IF Tony Ellwood had not gone through a personal crisis during his first year as director of the Queensland Art Gallery, maybe he would still have chosen optimism as the theme of this summer’s exhibition of contemporary Australian art. This year, he had dangerous and delicate surgery to repair his skull. No doubt this played a part in his thinking about how art can express positive emotions — such as joy and hopefulness — as well as negative ones.
Queensland Art Gallery director Tony Ellwood

Queensland Art Gallery director Tony Ellwood wants to put uplifting art back on the agenda. Picture: David Sproule

The experience also seems to have given him the courage to overcome any doubts about choosing optimism as a theme, although he does recall feeling nervous about approaching his staff with the idea.

“I thought it would be easy to condemn the idea of optimism as just being about fun, all happy and waa-haa,” he says, voicing an approximation of the whipped-up frivolity that passes for a good time these days. “But when you look at it in the broader context of recent biennials and so on, we realised there was this easy tendency to select works about the devastation and destruction of the world, and to ignore the hope that exists.

“In the context of people’s own personal crises — and I did have one, certainly — you still can’t help thinking that there are things about the world that can be told in a different way. Let’s look at this other aspect of art that talks about love and hope, joyfulness, playfulness and optimism.”

Contemporary Australia: Optimism will open mid-November, the first in a three-year cycle of summer showcase exhibitions at QAG’s Gallery of Modern Art, alternating with the Asia-Pacific Triennial and an international blockbuster. Ellwood says he wanted to ease some of the pressure on his staff but still maintain momentum across the summer months, traditionally a quieter time for art galleries but boosted in Brisbane by the APT and by the Andy Warhol retrospective last summer.