In my own words: Dr Ted Gott

Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria

Dr Ted Gott
Ted Gott, Senior Curator of International Art

I had many inspiring mentors and lecturers at the University of Melbourne during my doctoral and undergrad years of study. I enrolled in study thinking I was going to be a French teacher. The first extraordinary lecturer in the department was Micheline Goroux who gave her lectures entirely in French. At first that was very daunting, and totally immersive. It was French in the deep end! I also enrolled in English and Fine Arts, and Classical Studies. As my undergrad developed I dropped away English and French, and took up Latin and Ancient Greek.

I had always loved classical art, and the National Gallery of Victoria. I started visiting the gallery at the age of seven and I used to haunt the classical sculpture section of the bookstore. It was natural for me to gravitate towards Classical Studies. In Art History there were wonderful, wonderful lecturers such as Margaret Manion, Margaret Riddle and Margaret Plant. The Classics Department was just bursting with wonderful, creative and inspiring people such as Graeme Clarke, George Gellie, Roger Scott, Rob Jackson, Peter Connor and Ann Galballay who then became my supervisor. At the end of my BA I had to choose whether to do Classics or Art History for my PhD. I chose Art History and worked on a French artist, Odilon Redon, a symbolist painter. Undertaking a PhD was solitary, but inspiring. It was a wonderful time to be at the University.

I love stories from history, and that is what attracts me about art history. Art tells visual stories, but art is also a door that opens up corridors, into pathways, into types of cultures that you might otherwise miss. That’s what happened for me with the gorilla (Dr Gott co-authored the acclaimed ‘Gorilla’, which recounts the history of man’s relationship to the noble beast). I discovered a sculpture by artist Emmanuel Fremiet, called Gorilla Carrying Off a Woman, and it was an image that became a flashpoint at a time when gorillas were at the centre of debates around Darwin. I was interested in how the gorilla became the phantom on which people projected their fears. It led to an exhibition with my colleague Kathryn Weir called Kiss of the Beast at the Queensland Art Gallery.

The common thread is this love that I have in finding strange stories that come out of looking at art, and then putting these stories together in a way, whether it be a lecture, or an article, or an exhibition, that I can share with other people. The joy of history and the joy of going back to other times, that not only fascinate us because of what we learn, but the way in which they inform attitudes today. Essentially human nature doesn’t change, unfortunately, and that is what makes history alive. The mistakes and discoveries made in the past have the same emotional resonance and excitement as if they were happening today because human emotion is identical.

The joy of history and the joy of going back to other times, that not only fascinate us because of what we learn, but the way in which they inform attitudes today.

The Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS exhibition that I put on in Canberra (at the National Gallery of Australia) in 1994 was incredibly brave of Betty Churcher to support. [This was] at a time when there was still so much fear associated with the disease. It was a difficult and painful show to do, because many of the artists were ill, and a number of them died just after the show opened. The gallery thought it might receive an audience of around 10,000 people and they were quite amazed when an audience of 140,000 people attended. What it turned out to be was an incredible touch point that gave everyone who had been touched by the disease a place to go and express their emotion, and to find a cathartic outlet to express what they had gone through. It became an extraordinary phenomenon.

Both institutions [The University and the NGV] are about scholarship and learning, they’re about teaching and reaching out to new audiences and publics. I think our partnership is a wonderful thing, using exhibitions that we’re putting on to bring together the Masterclass programmes that are taking audiences in a variety of directions. Whether it is Catherine the Great or the Museo del Prado show, I think the partnership of the Gallery and the University has enabled both institutions to think out of the box, to look at new ways of engaging with audiences, and bring to life the relevance and the wonder of history. Whether I’m giving a lecture here or at the University, it’s the same thing. I’m trying to share with people what knowledge I’ve been able to discover, through the privilege of this career.

There have been so many great people in my life. Rob Jackson facilitated my entry into Ormond College, through a classical fellowship to go there. Margaret Manion was unstinting in her support of me. Working here at the NGV, my first mentors were Sonia Dean and Irena Zdanowicz. When I started here as curator of prints and drawings, I knew nothing about being a curator and they took me under their wing. Betty Churcher was fantastic in enabling me to grow and supporting the AIDS exhibition. It’s really hard to underestimate how controversial a thing that was to do at the time. It still is the only exhibition held about AIDS at a national gallery anywhere in the world.

When I went through undergrad, there was no curatorship course. Now there are many curatorship courses, but very few positions when you graduate. There are many different ways to enter the museum profession, many valid ways. Curators are just one tiny part of a museum. To put on an exhibition like Degas, it involves almost all of the 300 museum staff. So whether you are in sponsorship, marketing, security, exhibition design, graphic design or publicity, there are so many different layers and different ways to enter the museum.

[Receiving the] Ordre des Arts et des Letters, I was very humbled by it. It has made me more determined than ever to share my love of French art and culture as widely as possible.

Faculty alumnus Dr Ted Gott is Senior Curator, International Art at the NGV and an Honorary Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication. He has previously held roles as Curator at the National Gallery of Australia and Senior Curator at the Heide Museum of Modern Arts. In June 2016 he was awarded a Knighthood from the French government for services to French culture, The Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters). This highly prestigious award recognises significant contributions to the field of arts or literature and the propagation of these fields. 

Dr Gott will deliver a Faculty of Arts Dean’s Lecture entitled Art and Detection: Investigating Louis Duffy, a forgotten British painter of the Second World War on Monday, 19 September 2016. Learn more and register for this lecture.