John Kluge at his 95th birthday. © Tom Cogill 2009

Jeremy Eccles | 17.09.10

Author: Jeremy Eccles
News source: Research

It's quite strange when the one thing you know a man by doesn't get a mention in his obituary! That's happened repeatedly with the late John Kluge – known in Australia virtually only because of his magnificent Aboriginal art collection – now known as the Kluge/Ruhe, and housed at the University of Virginia. But the Washington Post (reprinted unimproved in the Sydney Morning Herald) and this well-informed online effort by Hawes Spencer ( both leave out the one thing that defined Kluge's Australian reputation.
He did, perhaps have greater claims to fame at home as the German child-migrant who died aged 95 as the 35th richest American, worth $6.5 billion despite great philanthropy; who got rich by selling TV stations to Rupert Murdoch; who saw the future for the mobile phone before most; who owned the Harlem Globetrotters; and helped the first Black Governor to get elected in Virginia. He also died on 7th September with a harp playing and a massage therapist soothing his body!
But it was his capacity to see something special in Aboriginal art when first confronted by it at the seminal Dreamings exhibition in New York in 1988 that linked him forever to Australia. Between then and 1997, he amassed more than 1600 Aboriginal artworks and pieces of material culture with the help of wise guides, and with the overriding principle that he was collecting art “that evokes a feeling that is pure and uninterrupted”.
Here's what Howard Morphy, Director of the Research School of Humanities & the Arts at Australian National University has to say on the Kluge-Ruhe website, “It is impossible to overestimate John Kluge’s contribution to increasing the global appreciation and understanding of Australian Aboriginal art. He built an exceptional collection of aesthetically powerful works and ensured they were documented to the highest standards. His support of research into Aboriginal art and his development of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia helped to lay the foundations for the future art history of Aboriginal art. He will be greatly missed by all who share his sense of the beauty and power of Aboriginal art.”
UVA's former president, John Casteen, confirms this view by saying: “I have come to see the Kluges as the most purposeful philanthropists I have known.”.
After Dreamings in '88, Kluge was in Australia the following January to find out what it was all about – visiting Alice Springs and Ramingining in Arnhemland - where he made his first commission of large barks, encouraged by Djon Mundine. He would also buy others' collections – especially Ed Ruhe's – who'd been buying barks as sacred art not as anthropology since 1965 – and another known as Papunya to Kiwirrkurra – early Western Desert art. Later he'd add parts of Ainslie Robert's, Margaret Carnegie's and Dorothy Bennett's collections.
In 1995, Kluge brought in Howard Morphy to advise and Margo Boles to curate, and gaps were filled. Thirty-six monumental barks from Yirrkala were commissioned, 43 works from Balgo outstations bought, and a 6 metre collaborative canvas commissioned from 36 artists at Yuendemu.
In 1997, already in his 80's, John Kluge handed it all over to the University of Virginia in order to expand the research potential of the Collection. As a result, Charlottesville has become one of the world centres of Aboriginal art with a museum that also imports exhibitions like the current Sally Gabori show from Mornington Island Arts, and the Basil Hall print collection, Etched in the Sun. It hosts lectures by Judith Ryan, Ken Thaiday and, of all people, provocateur Richard Bell. It sends its art to the Australian Embassy in Washington and the UVA's own art museum. It hosted a showing of the film Samson & Delilah; and a discussion on the NT Intervention as early as December '07 – entitled Sacred or Profane?

We could do with an institution like the Kluge-Ruhe in Sydney or Melbourne! Thank you and farewell John Kluge.

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Contact Details

Gallery: Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection
Contact: Margo Smith
Telephone: 434 244 0234
Address: 400 Worrell Drive Peter Jefferson Place Charlottesville Charlottesville 22911 Va



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