Leigh Robb – PICA Curator and guest lecturer for Peggy Guggenheim: A Collection in Venice
Tell me a bit about your career path.
I studied art history at the University of Queensland. While I was a student, I volunteered and interned at the Queensland Art Gallery, first working as a research assistant for the curator of prints, drawings and photographs, and then getting involved with the website. I curated my first show in my third year at Metro Arts in Brisbane.
I started an internship at the Guggenheim museum straight after I graduated. From there I ran the internship program, then I came back as internship manager, and then I came back again after working in Milan. I ran the education program at the Guggenheim for two years, then went to London to do my masters at Courtauld.
I worked at Thomas Dane Gallery for four years. I was Associate Director by the time I’d left and had worked with some really amazing artists including Steve McQueen, Paul Pfeiffer, Michael Landy, Glenn Ligon – the Gallery represents over 18 international and British artists and so I worked with them on a lot of their exhibitions. I curated on the side while I was there, and got to a point where I wanted to be curating more directly, and I interacting with the public. I wanted to support my generation of artists.
Why is this collection so important?
For me, it’s like seeing old friends. I think I know those artworks better than I know any other piece. It’s quite incredible to have a relationship with paintings that’s personal and professional. It’s such an important exhibition, they’re textbook modern artworks so they were really key in terms of engaging in a really avant-garde time.
It’s incredibly rare for so many pieces to leave the collection at any one time, so to have thirty works from her collection leave the palace and come as far as Australia – it’s a big undertaking in terms of their conservation, their safety – to be able to see such iconic works so far from their home is such a privilege.
Any internship stories?
There’d always be occasions when we’d open the museum late on a Sunday evening for private tours. I remember taking Jude Law and Sienna Miller through the collection, and then they had cocktails on the roof. I met Bette Midler, Antony Hopkins – there were a lot of people who came through Venice because it’s an incredibly romantic city. My internship also gave me great exposure to some of the most important patrons of the arts.
What do you love the most about Peggy?
I really do love Peggy, her vision and the way she supported the art of her time. What I love about Art of this Century is that she commissioned Frederick Kiesler to design these really radical spaces that allowed you to interact with the art. You could move paintings 360° and move them back and forth. He created a really surreal space. He also created an abstract gallery where works were suspended on string structures and you could see the paintings from the front and the back. She did some really great, ambitious shows, she really lived it.
She helped so many artists get out of Europe during the second world war, which shifted the centre of the art world from Paris to New York. The Guggenheim museum is such a well loved space. People feel a personal connection to her story and to the works, and those parallel stories help people to understand really complex ideas. You get such a rich history of modern art from that collection alone.
What can we expect from your talks?
I’ll be giving an illustrated lecture this Sunday at 2pm concentrating on Art of This Century, then I’ll give the Friends a walk-through. In December I’ll give a guided tour, focussing on the work of Mondrian and Pollock, and Peggy’s relationship with each of them.
Why should people come to see the show?
To get that calibre of work and to see them in your own city is such a privilege. Their cultural value in the world is extraordinary, they are precious pieces. Nowhere else in Australia is getting this opportunity. Also, Phillip Rylands is coming from Venice to share some of his insight. He’s always said his first and only job is to run that museum, which he’s done since the 70s. He knew her, so he has that connection. As an Australian student, you may never get the chance to see works like these outside of textbooks. To be in the space with the pieces, to see how they’re using paint, to see how sculptors are thinking about space and volume, is really incredible.
For some more internship stories and gems of wisdom from Leigh, follow this link: