Australians love their private art museums. In the financial capital of Sydney, there is White Rabbit Gallery displaying contemporary Chinese art. Tasmania is home to the largely subterranean Museum of Old and New Art, owned by eccentric professional gambler David Walsh. In the coastal city of Melbourne, there is the exceptional TarraWarra Museum of Art and the much-loved Heide Museum of Modern Art.
Perhaps lesser known is the museum and family home of Australian contemporary art collectors Corbett and Yueji Lyon nestled in the charming suburban area of Kew, a mere eight kilometers outside of Melbourne’s city center. Opening its doors to the public in 2009, Lyon Housemuseum, the purpose-designed building created by Corbett and his architectural firm Lyon Architects, seamlessly merges public and private space. Inside the two-story Housemuseum, family living areas are harmoniously integrated with museum-scaled spaces, including a “white cube” gallery on the ground floor and a theatre room that serves to both exhibit the Lyon’s video art collection and act as a TV room for their two daughters. Upstairs, Howard Arkley’s 17-panel Fabricated Rooms (1997–99) lines the walls of the dining room, which also lead toward the family’s private bedrooms.
In 2010, Lyon Housemuseum won the Australian Institute of Architects Harold Desbrow-Annear Award for Residential Architecture, and also exhibited at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona that year. Named by Larry’s List as one of the top 10 private museum buildings, Lyon Housemuseum has become a central part of the cultural landscape in one of the world’s most livable cities.
On a chilly Saturday morning, Corbett and Yueji welcomed ArtAsiaPacific into their home for tea, where Corbett discussed the motivations behind the Housemuseum and future plans for the Lyon Collection.
Where did it all start?
Lyon Housemuseum is underpinned by a collection that celebrated its 26th anniversary in 2015. I started collecting in 1989 after seeing an Albert Tucker (1914–1999) retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria. Back then, I was a young architect and I wanted to buy a work by Tucker. I tracked down his dealer, Georges Mora, at Tolarno Galleries. Over the course of a month he persuaded me not to buy a work by Tucker, but instead to buy a contemporary artwork. He explained that it was more interesting, particularly if I continue to collect, to buy works by my peers so I can be a “fellow traveler” with them. It was an interesting piece of advice, to collect the now rather than history. So instead of a Tucker, I purchased Linda Marrinon’s painting, Nude in a Landscape (1989).
Yueji and I have been collecting together since the start of our marriage, which was 21 years ago. I came up with the idea of developing a collection exclusively of Australian contemporary art. I think 70 percent of our collection is works by Melbourne artists, I suppose this may be because we live in Melbourne and circulate around the galleries and know the dealers here.
What interests you to acquire an artwork?
We tend to choose works that deal with emergent technology: for example, the Patricia Piccinini truck babies, which have accompanied us in our living area for many years. We are also drawn to works that deal with cultural politics. So it’s not a themed collection, but there are sort of clusters of ideas that inform what we buy. The underlying thread throughout the collection is that we are interested in artists who have something to say and are very consistent in how they practice.
The thing about private collections is that, at the end of the day, people find them to be fascinating, because the art reflects the interests of the collectors. So our collection isn’t trying to be an encyclopedic collection or be representational of every artwork in the 1990s, 2000s or 2010s. That’s the job of the national galleries and the state collections. Private collections, such as ours, can reflect the personalities of the collectors much more.
How big is your collection?
We have over 300 works at the moment and about a third of it is on display in the house. The rest is in secure storage. We collect all mediums and sizes, from small objects to very big installations. We continue to collect artists we have been buying [since the beginning], some now for 20-odd years, and that’s partly due to the initial advice from Mora, which was to follow the careers of artists. But we are also collecting from people who are new to us, as well as emerging artists, so it’s an interesting combination of different works.
Are there particular mediums you are drawn to collect?
We started with paintings, but the pendulum has swung the other way. Now we collect a lot of large installation works. We are among the first Australian collectors to acquire video work, going way back to Piccinini’s early digital work from the late 1990s. Video work is often seen as a risk, but I do think some artists are very stable in their practice, such as Shaun Gladwell. We are the only collection in Australia that has the whole of Gladwell’s show from the 2009 Venice Biennale.
What motivated you to design a museum and house in one?
We thought it would be very interesting, [with me being] an architect, to design our own building to house the collection. So we came up with the idea for this unique building, and as far as we know it is the only one in the world designed from the ground up as both a domestic residence and a public museum. Additionally, the circumstances are absolutely unique; being the collectors, the resident family and the architect in one. It was how these three things complement one another that allowed this project to happen.
How did the project unfold?
At first we looked at either putting the house at the front and the public museum at the back, or putting the public museum on the ground floor and the house on the other. But it wasn’t particularly interesting, because it separated them too neatly so then we thought to bring them together. We coined the word “housemuseum,” all as one word, to describe this new hybrid architectural type. It’s a speculative and experimental project from an architectural perspective, because very rarely do we find new architectural types these days.
It’s been a very interesting journey and a challenging project for us as a family to have people walking through our home. We run public tours and work with many schools and tertiary institutions, and the education aspect is particularly strong for us.
Although the Housemuseum as you have built it is unique, is there a museum, or a personal experience that inspired your designs?
I refer often to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, which I visited as a graduate student and still visit each time we go to Venice. It was amazing, because at the time, Peggy Guggenheim had just died, and to be able to see all of her Picassos and Pollocks in a domestic setting was a very interesting thing for me and to learn about her as a collector. It was a far more memorable experience [in comparison] to the more conventional big public museums.
This was before I started collecting. It was about ten years following my visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum that I began to buy art. I tend to keep those things at the back of my mind, and when I come to design a building, I draw on those memories and experiences that I’ve had.
I understand you have set up a foundation for the custodianship of the works.
Yes, we established a public foundation about three to four years ago and we have been progressively gifting work into the foundation, so that they will be held in a permanent public collection. We set up the foundation as we are planning to build a public museum next door. Yueji and I agreed there would be a dividing line. Anything we own can be displayed here in the Housemuseum, once it gets gifted it will go to the public collection. That’s what’s happening now to our Howard Arkley works and Patricia Piccinini pieces, which is why we don’t have many displayed in the house.
How are the plans for the public museum going?
I am in the process of designing it at the moment, but we have already purchased the land next door to us. We will continue to live here and the public museum will operate six days a week. Eventually we will move out of [the Lyon Housemuseum] and join the two buildings together, so that people can move from one to the other. The public museum will have a large white-cube space, a café and a ticketing area and so on, and this new building will be very different, because my plan is to have six-meter-high ceilings. As you move across from the idiosyncratic scale of the domestic building of where we are now and back again, it will be an interesting experience. It also means we can show the large works in the collection, which we find difficult to do [in the housemuseum], as we don’t have quite enough space. The plan is to start building in June 2016 and it will be a two-year construction. So come back in three years for the opening!