Q&A with Marguerite Brown, the PCA’s new General Manager

‘For me, handling prints directly and liaising with the people that created them allowed me to engage with art in a real world, professional context as opposed to the purely academic environment that my university offered. From that point I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the field.’ 

How did you get interested in working with prints?

I was first introduced to the history and evolution of printmaking through my studies in art history at the University of Melbourne. However, I became totally fascinated by prints when I took up a position at Port Jackson Press Australia over twelve years ago. Here I had the pleasure of regularly working with a number of artists, who were always so generous in explaining both their technical approaches and the ideas that fuelled their printmaking practice. It was an excellent practical introduction to working with prints as physical objects from both a curatorial and administrative perspective, and I was struck by the seemingly endless ways artists would innovate within the constraints of their chosen medium to create original images. For me, handling prints directly and liaising with the people that created them allowed me to engage with art in a real world, professional context as opposed to the purely academic environment that my university offered. From that point I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the field.

Can you tell us about some of your professional highlights?

One of the most rewarding projects I have been involved with was an exhibition of prints by a group of Indigenous artists from the Injalak Arts and Crafts Association in Gunbalanya, Arnhem Land, in 2006. Artists such as Graham Badari, Wilfred Nawirridj and Bardayal ‘Lofty’ Nadjamerrek AO collaborated with Melbourne based printmaker Andrew Sinclair to realise a series of large format etchings, each bled to the edge of the sheet. These prints directly responded to the densely layered rock art found within sandstone escarpments of Injalak Hill, as artists painted with sugar-lift upon steel plates in situ at this ancient site of immense cultural importance. This exhibition was my first real curatorial project and the power and spirit bound up in those prints make it one of my most memorable.

More recently I was awarded the Harold Wright Scholarship to undertake a seven-month scholarship in the Prints and Drawings Department of the British Museum in 2014. This fantastic opportunity enabled me to carry out wide ranging research within the BM’s vast collection of historical and contemporary graphic art. Handling some of the many treasures within the collection, precious works by old masters and beyond, is one of the most professionally enriching experiences I have had to date, and will undoubtedly inform my future work in the field.

How would you describe printmaking in Australia and how do you think it compares with what is happening internationally?

During my time in London I found myself thinking a lot about contemporary printmaking in Australia and the depth, richness and diversity that characterise it. As a field there seems to me such a high calibre of artists, particularly in the middle of their careers, who are regularly producing and exhibiting work of an excellent standard, supported by a reasonably healthy market for such works. In London I assumed I would find a similar situation and was surprised when this was not so readily apparent. While there is a thriving print scene in Britain with a number of fantastic print studios and access facilities in London alone (and clearly many makers using them) I found as a whole, with a couple of notable exceptions such as Alan Cristea Gallery and Paragon Press, contemporary prints that weren’t made by internationally renowned artists did not receive much wall space in the commercial galleries of the capital. Having experienced first hand how important a healthy market for prints made by mid and early career artists is to supporting the ongoing production of their work, it made me consider how lucky we are in Australia to have the vibrant network of studios, galleries, collectors and, of course, practitioners that we do.

What are some of your favourite artworks?

A difficult one to answer but I think near the top of my list are prints by Hercules Segers  (c. 1589–c. 1638), a Dutch master whose innovative experimentations with sugar-lift etching processes and printing with colour were completely novel for the first half of the seventeenth century, and resulted in some truly remarkable images. I believe Rembrandt collected his works. I came across his prints during my scholarship at the British Museum, where I also became intrigued by an irrational and unsettling series known as the Scherzi di Fantasia by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696 – 1770). These strange etchings are filled with ritualistic and occult overtones and defy interpretation even after centuries of print scholarship since their creation. In the contemporary spectrum there are so many talented Australian and international artists making excellent work that my list of favourites is very long – but given my personal penchant toward romantic imagery, the brooding sensibilities expressed by Rick Amor and Sophia Szilagyi are hard to go past.

What is your vision for the PCA?

I am very excited to be joining the PCA in this its fiftieth Anniversary year – a pivotal time in the organisation’s history as we look to the next fifty years. From the Print Council’s formation at the NGV by iconic figures in Australian art history including Ursula Hoff, Grahame King and Udo Sellbach, to our present moment as an organisation whose strengths include a passionate and loyal membership base, the PCA Print Archive, and Imprint magazine – there is much to celebrate. Future directions will include increasing opportunities for diverse audiences to engage with the significant cultural resources the PCA Print and Imprint Archives offer. Another priority is continuing to develop the PCA as a dynamic hub that our members can go to for intelligent analysis and discussion surrounding contemporary printmaking in the fine art context; news on exhibitions, events and opportunities published via multiple platforms; and opportunities to engage with other members and institutions through specially planned projects to be delivered over the next fifty years. Watch this space!