the Warrnambool Gallery.
Since a comprehensive gallery crawl around Victoria should of course include Horsham, the Latrobe gallery, Sale and Wangaratta, I’d check the radiator.