NOW, I don’t want anyone taking offence here. But I want you in a few words to describe how you think others describe Wonthaggi. “Shopping hub” is possibly one of the kinder descriptions but my guess is many of you will have heard of more disparaging descriptions that to us locals always have a ring of unfairness and inaccuracy about it. If you do say you’re from Wonthaggi, you have to go through a geography lesson – “just past Phillip Island?” – before there is a hint of recognition.
And how frustrating to try to get a Wonthaggi event listed on Melbourne websites, as I did recently with the local fashion exhibition “Classic Cream, Beautiful Black”. The usual response is that it’s too far from Melbourne, despite events as far to the north or south west regularly being listed.
John Mutsaers means to change that. A professional artist since 1986, with works represented in public, corporate, and private collections around the world, his vision is to transform the image of Wonthaggi into a destination for art.
For inspiration, he looks to another coal mining town on the other side of the world where strikes and a diminishing need for coal meant a bleak future. Many believed there would be little chance of a new beginning once the mines were closed. Other employment opportunities were required – and certainly art was not foremost in anyone’s mind. There was little if any funding and locals were pretty sceptical about making the town an art destination …
If you think I am referring to Wonthaggi – think again. Because in fact there are parallels with Yorkshire in England. Only 40 years ago it also had a bleak future but they also had a passion, as John does, about art. They commenced the creation of a sculpture park with a ₤1000 grant. It has now outranked The Tate Gallery and other major galleries to be named the best art museum in Great Britain. Henry Moore’s hulking bronzes stud the rolling fields and the park had close to 400,000 visitors last year.
John’s vision is that one day such a park will exist in Wonthaggi. He was part of the ArtSpace committee responsible for a successful application to turn the Centennial Centre into a space for art as well as information. In that capacity he witnessed the disappointment that a disenfranchised Wonthaggi Rotary Club had in investing its time and money into a centre that the Council could have walked away from.
He decided the answer was to work with Rotary, and springboard off the fact that they are an international organisation, to garner support for his dream not just from Australia but also the world. He formed a sculpture park committee which has formalised his dream into two parts.
The first is to use the Rotary international network to engage international sculptors to work on their sculpture in situ in Wonthaggi. A number will be asked to submit concepts of their proposed sculptures. Three finalists will be asked to produce maquettes (small-scale models) from which the winner will be chosen. The concept is for the artist to be billeted out in Wonthaggi and for their completed sculpture to remain in place for two years. After two years the process starts again with the original sculpture being relocated to another site within Wonthaggi.
The second part of the plan is to emulate the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square in London. Trafalgar Square’s central feature is, of course, Nelson’s column – but at each of its corners lies a plinth – three of them featuring war heroes on rampant horses. The fourth plinth has remained empty due to insufficient funds to pop another war hero in place. The fate of the plinth was debated for more than 150 years. Finally it was decided to provide a rolling program of temporary artworks rather than settling permanently on one figure or idea to commemorate.
And this is precisely what the sculpture park committee wants to do, with both ideas enabling Wonthaggi to become an art destination.
To do so they need money. They have just received a grant from the Bass Coast Shire to help in garnering sponsorship to develop the idea. They are going to use the money to develop a promotional video prospectus to attract philanthropists to engage in the project. John is cautiously optimistic it will proceed.
He recognises he still has a long way to go but holds fast to his theme: Essence statement ~ Public Art = Identity – Meaning – Connection – Belonging.
In 2018, John Mutsaers received an Honourable Mention for his sculpture Wolfgang Amadeus Mazda from the Circle Foundation for the Arts, Lyon, France.