News / Arts

‘Nothing beats the real thing’: gallery gets set for a blockbuster 2022

Moreland Summer Show closes two years of interruption at Counihan Gallery

Counihan Gallery curator Victor Griss with part of the Moreland Summer Show exhibition.

Mark Phillips
Friday, December 3, 2021

AFTER it was forced to close its doors for most of the past two years, the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick is preparing for a packed calendar of shows in 2022, including an exhibition featuring works by its namesake. 

COVID-19 has played havoc with the Sydney Road gallery’s program since March last year.  

It reopened on November 13 after Melbourne came out of lockdown with the popular annual Moreland Summer Series of local artists.

That exhibition will be the last for 2021 before the gallery opens again in February and curator Victor Griss is hoping there will be no more interruptions with at least a dozen exhibitions scheduled for 2022. 

“It was a great relief to be able to reopen,” he said. 

“I was so happy to be able to come back and it felt like dipping your elbow into the water before we started in 2022.  

“We’ve got a full year ahead all booked up.” 

Since 1999, the Counihan Gallery has housed the City of Moreland’s own art collection of more than 350 pieces and has showcased many of the best contemporary visual artists in Australia. Reflecting its namesake, the radical artist and activist Noel Counihan, it focuses on social justice and political themes. 

Although he only lived for a short while in Brunswick, Counihan’s activism is deeply embedded in the area and family members reside locally.

As a young man during the Great Depression in 1933, Counihan delivered a famous speech from inside an elevator cage on the back of a cart on the corner of Sydney Road and Phoenix Street which came to represent a significant moment in the history of free speech in Australia.

The episode has become part of local folklore. Counihan spent several nights in prison but was eventually released on a technicality after intervention by his father, who used connections in the police to free his son. 

“He was a member of the Communist Party and there is a phase of his career that was to do with Social Realism and shining a light on poverty and injustice through his art,” Mr Griss said. 

“That spirit is very much what the gallery is about, along with Moreland’s progressive spirit, and exhibitions here tend to focus on social, political and also environment themes.”

The municipal art collection owns several Counihan pieces and the major prize in the Moreland Summer Show carries his name. 

Mr Griss is very excited about a major retrospective of Counihan’s work that will be shown at the gallery in July.

The exhibition will feature the unveiling of the City of Moreland’s latest acquisition, a study from Counihan’s 1954 series of paintings of scenes in State Parliament. 

“It’s a significant work by Noel from a significant period,” Mr Griss said.

“We were very lucky to be given the first option on the work by a private collector who had it in their family since 1954.” 

Some of the works on display for the Moreland Summer Show.

The gallery’s current exhibition features 74 works by local artists who entered the Moreland Summer Show. 

First run in 2012, the summer show is one of the most popular on the gallery’s calendar. Each year, artists who live or work in Moreland are asked to submit works in any visual medium that relate to a specific theme; in 2021 it was History and Heritage.

The main prize is the $3000 Noel Counihan Commemorative Art Award, which was presented to video artist Sevim Dogan Ozkan for her work ‘My Mother Tells Me’, ‘ described as “a poetic exploration of memory and the way we communicate our lived experiences to the generations that follow us”.

There are also Peer’s Choice and a People’s Choice awards. Visitors can vote for the latter through a QR code on display at the gallery. 

With another exhibition called Traces and Memories running concurrently, the summer show had to be crammed into two of the gallery’s three rooms, rather than the full space. Mr Griss said this was still far better than last year, when the show had to be online only. 

“During COVID, we created a virtual gallery and had a few shows online. It was really helpful through COVID because people felt really starved for culture and it’s been a useful tool, but nothing beats standing in front of the real thing. 

“It’s actually been quite overwhelming, some of the feedback we’ve had [since reopening]. We have regulars and you realise how meaningful the space is to people who live locally, some who rely on the gallery as a form of connection and don’t have a lot of family and depend on services like the gallery and the library for interaction.” 

The COVID-related interruptions in 2020 and 2021 have meant the gallery has not realised the full potential of its newest space which has windows onto Sydney Road. 

In a typical year, the gallery has about 8000 visitors, but Mr Griss said in the short time it had been open, the new space had attracted increased foot traffic to the gallery due to its visibility from the street.