Kiffy Rubbo: Curating the 1970s

Art+ Book Extract


During the 1970s the George Paton (or Ewing) Gallery at the University of Melbourne was at the forefront of contemporary art in Australia. It was the first publicly funded art space dedicated to contemporary art and its innovative stance was driven by Kiffy Rubbo, curator from 1971-1979.

Rubbo’s passion and energy burned short, hot and bright. In 1980, at just 36 years old, she committed suicide leaving behind her family, her friends, and a curatorial legacy that can still be felt today.

In Kiffy Rubbo: Curating the 1970s, edited by Janine Burke and Helen Hughes, artists and academics pay tribute to Rubbo’s life, work and seminal place in Australian art history in a series of essays. This monograph also includes a forward by Rubbo’s daughter Bridie Carter, an epilogue by her sister and a series of letters she wrote to her brother. Janine Burke’s essay on Rubbo’s key role in early feminist curation is reproduced in full below, with permission.

Kiffy Rubbo’s ‘Feminisms’

In October 1971, Kiffy Rubbo was appointed supervisor of the Rowden White Library and the Ewing (later the George Paton) Gallery. Kiffy’s office was behind the counter in the Rowden White. But I’m not sure how much time she spent in there because the small gallery at the other end of the library drew her, literally, out of one zone and into another, where her terrific creativity would find its focus and form.

On a fundamental and practical level, Kiffy set a high standard of curatorial performance, of ‘professionalism’, in a decade where that word was regarded with opprobrium. The culture was laid-back, hippie, cool. Kiffy’s personal style was warm and open, her energy incandescent and seemingly limitless. Her name seemed to suit her perfectly rather more so than Kristin, her birth name. Her face was cute, cheeky, and mobile, and she wore her thick brown hair in a long bob with a deep fringe. Smiles came easily to her. She favoured brightly coloured clothes and mini skirts, platform heels, and tights. As a university student, she’d performed in theatre and she had a presence that was bold and individual without being overweening. Her fragility was never far from the surface, an endearing trait in a woman who appeared so confident and in control, so dynamic and forward-looking.

Kiffy with Libby Taylor, celebrating her graduation from the University of Melbourne, 1965. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Mike Rubbo.

Kiffy demonstrated a genius for administration which, given her background of teaching in high schools in both Melbourne and London, had not previously been tested. As I discovered when I began research for this essay in the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA), Kiffy was a meticulous record keeper. Also — and this was unusual at the time — she photographed the exhibitions or installations on display in the gallery. Not only that, she included the name of the artist or the title of the installation and the date. At that time, the documentation of exhibitions was a piecemeal affair, whether in commercial galleries, experimental art spaces, or state museums. Usually it was up to the artist to take shots of their own work. But Kiffy had a sense of posterity. She was building something. It also means that when observing the images of early exhibitions at the GPG, Kiffy’s curatorial and photographic eye is also being observed. Though Kiffy later designated to others the role of photographing the shows, it was her initiative.

The Ewing Gallery itself — before the larger area known as the George Paton was incorporated — was an exquisite little white box of a gallery. It was a lovely space, without natural light, that enhanced and underscored the properties of the large variety of work — painting, photography, performance, printmaking, sculpture, film, and video — that was shown there. It was always impeccably clean. There was nothing casual or amateur, nothing ‘student-ish’, about the gallery. Kiffy’s curatorial gaze was clean and modern. She controlled the space with an eye for elegant minimalism, recognising that the white cube aesthetic of the contemporary gallery framed contemporary art and gave it its edge.

In UMA, reading some of Kiffy’s early applications for funding, I was struck by how strategic she was. Applying for funding is the bane of the lives of creative folk. That’s because one of the problems is to briefly and succinctly describe exactly what you want to do and how you plan to do it. Except you haven’t done it yet. It’s just a crazy dream. Oh, and the budget. Let’s not forget the budget. For many of us, the process where imagination and intuition are subjected to a format and a word count is excruciating.

Kiffy thrived on it. Her skill at acquitting applications was matched only by her level of ambition, which was huge. It is only in retrospect one begins to delineate both its scale and intensity. Ambition in a woman is not meant to be on display. It’s not ladylike. Ambition in a woman is meant to be discrete. And that’s as true now as it ever was.

In September 1972, Kiffy wrote to Sir William Dargie, applying for funding for the exhibition she would co-curate with Grazia Gunn in 1973. Wok Bilong Niugini Tude(‘Work Belong New Guinea Today’), comprised of art by Papua New Guinean students, involved Kiffy and Grazia travelling to PNG. Dargie was chair of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, the precursor to the Australia Council for the Arts.

In her application, Kiffy stated the gallery’s aims in contemporary terms, a ‘mission statement’, providing the template for the GPG’s future program.

1) To give students and visitors the chance to view a wide range of artistic disciplines;

2) To give young unestablished artists the opportunity to exhibit, and in some cases, present experimental work of a non-commercial nature;

3) To eventually be part of an interstate tertiary institution group involved in travelling exhibitions, thus giving our students the chance to view work from other places.

A second application to the Australia Council for the Arts was successful, and Wok Bilong Niugini Tude opened in June 1973.

The first project on which Kiffy and I collaborated — curating A Room of One’s Own: three women artists with Lynne Cooke — grew out of frustration, a very feminist emotion.

In 1973, Lynne was a year ahead of me in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Melbourne. She planned to write her honours thesis in part on Helen Frankenthaler, the only woman member of the New York School, and to explore Frankenthaler’s role and the imagery of her work within the male confines of that group. Lynne’s proposal to senior staff in the department had a negative reception. She was told, in effect, ‘That’s not art history. That’s sociology.’ Such a response was recognised, even then, as a strategy to deflect feminist interventions in various fields of cultural research, including literature and history.

Incensed, I took the issue to Patrick McCaughey. Patrick was a wonderful breath of fresh air in the department. He’d recently returned from New York, where he’d known Clement Greenberg, a major critical supporter of the New York School artists, including Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler. I’m not sure what Patrick discussed with the powers that be in the department, but shortly afterwards Lynne’s topic was approved.

Lynne Cooke has had a distinguished international career. Recently, she was appointed senior curator, special projects in modern art, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Prior to that, she was chief curator at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. She has been a co-curator of the Venice Biennale and a director of the Sydney Biennale.

The issue about Lynne’s thesis raised something equally problematic. It was the awareness that, in the courses we were taught, women artists were almost entirely excluded. Artemisia Gentileschi, the great Baroque painter, was a notable exception.

At that time, two key texts framed our thinking: Linda Nochlin’s essay ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’(1) and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972). Nochlin argued that the expectations against women seriously pursuing art, the restrictions on educating women as artists, and ‘the entire romantic, elitist, individual- glorifying, and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based’ have systematically precluded the emergence of great women artists.(2)

Berger’s Ways of Seeing was based on his BBC television series of the same name, which was formulated as a riposte to Kenneth Clark’s BBC television series and book Civilisation (1969). Berger took the provocative step of placing images of women culled from advertising and soft porn alongside paintings by Modigliani and Picasso, arguing that the manipulative and sexist agenda was exactly the same. It was a fresh and shocking reading of art history.

Lynne and I took our frustrations to Kiffy. She was creating networks with undergraduate students like us, who were often disaffected, and tapping into our energies in constructive ways. Like some fellow students, I was beginning to find the GPG a more conducive and stimulating place in which to engage with contemporary art than academia.

From our discussions, the three of us decided to curate an exhibition. It was Australia’s first feminist art show. ‘Curate’ is a word that has taken on broader and more complex significance in recent years. It’s the word selected as this book’s subtitle and to explore Kiffy’s practice. At the time, the word, from the Latin curare, meaning ‘to take care’, was associated with museums or other institutions that kept collections. Curators were once known as Keepers; for example, the Keeper of the Prints at the British Museum.

Today, to curate means to select, to decide, to discriminate, to prepare, to organise, and to categorise. Was that a strategy Kiffy employed? Or does the breadth of her achievements in her decade at the GPG amount to a curatorial statement? Well, yes. But curating implies intent. What was Kiffy’s intention? I’ll return to this.

Janine Burke (left) and Kiffy, with Ann Newmarch’s Suburban Re ections from the exhibition 
A Room of One’s Own, 1974. George Paton Gallery Collection, University of Melbourne Archives, 1999.0144, BWP/29549. Photographer unknown. Courtesy The Age, Fairfax Syndication.

A Room of One’s Own, which opened in April 1974, was my first experience of curatorial practice. Lynne and I were the novices and Kiffy the professional. Since then, I’ve curated a dozen exhibitions for state, regional, and university galleries. What did I learn from Kiffy? She showed leadership. She was the boss. She delegated. She didn’t have a problem about telling other people what to do. While she welcomed the ideas and the opinions of others, she could be quite firm — in my experience at least — about boundaries, hierarchies, and decisions. That’s not to say she was abrasive or heavy-handed. In fact, in many situations — some professional, some personal — I was aware she experienced a great deal of self- doubt. Kiffy was quite a private person for all her radiant warmth and energy, one who could be shy, troubled, and unsure. Maybe the adage is true: it’s not self-esteem that prompts some to tackle great enterprises but a lack of it.

Though Ellen Rubbo, her mother, was an artist, as was her grandfather Antonio Dattilo Rubbo, Kiffy did not study art history at university. But perhaps it was this background that made the opinions of artists particularly valid to Kiffy, and she treated artists, as she treated the young art critics and historians she drew around her, with respect.

Kiffy was a generation older than many of us. She was married to Dennis Carter, an architect whom she’d met at university — and Bridie, her first child, was less than a year old when Kiffy began her job. The domestic and professional rhythms of Kiffy’s life were quite different to ours. We were up all night writing essays and studying for exams, living in communal households and having traumatic love affairs. Kiffy’s life framed her feminism.

A Room of One’s Own comprised Lesley Dumbrell, Ann Newmarch, and Julie Irving. Lynne Cooke had taken up a position at Patrick McCaughey’s newly founded Department of Visual Art at Monash University, and it meant she was less involved in the curatorial process than I.

At thirty-two, Dumbrell was gaining a reputation for her elegant optical paintings. Kiffy and I visited Lesley at her Sandringham home that she shared with her husband, the sculptor Lenton Parr, who was also director of the newly fledged Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). Lesley was a fulltime artist working from a home studio. Kiffy and I were impressed with Lesley’s work, her quiet assurance, and her direct yet diplomatic manner of stating her opinions. We soon formed strong bonds with her. The friendship between Kiffy and Lesley grew especially deep.

At twenty, Julie Irving was embarking on her career. She was a final-year student at the VCA. We met with her in the school’s upstairs painting studio, in her small area amid the crowded easels. She showed us some remarkable abstract paintings whose white surfaces were scored with delicate markings. We responded to the works’ sophistication and to the diffident yet clear manner in which Julie presented herself. Julie recalls that being invited to participate in the show ‘made a very big difference to how I thought about myself … as someone who would have [an artistic] practice for life’.(3)

Adelaide artist Ann Newmarch was the final choice. Of the three, Newmarch was the only realist and the only one whose work was explicitly feminist and political. A lecturer at the South Australian School of Art, Newmarch was a member of the Progressive Art Movement, a muralist, and a poster-maker who was active in many community-based arts projects. In the catalogue for exhibition, she wrote, ‘I am not interested in art that talks only to the visually elite.’ Hostile to the ‘precious “one-off”’, Newmarch made prints in order to produce readily available, low-priced work.(4) Her subtly toned silkscreen Suburban Reflections (1973) explores media treatment of women. Bland, pretty faces culled from advertisements surround a strong sensuous nude while above them is one of the Vietnam War’s most famous news photographs: a naked Vietnamese girl, screaming in pain from napalm burns as she runs from her bombed village. I recall feeling shocked by Newmarch’s provocative imagery. Bold and new, it heralded issues about style and content that would dominate the decade.

The title A Room of One’s Own was Kiffy’s choice. It was taken, of course, from Virginia Woolf ’s famous 1929 essay about women’s creativity and the space — the actual physical environment, the separate, contained area of silence and contemplation — that is required in order for creativity to flourish. A space that, as Woolf illustrates, history has done its darndest to deny.

I must confess I found the title corny and sentimental. But Kiffy brooked no opposition. Perhaps because the GPG was Kiffy’s ‘own room’ was why the title had such resonance for her. She had found a space where her creative energies could be expressed, displayed, and validated.

