Corbett & Yueji Lyon: Hybrid hopes - Art Collector

Issue 54, October - December 2010

A young child rides her scooter gleefully through a contemporary art space. Nearby two Patricia Piccinini truck babies sit perched in front of a kitchen counter, while a three-panelled installation by Howard Arkley enfolds the walls of a formal dining room. It’s not a typical art museum reports Victoria Hynes. But then, nor is it a typical home.

Architect Corbett Lyon and his wife Yueji have been collecting contemporary art for two decades, building up bodies of work by more than 40 Australian artists. Keen to share their major collection, the Lyons sought an innovative way to display their collection to the public within the domestic setting of their own family home. The result is the Lyon Housemuseum. Located in the Melbourne suburb of Kew, the building offers a hybridised space – a combined private house and museum.

While the domestic museum is not a new concept – standout 19th and 20th century examples include the Frick Collection in New York and the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice – the Lyon Housemuseum challenges the paradigm of the pristine insular art museum. The design of the building centres around two large double-height museum spaces: a white cube at the front and a black box at the rear of the zinc clad building. The family’s living spaces are intentionally dispersed throughout the two buildings, blurring the spaces between the house and the museum.

Australian Art Collector interviewed the couple in 2003 during the early stages of design and construction. Now following the completion and opening of the complex to the public in September 2009, it seems a fitting time to revisit the Lyons and their ambitious cultural project.

“Living in the Housemuseum and balancing our public and private lives has been very challenging but also very interesting,” remarks Corbett Lyon. “When we first opened for public tours some of the groups we had through numbered more than 100, so we used the private retreat spaces quite a lot during those first few months. Now we’ve gotten quite used to the two modes of use and they’ve become part of the rhythm of our new, but admittedly unusual, daily family life.”

Lyon adds: “We now quite naturally extend our daily living out into all corners of the building. The black box where we show our video art is used often by our two teenage girls as a home cinema and sleepover space for their friends. My study doubles as the museum archive and we use the upstairs library space as our family reading area. So nearly all of the spaces in the house have a double function – both public and private.”

Artists such as Callum Morton worked closely with the Lyon family on the design and construction of the museum spaces. Many of the artworks are large-scale installations – including Patricia Piccinini’s Sandman (2002), Howard Arkley’s Fabricated Rooms (1998) and Morton’s International Style Compound (2000) – which required specially built large rooms for display.

Other artists in the collection include Linda Marrinon, John Nixon, Anne Zahalka, Tim Maguire, Kathy Temin and Tim Johnson.
“Our collection has expanded significantly since [Australian Art Collector] last spoke with us but its core values, and our interests remain the same,” says Lyon. “We continue to collect Australian artists who have something interesting and new to say about our contemporary condition and express this in interesting ways. We’re also committed to collecting artists in depth rather than trying to create a survey collection of Australian contemporary art.”

Lyon reports that the Housemuseum has nearly 2,000 people booked to visit during the second half of 2010. “Yueji and I give all of the weekly tours ourselves and people have responded very positively to that,” he says. “In October we have a delegation visiting from a major museum in the United States and last June the director and advisory board from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice visited as part of their Australian tour – so word must be getting out.”

With an unprecedented number of international art collectors building private museums, do private collectors now feel obliged to make their collections available to the public?

“That’s a matter of personal choice,” comments Lyon. “But it’s a real dilemma for many collectors. Do we keep our collection within the family? Do we donate some or part of it to a public institution? Or do we make our own space to show the work and make it available to the public?

“We chose the latter because it had always been our aim and we’d seen too many private (and corporate) collections sold off after three or four generations. We also felt we had a special opportunity to do something a little different – particularly considering our combined roles as the collectors, the resident family, the operators of the museum and designers of the building. That’s an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often.”

Perhaps this trend of private collector museums will lead to multiple innovations in the way art is displayed to the general public. The Lyon Housemuseum offers one such experimental model; as Callum Morton described it in Architecture Australia, it is “an idiosyncratic, purpose-built wonderland of Australian contemporary art”.

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