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50 Treasures: The Bay by Ron Kenny

Our forty-seventh treasure comes from a well-respected James Cook University academic who was also an accomplished artist and a staunch advocate for the arts. From the James Cook University Art Collection comes The Bay by Ron Kenny.

Emeritus Professor Helene Marsh and Dr. Anneke Silver answer the question "why is this significant?"

Have you ever wondered how art collections, art galleries and art societies come about? It is often due to the enthusiasm and dedication of a single person. Ron Kenny was a champion of the visual arts in Townsville. He was not only an academic zoologist, but also an advocate for the arts and an accomplished artist.


Ron Kenny, The Bay, 1968, watercolour on paper, 54 x 43cm. James Cook University Art Collection. © Anne Kenny, 2020. Photograph: Michael Marzik.

In many ways this 1968 watercolour, titled The Bay, is typical of Ron’s approach to art. Clearly influenced by early modernism such as Cubism and Italian futurism, he aimed to look for underlying structures and forms in the landscape, a way of looking that reflected his scientific as well as his artistic training. At times, his works in both watercolour and oil move to almost complete abstraction, not wild expressionistic abstraction but one based on close observation of form.

In this artwork, Ron uses a water colourist’s trick, chipping out the painted layer of paper to create a highlight and gently scraping larger areas to create a gentle flow of tone from light to dark in an almost Renaissance-like manner.

An engaging and inspiring man, Ron was most important to Townsville as an art activist. He was a founding member of the Townsville Art Society, its first president from 1962 to 1966 and again from 1969 to 1974. These were years in which the Art Society contributed hugely to the development of visual arts in Townsville in significant ways.

Ron was very well connected to the wider Australian art world. He grew up in Perth and also studied art at East Sydney Tech (now the National Art School). He used these connections to negotiate significant exhibitions of contemporary art in Townsville. Works from the Queensland University’s Darnell Trust collection were exhibited in the refectory at the Pimlico Campus of the Townsville University College in 1964, opening the Townsville public’s eye to contemporary art.

Associate Professor Ron Kenny, viewing an exhibition held in the 1960s in the University College Pimlico Refectory. Photograph: James Cook University Records.

As president of the Townsville Art Society, Ron facilitated many exhibitions of contemporary art: original prints by Kenneth Jack, the Esso Collection of Australian Paintings and several shows of contemporary painting from the Queensland Art Gallery. The Peter Stuyvesant exhibition ‘Art of the Space Age’ was attended by over 4000 people in the 10 days that it was shown in Townsville.

Lack of dedicated gallery spaces meant these exhibitions were unpacked, hung and staffed by members of the Townsville Art Society in empty shops, Council Chambers, car dealerships, wherever space could be found. All this activity demonstrated that Townsville needed an Art Gallery, an ambition that was first realized in the early 1970s, when a small exhibition space was created in the Old School of Arts building in Stanley Street. Ron also persuaded his friend Ralph Martin to set up a small private gallery at the back of his Flinders’ Street pharmacy. The Perc Tucker Regional Gallery was finally established in 1981.

Associate Professor Ron Kenny, Campus News, 20 August 1986, page 4. Photograph: James Cook University of North Queensland.

Inspired by these demonstrations of community interest, local businesses sponsored art prizes that attracted entries from all over Australia, further expanding local awareness of contemporary practices and influencing the practices of professional contemporary artists. It led to the eventual establishment of: a National Portrait prize at the Regional Gallery; a flourishing alternative exhibition space at Umbrella Studio with an internationally known yearly print exhibition; artist residencies there and at the University; and shows touring nationally, curated from the Townsville community—to mention just a few highlights.

 Pressure from the Art Society created a demand for art courses at TAFE. These were highly successful with interstate and international staff, and morphed into the College of Music, Visual Arts and Theatre at James Cook University in 1991. It is sad that Ron Kenny did not live to see the move of practice-based tertiary art education to his very own University. He would have been delighted. But he would have been equally disappointed to know that a restructuring of the program in 2006 led to its eventual demise. However, it is good to know that practice-based Art Education is still thriving and continuing locally at the TAFE.

With an acquisition by the University of an artwork by John Coburn (also marked as one of the Fifty Treasures) from the Johnstone Gallery in Brisbane, Ron persuaded the Warden of the Townsville University College, Dr. (later Professor) Ken Back, to start a University Art Collection. Ron became its Honorary Curator in 1964, proudly showing off every purchase to his students and staff.

The James Cook University Art Collection has grown from strength to strength. It includes paintings, original prints, sculptures and ceramics by most significant Australian as well as notable north Queensland artists. The collection now graces the walls of the University’s buildings in Townsville and Cairns and at other University locations, greatly enriching the campus experience.

Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections will be unveiling 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University.

Donated by Ralph Martin on 9 August 2019 to the James Cook University Art Collection in memory of Ron Kenny, Academic, Artist and Mentor. Location of place depicted is Alma Bay, Magnetic Island.


Author Biographies

Helene Marsh, Emeritus Professor of Environmental Science at JCU, was Ron Kenny's first doctoral student and the first woman to graduate with a PhD from JCU. Helene's many roles at JCU included inaugural Head of the Department (later School) of Tropical Environmental Studies and Geography and inaugural Dean, Graduate Research. Helene is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (currently a Vice-President and the Secretary, Biological Sciences) and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and has received national and international prizes for her research. Helene has supervised 58 research doctoral candidates to successful completion with several more in the pipeline.

Dr. Anneke Silver - professional artist and art educator for over 60 years, trained in the Netherlands and gained her PhD at JCU, where she was Associate Professor and Program Leader of Visual Art until 2006. With over 40 solo exhibitions and 70 group shows to her name, she has won numerous art prizes and created many public art works. Silver's work is represented in public and private collections including the National Gallery of Australia, Queensland Art Gallery and Queensland Parliament House. Craftsman House and Perc Tucker Regional Gallery have published books on her. She has done residencies in France, Netherlands, USA and Hill End, Australia.

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