Director of the Australian Museum from 2004 to 2014, Frank Howarth became President of Museums Galleries Australia in 2013. He is founder and co-chair of the national peak body alliance of galleries, libraries, archives, and museums, GLAM Peak, established in 2015.
Since leaving the Australian Museum, Frank has pursued interests in philanthropy, cultural leadership, and innovation.
As a longtime friend to ADC and we wanted to find out what keeps Frank involved and motivated to help.
You are a friend and longtime supporter of Australian Design Centre, can you tell us how you first got involved with the organisation?
My first recollection of any sort of engagement with the Australian Design Centre was at one of its much earlier incarnations, as the Crafts Council shop as I think it was called, in The Rocks. I remember going there to look at and on occasion buy glass works.
My real involvement with the organisation began at the time of its move, as Object, to the old St Margaret’s site in Darlinghurst. I got to know Steve Pozel much better at that time and that lead to some wonderful collaborations between the Australian Museum (of which I was then Director) and Object. Soon after I joined the Museum, around 2005 I think, Object was planning an exhibition of contemporary basketry, and I remember thinking that the Australian Museum has a wonderful collection of basketry from Australia and the Pacific Islands. I decided the Museum should do a parallel exhibition showing highlights of the Museum’s basketry collection at the same time as Object was showing contemporary basketry. A few years later in 2009 the Museum and Object collaborated on the wonderful Menagerie project and exhibition, and ultimately the Museum purchased almost the entire collection, showing as it did a snapshot of contemporary indigenous craft around Australia. That project really cemented my relationship with the Australian Design Centre, as Object became.
Having a background in geology and science, how did you end up interested in contemporary craft and design?
In some ways my interest in craft and design was stimulated by my interest in and study of geology. While I didn’t particularly like mineralogy, I was fascinated by how light and mineral crystals interacted. This led to my fascination with glass as a medium for creative expression. I acquired my first art glass objects in the 1980s and built up a substantial collection over about 20 years. Since then we’ve donated much of that to the National Art Glass Collection at the Wagga City Gallery. While I’ve maintained my interest in glass, my partner and I have been building a greater interest in ceramics.
There is also another dimension to craft and design which fascinates me. I’m interested in all things 20th century and later, whether architecture, art, writing, music or design. Of all of these, design has impacted most on the look and feel of our cities and places, the contents of our houses and buildings, and the way we engage with the world. Design can be done well and can be done badly, and I’m fascinated in how we can influence society to enable it to do well. And this is where organisations like the Australian Design Centre squarely fit. Most recently I’ve been collaborating with others to look at how the broader cultural sector, and design in particular, can influence broader societal innovation, particularly business innovation. Much attention is being given to how STEM (science technology engineering and mathematics) can influence innovation, but I feel that equal attention, and resources, should be given to the parallel role of culture, from design to arts, in innovation, and particularly the fostering of creativity as a key part of innovation.
I once gave a talk about the good and the bad of the architecture of major new museum buildings. During that I came across a quote which also sums up one aspect of my fascination with the beauty of craft and design, and that is some words from the late Diana Vreeland, then head of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. She was asked about the educational and didactic role of museums like the Met, and she said something like “I don’t want to be educated; I just want to be drowned in beauty”. There is a part of me that likes craft and design because I also on occasion simply want to be drowned in beauty.
You have been involved with many boards and organisations, why do you donate your time to Australian Design Centre and what motivates you to stay involved?
My desire to support the Australian Design Centre comes from the points I made earlier. Design is crucial to the way we experience the world, design our cities and function on a day to day basis. The Australian Design Centre has an essential role in helping us do it well, whether it is how we make functional but beautiful objects through to how we educate upcoming generations in design thinking, and foster their ability to be innovative, and to shape the world around them. Australian Design Centre is a small but very important organisation, and sometimes I think that importance is not recognised as widely as it should be and I want to do what I can to change that. In particular, resources from government to the cultural sector in general and to design in particular are declining. Yet the importance of design is increasing. I want to do what I can to encourage others to recognise the importance of the Australian Design Centre and contribute either their money or their time to making Australian Design Centre even more successful.
People say giving is a way of publicly expressing what you believe in and what is important to you. How does it feel to you to be seen by others supporting design and craft?
If by being seen by others to be supporting craft and design encourages those others to give their support too, then I will be very happy indeed. The cultural sector in general receives maybe 1% to 2% of total Australian philanthropy. It’s often said that the apparently glamorous end of arts and culture, like the big performing arts companies and major art galleries, receive the lion’s share of that small percentage of the total philanthropic gift to arts culture and design. This is probably true and one of my personal objectives is to try and increase the profile of craft and design in general, and for the Australian Design Centre in particular, within that total philanthropic spectrum. Unlike many other parts of the cultural spectrum, craft and design has the ability to change many aspects of our world in ways that go beyond aesthetic appreciation. That is not to say that I don’t love many aspects of the wider cultural sector, because I do, but I choose to support the Australian Design Centre because of its potential to influence how kids see and engage with the world, and to simply make better, more pleasing, more functional, and more enjoyable things. In short, I support the Australian Design Centre because craft and design make a difference.
Thank you Frank! We appreciate your support and belief in what we are doing.
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Image: Frank Howarth (left) with Richard Whiteley. Image courtesy of Object Magazine.