Once the large area of the George Paton was added to the Ewing, Kiffy removed herself from her sequestered office in the Rowden White and positioned herself in the public realm of the GPG, which she shared with Meredith Rogers. This shared ownership of the GPG, and the sight of these industrious and friendly women seated at the gallery entrance, made for an unusual and welcoming experience for visitors, and gave a strong impression of accessibility and camaraderie.

Like many women of my generation, feminism was an intense experience, a fire burning inside me, and I was tremendously committed to it. So when Kiffy and I were interviewed for The Age about A Room of One’s Own, I was taken aback when Kiffy announced to the journalist, ‘We’re not on a mad feminist kick.’(5) Perhaps I should not have been so surprised as we’d disagreed about the title of the show, as well as the statements in the catalogue.

The catalogue was designed to be folded into a box so you could literally ‘create a room of one’s own’. While the catalogue’s opening sentence affirmed Virginia Woolf ’s desire to uphold a woman’s need for physical and psychological independence, the final sentence, ‘The works are statements by artists who happen to be women, not by women who are also artists’ contradicted the thinking behind the show. (6)

In retrospect, this indicates two things. Firstly, it reveals Kiffy’s entrepreneurial instincts. No doubt she wanted A Room of One’s Own to reach a broad public and was perhaps concerned that my firebrand radicalism might prove a trifle strong for the readers of The Age. Secondly, it indicates the complexity and ambivalence with which Kiffy approached feminism, and how she envisaged feminism functioning within society, art, and perhaps in her own life. That is, the creative space of the woman could be located and occupied, but to identify this space as ‘feminist’, to politicise it with such a word and badge it, might isolate, separate, or marginalise the very activities that the space was meant to support. Indeed, Kiffy’s attitude towards feminism was a complex one, a topic to which I’ll return later in this essay.

Our next venture, Australian Women Artists: 1840–1940, was the daughter of A Room of One’s Own. To coincide with the latter exhibition, we organised a panel discussion, ‘Women in the Arts and the Media’. It was held in the Public Lecture Theatre, one of the largest venues at the University of Melbourne, and it was filled to overflowing. Speakers included Claudia Wright, Helen Garner, Lesley Dumbrell, and Jenny Watson.

At the end of the evening, a woman stood up and asked if people were aware that 1975 was to be International Women’s Year. Kiffy and I exchanged glances. We were already discussing the possibility of a historical survey of women’s art. We decided the best way to secure funding and publicity was to organise it in International Women’s Year.

After Kiffy had appointed me the exhibition’s curator, she put no barriers on my selection process, though of course I discussed the selection with her and Meredith, and with our consulting committee that included Grazia Gunn and Daniel Thomas. She trusted me. It was my first job, an exhilarating and utterly terrifying experience for a twenty-three-year-old.

Australian Women Artists put the GPG on the map. Kiffy’s attitude towards the politics of women’s art gained breadth and confidence after Australian Women Artists’s successful national tour. What shifted her opinion was the same as that which convinced others — the undeniable quality and quantity of the work represented.

The catalyst for the Women’s Art Movement was the visit of New York art writer Lucy Lippard in 1975. Lippard, who’d made her name writing about Pop Art and Minimalism, had committed herself to the cause of women’s art. As part of her Melbourne visit, she was scheduled to give a talk at the GPG. The GPG was now the Melbourne contact for all things contemporary in art, whether local, national, or international.

Kiffy asked Lesley Dumbrell  to escort Lippard to several artists’ studios, including those of Jenny Watson and Erica McGilchrist. They also visited galleries including Pinacotheca, the highly regarded centre for abstract and minimalist art. When director Bruce Pollard invited Lippard to view the stock room, she explained she was interested only in seeing women artists. Pollard took umbrage and, as Dumbrell recalls, Lucy ‘gave him a serve’ and then walked out. The story went round the art world like wildfire. Lippard said to Dumbrell, ‘You know all these women artists. Why don’t you interact with them more? This is absurd. Things will only change if you stick together.’(7)

Lucy Lippard at the George Paton Gallery, 1975. From left: Lucy Lippard, Noelene Lucas, Irene Barberis, unknown woman, unknown woman, Suzanne Spunner. Photograph by Sue Ford. Courtesy Sue Ford Archive.

