The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection
A World Class Art Collection at UVA
The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection sits high on a Charlottesville hilltop once owned by Thomas Jefferson. It also happens to sit at the forefront of a movement that is sweeping the contemporary art world, and placing Aboriginal art in its rightful place among the world’s most innovative art movements.
The Kluge-Ruhe Collection features over 1,800 objects, including 1,600 donated to the University by the late John W. Kluge in 1998, and 200 acquired since that gift. It is one of only two museums in the world dedicated to Indigenous Australian art and the pre-eminent collection outside of Australia.
Perth-born art historian and newly-appointed Curator of Indigenous Arts of Australia, Henry F. Skerritt, puts Kluge-Ruhe in context in the following way: “One way to think about Kluge-Ruhe is that it is the most significant collection of Aboriginal art outside of Australia,” he said, “and that is true. We say it is the only institution for the study of Aboriginal art in America. That is true too. But really, Kluge-Ruhe is one of the most significant collections of contemporary art in the world.”
That designation is particularly important today, according to Skerritt. “We stand at a moment of global change in contemporary art. For the first time in history, contemporary art is truly an art of the world. That is why when Okwui Enwezor curated the Venice Biennale in 2015, he put Emily Kame Kngwarreye right at the center. Kngwarreye is represented at Kluge-Ruhe by seven works. What we have here are not works of regional significance, they are works of global significance to the nature of contemporary art today. The problem in America, in Europe, and to a lesser extent in Australia, is that we are still grappling with thinking about contemporary art in terms of ‘The West and the Rest.’”
Modern and contemporary works of art from the Kluge-Ruhe Collection are on display at the museum and at The Fralin Museum of Art, and are regularly loaned to leading museums around the world. The pieces are important not only for their high aesthetic value but also, for their contemporary cultural significance as powerful statements by the proud and talented artists who make them. “These artists sat down with a highly conceptual, political, and cross-cultural intention,” Skerritt said. “They sat down to show the world the power, beauty, and persistence of their culture.”
One of the challenges of showcasing this kind of art, Skerritt said, is helping the public get over hurdles caused by the fear of the unknown. “Some people get very afraid of Aboriginal art. The truth is that these artists are communicating through these works; they are trying to get a message across by using aesthetics and design and shimmering brilliance. You just have to approach them with an open heart.”
Kluge-Ruhe Director, Margo Smith, has been championing this approach and this art since she began working with John Kluge’s private collection of Aboriginal art in 1995. As a graduate student in Anthropology at UVA, she undertook fieldwork in Australia in the early 1990s and was brought on as a curator of Kluge’s collection, later joining the faculty after he donated his collection to the University. She has had a front row seat to the international ascent of Aboriginal art, and has played a key role in building the cultural bridge between Australia and the United States that continues to pay dividends for artists and art lovers in both nations. Just how big a role she has played was highlighted last year when Smith was named a Member of the Order of Australia, the country’s highest honorary designation.
One of the ways that Smith and Kluge-Ruhe have built these bridges is by creating opportunities for artists to travel to Charlottesville to share their art and their experiences with people across Grounds and throughout the wider Charlottesville community. “It is one thing for us to explain paintings to people,” Smith said, “but we can really only give a cursory understanding of them. Our artist residencies provide an opportunity for students and community members to engage with artists and hear about the cultural and personal knowledge and experience behind their work.”
The multi-faceted nature of these residencies and their impact across Grounds was evident last fall when Yolngu artist Djambawa Marawili AM came to Kluge-Ruhe for a residency sponsored by Australia Council for the Arts. The acclaimed Yolngu painter, sculptor, and printmaker from Arnhem Land is the principal ceremonial leader of the Madarrpa clan and has played an important role in assisting with relations between non-Aboriginal and Yolngu people. He is also a leading advocate for his people’s sea rights and led a successful 2008 campaign for federal recognition of those rights. During his residency here, the artist spoke to Professor John Moore’s Oceans Law and Policy class at the University of Virginia Law School in a session that concluded with Marawili sharing another aspect of his culture, the singing of ancestral songs. Marawili’s residency also included class visits in the departments of Studio Art, Anthropology and Environmental Sciences.
“Kluge-Ruhe is in a great position at the University of Virginia,” Skerritt said, “where we can combine world class academic scholars with non-traditional scholars, including elders and deeply knowledgeable artists and Indigenous people who have an extraordinary body of knowledge to offer the academic experience here. It makes the UVA program unique in the world and shows that Kluge-Ruhe can give students experiences they cannot get anywhere else in the United States.”
The residencies are one of many ways that Kluge-Ruhe brings Indigenous talent to highlight the cultural meaning and international appeal of Aboriginal art. Every other year, Kluge-Ruhe hosts an Indigenous Curatorial Fellow sponsored by the National Gallery of Australia and last summer hosted seven Indigenous Australian curators for a roundtable with staff.
The museum’s outreach is hardly limited to visual art. Each year they also showcase the work of Indigenous dancers, musicians, fashion designers, actors, scholars, and filmmakers – including working with the Virginia Film Festival to share the voices of Aboriginal filmmakers. “We are always on the lookout for what people might have to share outside of the visual arts that would interest students and expose them to something they might not otherwise experience,” Smith said.
Exposing Americans to something new continues to be a key part of Kluge-Ruhe’s mission, especially as Aboriginal art and culture find their way into our daily lives, whether we realize it or not. “A few years ago I picked up a Lowe’s catalog,” Smith said, “and there was an Aboriginal painting above whatever it was they were trying to sell. People didn’t even know what they were seeing. We want people to recognize Aboriginal art like they would recognize any other genre of art when they walk into a museum and to appreciate and understand the art form and the cultures from which it comes.”
This work on the home front is coupled with an increasingly important global effort. “I really like the idea that every art is changing,” Skerritt said, “and that all of those changes reflect the increasingly globalized and interconnected world we live in. Kluge-Ruhe plays a leading role in these changes, and that makes this a very exciting place to be.”