Opening Night Address by Museum Director & CEO Noè Harsel

July 27, 2023

Marie-Luise Skibbe, opening night of CHAGALL, Jewish Museum of Australia, 2023

I would like to acknowledge the lands on which we tell our stories and craft our beginnings, middles and ends. I pay my respects to the original people of these lands, the Boon Wurrung People of the Kulin Nation, here on what we now call St Kilda.

Our Jewish Museum is a place that is dear to so many of us — I came here myself as a young architecture graduate in the early 2000s, and Dr Helen Light AM, the Inaugural Director, of whom you will hear more of this evening, let me work on a couple of exhibitions on emigre architects. It was a place like no other, a place full of love, full of support and full of ideas about Jewish culture, a place that Helen Light imagined as “a safe place for unsafe ideas”.

And to be that place, one has to have the courage of vision, of dreaming and of character. The Jewish Museum, as a place for all people to share in the Australian Jewish experience has the opportunity to be an art and cultural institution on the world stage — one that can lead the way in diversity and inclusion, one that can have discussions that challenge our minds, warm our hearts and teach us something about ourselves.

What you see here today, over 45 years after the Museum was first imagined is all that possibility, courage and hope, embodied in the amazing talent that has brought you the beauty, glamour and intellect that is the 2023 flagship exhibition, CHAGALL.

Most of us are here as a result of the creative foresight of one person — Jess Bram, who is not able to be here tonight. Jess led us into a very dynamic phase: energising, emboldening and envisioning the Jewish Museum into a new era with our three flagships: MIRKA, HELMUT NEWTON: In Focus and now, CHAGALL. We all consider ourselves to be lucky to have worked with her; I consider myself lucky to have found a kindred spirit.

CHAGALL has allowed for all this dreaming and creativity with the most incredible group of technicians, designers, musicians, printers, documenters and installers — there are so many individuals here, that I would ask that you take a moment when you go upstairs to actually read the Thank You board outside the exhibition door. I want to name every single staff member (but I won’t) because the talent here is incredible. The Museum staff supported the install team, working tirelessly and with such dedication — without them, we wouldn’t have any of this.

We are grateful to all our supporters, and in particular thank you to our Principal Supporter: Gandel Philanthropy, Our Government Supporters: Creative Victoria, City of Port Philip and our Major Supports in the Loti & Victor Smorgon Family Foundation and the Dr Helen Light AM Giving Circle. I would also like to thank our Supporters in the Pratt Foundation, Pitcher Partners and I would like to acknowledge the support of Daniel Besen for which we are able to offer this exceptional Contemporary Australian Artist Commission of Yvette Coppersmith free to the public.

While we nod back to the very first exhibition here at 26 Alma Road, Helen Light’s Chagall and the Bible, this exhibition will introduce you to Chagall’s Printmaking, Poetry and Public Art. This is done through the most clever and talented curating and exhibition designing.

For those of you who have been to all the flagships here, you will know that we have been privileged to have the very well-known, prolific stage and costume designer Anna Tregloan with us before. You will once again see that she has created a space that is unique and magical, transporting you into a CHAGALL-esque world through a brilliant use of material, colour and light.

It is hard to believe that it was only 6 months ago that fate stepped in, bringing us the incredibly talented Jade Niklai, an internationally renowned art historian and curator. During this time, she has been busy — managing to redefine and recreate an experience of Chagall that will inspire you to not only know more about the man, but also about all aspects of his life: his relationship with identity, with women, and with the world.

Jade Niklai is a creative director, curator and consultant in contemporary art, architecture and design. She commissions and produces cultural projects with a focus on memory practices and social politics, urbanism and public discourse. With over 20 years of institutional, collaborative and independent practice experience, we are incredibly privileged to have had her working with us as our CHAGALL curator.

This year we were thrilled to be able to introduce the Australian Contemporary Artist Commission, which is an incredible addition to the Australian Jewish artistic landscape. When it came to decide who would be our inaugural commission, we wanted someone who was able to speak to the contemporary practice landscape, be someone who could capture the essence of identity and culture and whose art could speak across generations. So Yvette Coppersmith, with her beautiful work and her subliminal connections with Chagall felt perfect. Her immediate clarity and embracing of the project has made this a unique and incredible experience for all of us. We are honoured to be hosting this solo exhibition.

Yvette Coppersmith’s painting practice originally formed through portraiture in the realist tradition. Her first oil painting was a self-portrait and throughout a practice that spans 27 years, her work has developed to include still life and abstraction.

In 2018, Yvette was awarded the Archibald Prize for her painting ‘Self Portrait, after George Lambert’, and was the 10th woman to win the Prize. Her 2022 solo exhibition was in Sydney at Sullivan+Strumpf gallery, with this current series – Carnelian – being her first Melbourne solo show since 2016.