Arts Hub

26 Apr Arts Hub

Charles and Leah Justin’s new house won’t just be a private home but also a museum where visitors can see their collection and talk about art over a coffee.


We have witnessed the slow rise of the private museum in Australia, galleries such as the White Rabbit Gallery and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney, TarraWarra and Heide Museums of Modern Art in Victoria, and the recently celebrated Museum of New and Old Art in Hobart.

But a new kind of private museum is developing, situated in a private home and crossing the boundaries between house and museum.

Melbourne architect Charles Justin and wife Leah have been collecting contemporary art for more than 40 years. They now want to extend that passion by sharing their 250+ strong collection with the public and, to do so, they are building the Justin Art House Museum (JAHM).

Co-founder and director of the firm SJB, Charles Justin began the practice with Michael Bialek and Alan Synman in 1976. He is known for projects including NewQuay at Docklands, CBW on the corner of Bourke & William Street Melbourne, and St Margarets in Sydney. He retired in 2012.

Justin told ArtsHub that the idea was inspired by the Lyon Housemuseum, which opened in the Melbourne suburb of Kew in 2001 in the home of collectors Corbett Lyon and Yueji Lyon. ‘It was the one that really got me thinking…that personal commitment,’ he added.

This concept is not new or exclusive to Australia. Most famous are the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the Frick Collection in New York, Sir John Soane Museum in London, and Justin added to that list the Sammlung Hoffmannn Museum in Berlin, the home-museum of Erika and Folf Hoffmann.

What is key to this version of the private museum is its intimacy. It is not a separate, warehouse-style vault, shared with the public, rather people are invited into the collector’s home.

A personal experience

Justin told ArtsHub: ‘It’s a very effective way of sharing your collection with others. It’s of a scale comparable to a small public gallery, but our vision is to have a more personalised experience.

‘This is a “mum and dad operation”. We are going to run the space, hang the art ourselves, and take people through. We’ll invite people into our home for morning or afternoon tea and a bit of a chat verses the more formal idea of viewing art.’

‘We are trying to get a bit of a hybrid experience,’ he added.

JAHM is scheduled to open its doors early 2016. Located in the residential suburb of Prahran, it has been designed by the Justins’ architect daughter from  the start-up firm Justin Architects, and will be distinctive for its striking zinc façade. Its abstract geometric lines echo the works held in the Justin Collection, being a kind of visual teaser of what people can expect.

A visit to JAHM will not only cover the current exhibition, which will rotate on a quarterly cycle, but also the home itself so visitors may appreciate how a collector selects and lives with his art.

‘I think every private museum is unique; probably the word distinctive is better. Commercial galleries have a different agenda, as do public galleries. The private museum reflects the persona of the person. You get to engage with the owner directly. Otherwise why would they come to us? We’d just be offering a watered down version,’ said Justin.

The exhibitions

Reflecting the architectural background of Charles Justin, the collection has a strong focus on the theme of “space”. Some of the artists held within the collection include: Richard Blackwell, Stephen Bram, Don Deieso, Gina Jones, Melinda Harper, Anne Mestitz, Justin Andrews, among others.

Justin said what excited him most was dreaming up themes for the exhibitions. The opening exhibition will be guest curated by Rachel Kohn, the ABC presenter and producer of The Spirit of Things, and will explore how abstract art can represent the manifestation of an abstract divine.

‘Most of our collection is non-figurative and minimalist abstract geometric work. We are interesting in the idea of exploring abstract art as a manifestation of abstract design. Design is taking on a character that is a non corporeal understand art as a medium through which to explore meaning. More people go to art galleries than go to church,’ said Justin.

The first exhibition statement by JAHM adds that this inaugural exhibition will explore the notion of the Divine in today’s secular, post enlightenment world and raise questions of whether art can be a meaningful alternative to religion to contribute meaning and spirituality in all our lives.

It will be followed by a group exhibition curated by the artist Justin Andrews and will take a look at geometric abstraction from an international perspective.

The exhibitions will be augmented by a public program of talks, panels and performances, which will be conducted in conjunction with educational institutions, in particularly partnering with MUMA.

Sustaining a private museum

While t he scale  of JAHM is equivalent to a commercial gallery, the structure is quite different, taking in living spaces as well as dedicated display.

‘There will be a separate gallery measuring 5.5 x 13 meters, an adjunct gallery space that is 3 x 4 meters, and then the house itself and a circulation space.

‘I can be a bit more relaxed about the standards given it is my own collection. We will have climate control, we are investing in good lighting infrastructure, and data is being piped through the place for audio-visual material.’

JAHM will operate as a not for profit enterprise and will be principally privately funded by the Justins. The costs will be defrayed by an admission fee.

Visits will be by registration only and this will be implemented via the website, and it is planned that up to three visits per week will be offered, as opposed to Lyon Housemuseum which offers only two a month.

‘We will be charging people around $20 as a value proposition. We are living in “the world of free” but I have this philosophy that if things are free they’re not appreciated as much. In this way our visitors are partnering in us in what we are doing,’ Justin told ArtsHub.


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