Obituary / Dr Robert Stewart Bell AM

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Born: December 29, 1946, Perth, WA.
Died: July 28, 2018, Canberra, ACT.

DR Robert Bell, who devoted his professional life to building the profile of the contemporary crafts of Australia through a long and pre-eminent career in the visual arts, serving as a practising artist working in clay and fibre, museum designer and curator of crafts and design has died. He was 71.

He gained an associateship in design, graphic and exhibition design from the Curtin University of Technology, and became a senior exhibits designer at the WA Museum in 1967.

Under his own steam, he attended the first meeting of the World Crafts Council in Dublin in 1970, where he met not only leading Australian craftspeople, but many international craftspeople, artists and sculptors many of whom became lifelong friends.  

His enthusiasm and enterprise in attending biennial WCC Conferences at his own expense and in his own time, led to his being elected deputy vice president World Crafts Council (Asian Zone), South Pacific Region (1980- 1983).  

Dr Robert Bell… “Decorative arts and objects have always been part of people’s art experience.”

An enthusiastic and invaluable networker, Dr Bell was committed to the development of the Australian craft network. He was president of the Craft Association of WA (1978-1979) and president of the Crafts Council of Australia (1980-1982).  

He re-joined the Board of Craft Australia in 1992, and was elected president for a second time in 1999, a position he held until 2002. During that time, Craft Australia was engaged in a serious re-appraisal of its role as the peak body and of its relationship with other crafts organisations and Dr Bell and members of the board spent huge amounts of their own time in negotiation with the Crafts Board of the Australia Council to determine the best long-term outcomes.

In 1978, he became the inaugural curator of craft and design at the Art Gallery of WA, where he stayed for 22 years. During this time, in addition to many exhibitions, Dr Bell curated three major Australian International Crafts Triennial exhibitions in 1989, 1992 and 1998. These major exhibitions brought prominent international artists and their work to Australia and included eminent Australian artists, who participated in a dialogue with each other, with local audiences and with the media.  

The Triennials showed Australians that their craft art was significant on the world stage and engendered confidence in the public galleries that collected craft, in artists who exhibited, and in commercial galleries to show the work of Australian craftspeople.  

The high regard in which he was held in the international art museum field in decorative arts and design, and by internationally recognised artists, has enabled works to be exhibited in Australia that may otherwise have only been seen in publications.

Dr Bell joined the staff of the National Gallery of Australia in June, 2000, and at the time he told me: “I see no split between Australian and international. I want to show the connections and the correspondences between the two areas. I also want to show the connections between media, both in Australian work and international work.”  

His commitment to the decorative arts was unstinting.

In 2000 he said: “Decorative arts and objects have always been part of people’s art experience.”  

Audience development and the enhancement of an audience’s understanding were vital feedback for Dr Bell.  

“I have always spent a considerable amount of time on the floor, talking to visitors, watching their reactions and listening to their responses to exhibitions,” he told me. “It is important that their visits are enjoyable.”

Dr Bell’s experience as a committed curator with an extraordinary knowledge of Australian and international decorative arts brought a revitalised focus on this part of the national collection.  

He was responsible not only for acquiring works into the national collection, but was the custodian at the apex of archives and information on the contemporary crafts.  

Through national and international exhibitions and publications he promoted knowledge and understanding throughout the Australian public and to non-Australian audiences of the work of artists in contemporary crafts and design in the context of their peers.

Dr Bell was extremely generous in sharing his knowledge and erudition on the contemporary crafts through writing and giving talks, speeches and opening numerous exhibitions. He gave keynote addresses, scholarly papers and participated at all levels at numerous national and international conferences.  

He was tireless in travelling in Australia and overseas to meet artists and visit their studios, frequently at his own expense. Bell had a strong personal capacity to invite artist contact and had deeply ingrained personal characteristics of enthusiasm, thoughtfulness, integrity and responsibility.  He was a mentor to many young curators, both in the crafts and in other visual art forms.

Dr Bell was awarded an Australian Centenary Medal in 2001, the 2005 Australia Council Visual Arts Board Emeritus Award and in 2010 was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for service to contemporary craft and design.

He is survived by his wife Eugenie Keefer Bell and his brother and sister and their families.


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