After discussions with Erica McGilchrist, Lesley decided to start a women’s art network. Kiffy and Meredith, though delighted to provide the organisational backbone for the venture, told Lesley that the initiative must come from the artists themselves. The first meeting of the Women’s  Art Movement took place at the GPG  in September 1975. On the walls hung Australian Women Artists: 1840–1940. It was a revelation to have generations of local women artists together in the one place. The movement acted as a focus for women in the art scene: not only did it spawn meetings, exhibitions, groups, and projects, it marked the emergence of women’s art in Melbourne as a significant force. 

Australian Women Artists didn’t end in 1975 — for Kiffy or me. In 1977, when I had started teaching at the VCA and begun my MA on Joy Hester, Kiffy insisted that I get on and write up the catalogue as a book. When I protested I was too busy, she simply ignored me and made an appointment with Sally Milner, an independent local publisher. Sally was enthusiastic and she became my publisher for the next decade.

Just after Kiffy’s return from India, late in October 1980, Lesley Dumbrell gave her a copy of Australian Women Artists. It was shortly before her death. At the book’s launch in December, I spoke of Kiffy as the reason for the book’s existence and dedicated its second edition to her.

In the late ’70s, the discussions I had with Kiffy about feminism were quite negative. She said the women’s movement had let her down. It had promised a better and more positive way of life, and she felt betrayed. Kiffy’s response was informed by larger issues to do with the depression, the awful wrenching highs and lows, that dogged her. But it also indicates that feminism remained a powerful framing force for her autobiographical and historical sense of self.

It was not all bleak. In our conversations, Kiffy also presented me with a series of images of the life she wished to live. These images — and they were images because they didn’t resolve into real situations — were grounded in what was both domestic and rural. They were based on women whom she knew and admired, who managed to successfully balance a satisfying career with an intimate life that was protective, stable, and nurturing.

Kiffy’s enterprise in the adventurous decade of the ’70s can be viewed as a template for the life of a woman — ardent, intelligent, ambitious, idealistic — who sought to courageously explore and critically assess feminism’s charter. Kiffy’s curatorial practice gave her ample scope to do that and she used her time well.

Traditionally, a curator has been one who stands behind the work, positioning the creativity of the artist. But the current scrutiny with which we now address curatorial practice means that the curator herself is expected to step from the shadows and declare her identity, her intentions, and to allow the audience to examine the scaffolding of her project. Kiffy has provided Australian visual culture with a vivid and meticulous portrait of itself in the 1970s. That portrait includes a refracted image of Kiffy Rubbo. Her intention was to create something bold and original, that was solid and enduring and, despite the vicissitudes that she suffered, that is exactly what she has done.

Janine Burke

Kiffy Rubbo: Curating the 1970s is available at selected bookstores and online from Scribe.

Read a review by Art Guide‘s Print Editor, Varia Karipoff.


1. First published in Vivian Gornick and Barbara Moran (eds), Woman in Sexist Society: studies in power and powerlessness; Basic Books, New York, 1971. It was later reprinted in ArtNews, then published in Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Baker (eds), Art and Sexual Politics: why have there been no great women artists?; Macmillan, New York, 1971.

2. Linda Nochlin, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, in Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Baker (eds), op. cit., p. 7.

3. Janine Burke, ‘A Home for the Revolution: the Ewing and George Paton galleries and the first phase of the women’s art movement, 1975–1980’, in Helen Vivian (ed.), When You Think About Art: the Ewing and George Paton galleries, 1971– 2008; Macmillan Art Publishing, Melbourne, 2008, p. 182.

4. Janine Burke, ‘Six Women Artists’, Meanjin, no. 3, 1979, p. 25.

5. Anne Latreille, ‘Women’s Role in the Arts’, The Age, 9 April 1974.

6. It is most likely these were Kiffy’s words as neither Meredith Rogers (email to the author, 7. April 2016) nor Lesley Dumbrell (email to the author, 13 April 2016) recall assisting Kiffy in formulating this statement.

8. Burke, ‘A Home for the Revolution’, op. cit., p. 182.

Book Extract