A Trip Down Memory Lane: Creme De La Cream

Published on 02 April 2019

Rockhampton Art Gallery

Rocky may be well known as a sure thing for a slap-up steak, but it is perhaps not a place many would immediately associate with a nationally significant art collection.

Thanks to an unlikely 1970s fundraising drive, led by a controversial mayor better known for being shot by his mistress, Rockhampton Art Gallery today houses works by renowned Australian artists including Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, John Brack and Margaret Olley.

It is a curious tale of seemingly constant contradictions: of a city perhaps traditionally better known for its humidity than the architectural beauty of its colonial riverfront; and for its collection of bull statues rather than its assemblage of modern art, which was created by a man many regarded as more of a barbarian than an art buff.

The driver behind this effort, and indeed behind most late-twentieth century public infrastructure development across Rockhampton, was none other than the redoubtable three-decades-presiding Mayor, from 1952 to 1982: Reginald (Rex) Byron Jarvis Pilbeam.

The embodiment of political incorrectness (but a product of the times), Pilbeam was a colourful character heralded as a ‘benign despot’ by his fans for his methods of transforming the dusty cow town into a modern regional city.

‘Yeah, he can be rude, crude and unattractive, but he’s the best thing that ever happened to Rockhampton,’ declared fellow Alderman Kevin Connors, chief steward at the Rockhampton Jockey Club in a 1977 National Times article.

Rex Pilbeam arrived in Rockhampton in 1949, was elected Mayor in 1952, and was shot by his lover in June 1953 when he tried to terminate their affair. The woman was charged with attempted murder, and a couple of months later the Police Court heard that she had described Pilbeam to investigating officers as ‘Poison for me... but oh, what sweet poison!’

The day after the trial, Pilbeam resigned as mayor and immediately announced his candidacy for re-election (effectively placing himself on trial by the community). The people spoke, and Pilbeam was returned to office.

The ultimate ‘man with a plan’, Rex Pilbeam was a true conviction politician, a visionary character who possessed a boundless energy and unfettered ambition for transforming Rockhampton into a progressive, multi-faceted municipality.

Post-war Rockhampton was a town of sluggish apathy and a place which appeared to deserve the profile bestowed on it by Anthony Trollope as a ‘city of sin, sweat and sorrow’.

Pilbeam masterfully demonstrated what one astute, relentless and ruthless personality could achieve - whether it was laying bitumen from kerb to kerb in every street in the city; guaranteeing reliable drinking water by building a barrage across the Fitzroy River; or converting the city to a fully-sewered system: in all undertakings Pilbeam personally begged, badgered and bullied to make these and a myriad other initiatives happen - and remarkably, without significant cost to the ratepayer.

While Pilbeam strove to improve Rockhampton’s economic infrastructure, he was not ignorant of the need to provide a cultural life and other recreational pursuits for the city’s citizens.

Pilbeam professed that, like Rome, cities need a beating cultural heart because that is what makes them attractive to people. ‘I’ve given my people bread and butter and a seat to put their bottoms on - now we’re in a position to go in for the higher things of life,’ he told New Idea in 1980.

Pilbeam’s hyper-sensitive nose for sniffing out a government subsidy honed in on a 1970s scheme by the Australia Council which involved pump-priming a stagnant art market through providing a 70 per cent subsidy to galleries and institutions toward the purchase of works by living Australian artists.

Through this Whitlam-led initiative, the Australia Council aimed to enable and engage regional communities, and to connect them with a national cultural identity that could be drawn on as part of their everyday social experience.

Despite the economic recession of 1975, Pilbeam persuaded 80 businesses and organisations each to donate a minimum of $2,000 towards his art-purchasing plans; and some $500,000 was swiftly raised (today, close to $2.7million) to enhance Rockhampton’s cultural amenities.

With considerable bravado, the Art Acquisition Committee - comprising Mayor Pilbeam, Bishop John Bayton, local architect Neil McKendry, and Gallery Director Don Taylor - cannily snapped up works at a fraction of what they are worth today, and thereby established a significant art collection within the space of a year.

One example is Fred Williams’ painting, Burning Tree at Upwey, which was bought for $6,000 and is now valued at more than $1 million. Rockhampton Art Gallery’s entire collection is today valued at more than $17 million.

Some of the first paintings acquired from 1976-77 are outstanding in the collection today. For example:

• Fred Williams, Burning tree at Upwey (1965)

• Arthur Boyd, Woman in a jinker (1976)

• Margaret Olley, Pots and objects

• Russell Drysdale, Outback postmistress and daughter (1976)

• John Brack, Portrait of Lyn Williams (1976)

• Jeffrey Smart, Fiumicino Car Park (1975)

With the support from the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, Gordon Darling Foundation, Regional Arts Development Fund, and Rockhampton Regional Council, Cream: four decades of Australian art commenced showing at Rockhampton Art Gallery on 15 February 2014 before launching, with thanks to an Australia Council Visions of Australia Touring Grant into a two-year tour of the Australia’s east coast.

Host venues included the McClelland Gallery + Sculpture Park, Langwarrin, VIC; Western Plains Cultural Centre, Dubbo, NSW, Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre, Murwillumbah, NSW; and five further venues all in Queensland: Caloundra Regional Gallery; Gladstone Regional Art Gallery and Museum; Artspace Mackay; and Cairns Regional Gallery.

Winton was scheduled to exhibit Cream as part of the tour’s returning leg but tragically the Waltzing Matilda Centre was largely destroyed in June of 2015.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there as a newly rebuilt $23 million dollar Waltzing Matilda Centre was reopened with a bang in April as the main event of Winton’s Way Out West Fest and fittingly, the Cream exhibition made a successful return to join in the celebration.

The Rockhampton Art Gallery of today continues to actively embody both Pilbeam’s and the Australia Council’s 1970s ambition to deliver a cultural dimension to the lives of those living in areas beyond metropolitan Australia.

So too the Rockhampton Regional Council, who continues to be bold and progressively leads the drive to make a dynamic difference through situating the Gallery as a catalyst in the regeneration of the Rockhampton CBD.

And this is a story in which we all have an important part to play, as Pilbeam’s poignantly pointed out in 1977:

‘I solemnly charge the future citizens of Rockhampton to maintain and advance this Gallery in years to come. This is the least we can expect of the citizens of tomorrow in return for the splendid contribution made by the citizens of today.’