Dr. Margo Smith, Director of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia has been awarded the Order of Australia for her work promoting Aboriginal art and culture in the United States of America.
The first thing to recognize is that very few people who are not Australian citizens have been awarded the AM. Even fewer if you weed out peers and cricketeers. Other Americans with whom Margo shares the honor include Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and internationally beloved comedian Jerry Lewis. Pretty elite company, wouldn’t you say?
But considerations of citizenship aside, Margo richly deserves this honor. The Kluge-Ruhe not only contains one of the largest collections of Indigenous Australian art outside of Australia, it is the only museum totally dedicated to that art in the Americas. From its origins in the late 1990s as an outpost on the fringes of the University and south of the US capital of Washington, DC, the Kluge-Ruhe has became an international destination for enthusiasts, collectors, curators, and artists. It is true, as Rover Thomas taught us, that “roads cross” and Margo has made her humble quarters on Pantops Mountain, amidst the splendor of Virginia’s hills, a crossroads both physical and cultural.
One of the chief reasons for this success is Margo’s genuine Southern hospitality, something we prize greatly in this part of the country, and something I learned about her early on. We made our first trip to Charolottesville to visit the Collection in 2001, just a few years after in opened to the public, drawn by the promise of being able to consult the many printed volumes and research notes housed in the museum’s study center.
At the time I had a pretty insignificant collection of books about Aboriginal art of my own and just enough knowledge to understand how big the gaps in my education were. And although I was entranced by the variety of the books in the museum’s library—some of them well known to me from references in the literature, others completely surprising (exhibition catalogs from Japan!)—I didn’t spend much time perusing them on that trip. Instead we spend almost the entire day in conversation with Margo, hearing about her fieldwork among women on the Finke River, her friendship with Howard Morphy, and her travels throughout Australia. If Southerners are famous for their hospitality, they are equally renowned for their storytelling, and Margo’s gifts are gentle and impressive on both accounts.
Over the years since then we’ve returned to the Collection many, many times. We’ve made the acquaintance of most of our fellow American collectors there. We’ve sat down to dinner with anthropologists like Fred Myers, Francoise Dussart, Franca Tamisari and Kim Christen, not to mention Howard and Frances Morphy. (If you’re ever in a position to share a meal with anthropologists, be forewarned that they love to discuss other meals, usually consisting of exotic foods consumed in equally exotic locations: I suspect it’s a well-honed sub-genre of anthropological discourse.) Gallerists en route to or from the Kluge-Ruhe, Beverly Knight, Suzanne O’Connell, and Stéphane Jacob, among others, have detoured to visit us in North Carolina. Margo introduced us to Ron Ramsey, recently of the Newcastle Regional Art Gallery, when he was the cultural affairs attaché in Washington, and to Brian Kennedy shortly after his arrival in the US from the National Gallery of Australia. I even had the chance to sit down once with the eponymous Mr. John Kluge himself (below), and his wife Tussi.
Many of our first introductions to famous artists likewise came at Margo’s hands: Fiona Foley lectured, and presented us with an autographed copy of her monograph Solitaire. Rosella Namok, Fiona Omeenyo, Samantha Hobson, and Silas Hobson from Lockhart River shared their stories with us. We spend fascinating days with Terry Yumbulul from Elcho Island, learning the history of the Memorial that his father raised there in the 1950s, the subject of Ronald Berndt’s 1962 study, An Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land. Juno Gemes came to visit with her husband, the brilliant Australian poet Robert Adamson. Alick Tipoti performed traditional Torres Strait Islander dances on the lawn out behind the museum on a cloudless June day. We met up once at Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where Margo introduced me to Stephen Page and members of the Bangarra dance troupe.
In recent years, Margo has secured funding to bring artists over to the Kluge-Ruhe for residencies, and the town has turned out to meet Judy Watson, Reko Rennie, Vernon Ah Kee, Yhonnie Scarce, and Ricky Maynard. In just a few weeks, Tony Albert will be visiting to open an exhibition of his award-winning photographic series, Brothers. Margo has also organized traveling exhibitions from the collection since its inception, beginning with Dreaming in Color: Aboriginal Art from Balgo, which toured the world for the better part of a decade. Another early ambassadorial activity was the publication of Art from the Land: Dialogues with the Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal Art, which Margo co-edited with Howard Morphy in 1999. The list of contributors to that volume reads like a Who’s Who of Indigenous art scholarship: Luke Taylor, Howard Morphy, Djon Mundine, Wally Caruana, Christine Watson, Francoise Dussart, and Fred Myers.
Margo has kept up a strong program of exhibitions at the Museum itself, too numerous to catalog here, although a few deserve special mention: Virtuosity, curated by Fred Myers, was a standout, as was the solo show drawn from the documentary work of photographer Juno Gemes. Regular lectures for the local community and the Friends of the Kluge-Ruhe always draw good crowds. And then there have been truly special events. In 2005 Margo brought to Thomas Jefferson’s famed Rotunda at the University of Virginia the symposium Media Matters: Representations of the Social in Aboriginal Australia at which scholars from around the world to discuss painting, photography, film, dance, and radio in an Indigenous Australian context. The panel discussion Sacred or Profane? The Australian Government’s Intervention in Aboriginal Communities that Margo sponsored in 2007 opened many American eyes to the abuses of the Howard government and the so-called Northern Territory Emergency Response..
In 2006, Margo and Britta Konau, then a curator at Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, organized Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters, an exhibition of over seventy paintings by thirty-three artists drawn from public and private galleries and collections in the United States and Australia. The show was an enormous success and traveled on to the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College after closing at NMWA.
In May and June of 2007, I traveled with Margo through twenty-four Aboriginal communities in South Australia, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia on a tour organized by Austrade. Everywhere we went, coordinators and artists alike greeted Margo warmly. I marveled at the ease with which she struck up conversations at each stop, but one encounter stood out above all others. When we reached Bula Bula Arts in Ramingining, grand master Philip Gudthaykudthay was waiting to present Margo with a large canvas that she had earlier commissioned for the Kluge-Ruhe’s collection. Margo asked him to explain the design, and Philip, whose English was extremely limited, borrowed a pen from Margo and proceeded to make an impromptu sketch on a sheet of notebook paper as he spoke. When he finished, he rolled up the canvas and handed both the painting and the one-of-a-kind ink drawing to her.
I hope these selected highlights of over a decade’s worth of visits with Margo—and there are many more stories I could tell, of dinners, symposia, exhibitions, and conversations—serve to demonstrate the depth of Margo’s commitment to Aboriginal art, her knowledge of its practitioners and their lives, and her genuine love of the culture. In twenty years of work at the Kluge-Ruhe and beyond, Margo has never put herself at center stage, but has rather allowed the art and the artists to shine and to speak for themselves. She has always striven to create an understanding of the vitality and the importance of this art.
And so I write today not simply to congratulate Margo on this well-deserved honor, but to offer my personal thanks to her for enriching my understanding of Aboriginal art, for offering me countless opportunities to learn and appreciate, for good meals and good conversations and good advice. In truth, all of us who love this art are indebted to Margo Smith, AM.