A tireless champion of local artists

BRONWEN COLMAN June 26, 1965-September 17, 2023

 

By Rebecca Townsend and Lauren Berkowitz

Image credit: Bronwen Colman. Photo: Possum Creek Studios


Bronwen Colman had a lifelong passion for the arts and leaves an extraordinary legacy of public artworks that transformed urban spaces in Melbourne and beyond.

From Docklands and the Royal Children’s Hospital in her hometown of Melbourne, through to major public art masterplans like the Brisbane River Art Framework, Bronwen influenced arts policy nationally and advocated for exceptional public art commissioning across Australia.

She developed unique skills – curator, designer and project manager – over more than three decades in the arts. Her career spanned management and leadership roles within the Victoria Premier’s Department, the Melbourne Docklands Authority, Stonnington Council, the City of Melbourne and later at the McClelland Gallery.

A tireless champion of local artists, Bronwen encouraged creators to imagine their work on the largest possible canvass. Jade Oakley summed up the Colman method in her tribute.

“My first public artwork was commissioned by Bronwen for the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne,” Oakley says. “This was a huge leap for me, as at the time I was making small artworks with my own hands, yet Bronwen not only had faith that I could translate these fragile artworks into large, durable artworks – she was able to share my vision for what I wanted to create, and envisage the calibre of artist that I could be. This commission was a pivotal moment in my career. I will always be grateful to Bronwen for giving me such a significant opportunity at the very start of my career as a public artist.”

Oakley’s Sky Garden was one of two major sculptures Bronwen commissioned for the Royal Children’s Hospital. The other was Alexander Knox’s Creature. He says Bronwen encouraged him “to be audacious and playful sculpturally which ended up 14 metres high, kinetic, playable, child-centric work”.

Image credit: Alexander Knox, Creature, 2011, steel, GFP and carbon fibre with kinetic elements and control system, 14 x 10 x 6 m, Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. Photo: Christian Capurro

 

“She had an expansive vision of what a public sculpture needed to achieve and communicate, both in a spacial and aesthetic sense but also importantly therapeutically,” Knox says. “She was fun, informal and supportive to work with. I will miss her energy and humanity.”

Bronwen was not a public figure. Her unflinching modesty meant that even her peers were often unaware of the scope of her work. She built collaborative bridges between three distinctive worlds – the artistic community, the building and construction sector, and government.

As the director of urban art at Melbourne Docklands Authority (now VicUrban) between 1999 and 2007, she developed a policy and masterplan to guide the commissioning of public art for the 200-hectare precinct over a 20-year timeframe.

Reserve Bank board member and Women’s Leadership Institute Australia chair Carol Schwartz worked with Bronwen at Docklands. “Her sense of aesthetics was incomparable,” Schwartz says. “And she combined this with a fastidiousness and commitment to make the Docklands artworks not only contribute to the attractiveness and amenity of the entire precinct, but to ensure each work withstood the test of time. Working with Bronwen was one of the highlights of my time as a director on the Docklands board.”

Bronwen oversaw a $50 million budget and 35 large-scale installations, including the 22-metre Eagle by Bruce Armstrong to commemorate the naming of Wurundjeri Way and Webb Bridge, a collaboration between artist Robert Owen and architects Denton Corker Marshall.

 

Image credit: Robert Owen and Denton Corker Marshall, Webb Bridge, 2003, Melbourne Docklands. Photo: Walking Perspective

 

“Bronwen was an exceptional public art manager, her warmth and professionalism made working with her a true pleasure,” Owen says. “She possessed a rare gift for blending clarity and precision with an open-hearted, human touch. Her dedication to the intricate details of large-scale endeavours never overshadowed her approachability and kindness.”

That compassion was felt by another of Bronwen’s Docklands alumni, artist Geoffrey Bartlett.

“I had been asked to make a submission for a sculpture that was to be placed on the corner of Harbour Esplanade and Bourke Street in Melbourne CBD,” Bartlett says. “As a country boy, I was immediately struck by her sophistication, poise and elegance. My wife was to die shortly after, and it was only through Bronwen’s kind support that I was able to complete that commission. We remained close friends.”

Her foundational work at Docklands was preceded by two years as the arts adviser to the Kennett government between 1995 and 1997 which encompassed state-funded theatre companies, dance companies, museums, libraries, regional galleries, art centres, Film Victoria and multimedia. She had a leading role in the development and implementation of the government’s strategy to position Victoria as “the state for the arts” – a framework that both sides of politics subsequently built on.

Her role as public art consultant at the Royal Children’s Hospital between 2008 and 2011 saw her create the arts policy and masterplan for the integration of public art with the design of the new hospital.

Between 2014 and 2023, Bronwen was senior curator for public art consultancy Creative Road. During this time, she was a major contributor to public art strategies and commissioned artworks across Australia, including the 2015 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, the Parramatta Road urban amenity project, Brisbane Airport domestic terminal upgrade and the Canberra Hospital expansion project.

 

Image credit: Stuart Green, All Eyes on Us - The Commonwealth Star, 2018, Surfers Paradise Esplanade, commissioned by Festival 2018 as part of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games through the Queensland Government and City of Gold Coast. Photo: Callie Marshall

 

The City of Melbourne’s public art project lead Amy Barclay reflects: “Bronwen’s dynamism was powered by the sharp mind of a lawyer, the creativity of an erudite art lover and the warmth of friendship. Her artist briefs crackled with vibrancy and possibility, informed by her attuned comprehension of the policies and frameworks that govern a process or shape a place, yet animated by her personal enthusiasm for every opportunity for artists and art to flourish.”

Bronwen battled breast cancer for five years with grace and resilience before passing away in September. She is survived by her husband and daughter, and leaves behind one of Australia’s great collections of public art which will continue to delight and challenge generations to come.

Rebecca Townsend is the director of Creative Road; Lauren Berkowitz is a Melbourne-based artist. With art consultant Sarah Ritson and public art project lead at the City of Melbourne Amy Barclay.

This text has been previously published by the Sydney Morning Herald, December 7, 2023 at 10.11am.

 

 

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