“I must have been one of the first feminists around because I was buying women’s art when no one else wanted it. People wanted men. They wanted Nolan, Drysdale or Boyd. They didn’t necessarily want Kate O’Connor. She was not well known then, nor was Elise Blumann. And I found I was drawn to them for a number of reasons, so I just kept buying them. Also, we didn’t have a lot of money and they were cheap. I think that all these things combined started me buying women’s art.”Sheila Cruthers interviewed by Sue John, TVW 7, February 1995
The inspiration for Sheila Foundation is Lady Sheila Cruthers. Lady Sheila was the driving force behind the largest collection of Australian women’s art – the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art. She was a visionary who recognised the importance and value of Australian women’s art long before most, and the need to recognise women artists. She mentored and supported many emerging women artists who went on to develop significant careers including Narelle Jubelin, Susan Norrie and Julie Dowling. The Collection she built is unique in Australia and particularly important at a time when historians and the public are realising how under-represented women are in Australia’s history. To quote art historian Rex Butler, it is “a tremendous resource for the rethinking of Australian art”.
The Cruthers family gifted the Collection to The University of Western Australia in 2007. The family set up the Cruthers Art Foundation, a private foundation, to provide ongoing support to the Collection. In 2017 the Cruthers Art Foundation transitioned to Sheila Foundation Ltd. Sheila Foundation is a public not-for-profit with a broader remit. While Sheila Foundation continues to support the Cruthers Collection, it also aims to address the equity problems still facing contemporary Australian women artists and to write the unrecognised women artists from our past into our art history.
“When Sheila decided she’d back someone, she’d back them all the way. Sheila encouraged me to believe in myself as an artist.” Susan Norrie
The Cruthers Collection
Sheila and Jim at Bird Street, 1995. Photo Richard Hatherly. Courtesy The Sunday Times.
The Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art is Australia’s largest specialist collection of women’s art, numbering over 700 works. This collection is unique for its time and makes a significant contribution to the history of Australian art. It includes works from the 1890s to today and has a focus on portraiture, self-portraiture, modernism, post-modernism, feminism and abstraction.
The Cruthers family, led by Lady Sheila Cruthers, began collecting Australian art in 1974. From the outset Sheila was drawn to work by women artists. Among her first purchases were self-portraits by Elise Blumann and Kate O’Connor, which set her on a course of collecting. She also purchased new work by younger artists. Other family members collected different art, generally the work of mid-20th Century painters and mostly male contemporary art.
Sheila quickly decided to pair every self-portrait she bought with another work by the artist, a collecting concept she called “The artist and her work”. Janine Burke’s pioneering book Australian Women Artists 1840s-1940s, published in 1981, was a useful tool to understanding the range of little-known women artists. By the early 1980’s more work was being purchased on the east coast, and when Jim and Sheila relocated to the US for work in 1983, the task of locating appropriate art fell to their son John Cruthers, by then based in Sydney. New purchases were despatched to New York and installed in the family apartment. There were frequent visitors including museum directors and curators, writers, historians and art critics, artists, gallerists and collectors.
“The archbishop and the naked lady”, read the headline in The West Australian as Sheila’s collection was displayed in Archbishop Peter Carnley’s residence to raise money for breast cancer research. Photo Barry Baker. Courtesy The West Australian.
Jim and Sheila returned to Perth in late 1989 and the Collection was displayed in the family home in Mosman Park. The house was renovated to create a women’s art gallery off the living room, and later a large upstairs gallery for contemporary women’s art. The Collection was regularly opened to visitors and artworks made available for loan.
In 1995 the family displayed the women’s collection as part of the National Women’s Art Exhibition, a series of 140 exhibitions nationwide staged to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first International Women’s Day. In the company of women – 100 years of Australian women’s art from the Cruthers Collection opened at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in February 1995. It comprised 170 works by 75 artists.
Positive responses from viewers and critics encouraged the family to concentrate on women’s art and the Collection grew quickly, now known as the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art. After the exhibition Modern Australian Women 1925-1945 at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2000, which included key works from the Collection, the family decided the Collection was worth preserving and making available to the Australian public. Negotiations to gift the Collection began with The University of Western Australia in 2002.
“There were a lot of people who, when they got to New York their first port of call was Sheila Cruthers because she would show you around and give you a bed if you were hard up. She also often provided frequent flyer miles for artists to fly home for Christmas.” John Cruthers
The Collection and The University of Western Australia
Lady Sheila Cruthers and Sir James Cruthers gifted to the Collection the University in 2007. Under a Deed of Gift between the parties, annual tranches of artworks are donated to UWA through the Commonwealth government’s Cultural Gifts Program.Lady Sheila and Sir James Cruthers gifted the Collection to the University in 2007. Under a Deed of Gift between the parties, annual tranches of artworks are donated to UWA.
The initial gift of 460 works of art included paintings, works on paper, prints, photography, textiles and sculpture. Since 2007 an additional 85 works were gifted by the Cruthers Art Foundation, and funds provided to UWA by the Foundation have enabled the purchase of 32 works for the Collection since 2011. More recently, the Collection has benefited from significant gifts of artworks from third parties. As at December 2017 the Collection had over 700 artworks.
The Cruthers Art Foundation was established at the time of the gift to provide continuing support to the Collection. In 2017 the Cruthers Art Foundation transitioned to Sheila Foundation Ltd, a public foundation. Sheila Foundation takes on the responsibilities of the Cruthers Art Foundation to support the Collection, but is also able to accept cash donations from the public and acquire artworks for donation.
Through its curator at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at UWA, there is a yearly exhibition program of the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art in the Lady Sheila Cruthers Gallery within the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery. Sheila Foundation and UWA collaborate to run an acquisitions program and a publications program for the Collection.
Donating Artworks to The Collections
The Collection can accept gifts of artwork if they meet its collecting parameters. Artworks donated under the Commonwealth Government’s Cultural Gifts Program attract a tax deduction for the donor. To enquire about donating artworks, please contact the Collection Curator, Lee Kinsella, firstname.lastname@example.org.
“In 1995 she (Sheila) agreed to display her women’s art at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, as part of the National Women’s Art Exhibition. Seeing all the works exhibited together was a revelation. We decided to collect only women’s art from that point, and the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art was born.” John Cruthers
Indigenous Art and The Collection
Sir James Cruthers and Sue Cruthers at the opening of The Money Story: Warburton Artists, March 2012. Photo Nic Montagu.
The Collection has actively purchased work by Indigenous women artists. Out of a total of 700 artworks, the Collection includes 133 artworks by 62 Indigenous artists. In general, Indigenous artworks have been collected that fit within the Collection’s themes, with a focus on craft-based practices including textiles, woven baskets, ceramics and dolls. Highlights include over 20 batiks produced at Utopia, 10 dolls by the Narrogin Doll-makers and 15 shellwork objects by Lola Ryan.
Contemporary artists – working in painting, photography, sculpture, installation and video – include Tracey Moffatt, Fiona Foley, Destiny Deacon, Judy Watson, Julie Gough, Julie Dowling and Sandra Hill. There is also a representative group of artworks by remote area artists Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Queenie McKenzie, Elizabeth Nyumi, Shirley Purdie, Linda Syddick Napaltjarri, Gloria and Ada Bird Petyarre, June Richards, Pantjiti Mary McLean.