Rie Heymans interview, 7 July 2014 and 10 July 2014

Dublin Core


Rie Heymans interview, 7 July 2014 and 10 July 2014


Art Gallery


Born in The Hague, Netherlands in 1932, Rie Heymans' early life was informed by wartime Europe, a time she recalls when she was always hungry. Post war, Rie and her husband David left Europe bound for Queensland and it was only Rie’s debilitating onboard sickness that led the couple to leave the ship in Fremantle and settle in Western Australia. Their early migrant years were difficult until David became involved in the local arts community which led, in 1968, to Rie and David, with little experience, opening the Old Fire Station Gallery in Leederville.

In the interview, Rie discusses her approach to gallery ownership, the emerging artists she exhibited, and the Perth arts community in the 1960s and 70s. Despite the success of the Old Fire Station Gallery, Rie says of running an art gallery: “It isn’t an easy game.” And hence in 1976, Rie accepted the position of Curator of Pictures at UWA, a position she held until taking early retirement in 1989.

Rie talks about the direction she chose to take with the university’s art collection: filling the gaps in the collection and placing an emphasis on collecting women artists. Rie was keen to acquire works by artists who, escaping pre-war Europe, made their homes in Australia and contributed to a more urban view of Australian art. Rie discusses her philosophy towards building the collection; her fund raising events for the new university art gallery. She speaks of the challenges faced by artists today with less money and fewer opportunities.
In 1990, Rie was awarded the Order of Australia in recognition of her contribution to the visual arts.


Heymans, Rie


University of Western Australia Historical Society


Copyright holder University of Western Australia


MP3 files


Oral History

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Anne Yardley


Maria Rie Heymans


Jolimont, WA


Interview 1: 1 hour, 11 minutes
Interview 2: 58 minutes
Total: 2 hours, 9 minutes

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbs

Time Summary

Interview 1

0:00 Introduction by Anne Yardley
00:30 Rie was born in The Hague, Netherlands in 1932 and has one sister. She grew up during the difficult war years: despite being hungry all the time , the girls sometimes found excitment with no school and the freedom to wander the streets for days on end, playing and salvaging wood for fires. Often cooked potato peelings formed the evening meal, it was especially difficult for her mother. Rie believes the experience toughened her up for later life: “I can’t really explain it—it made me vehemently anti-war—always have been. I was marching against the Vietnam War…. I didn’t want other kids to go through that because it was terrifying.”
04:25 Rie has little recollection of returning to school post war but does remember it felt strange. At high school she loved languages and history and wanted to become a lawyer. Rie’s father didn’t believe in education for girls and she had to work very hard just to be allowed to finish school. As a child of divorced parents, she was discriminated against when applying for jobs, despite having excellent school results. She did eventually take an office job: “it wasn’t what I wanted to do, it was just a job.”
09:15 Rie met her future husband David through friendship with his sister in the Girl Guides, which she disliked: “I hated camping with a passion.” He lived in New Guinea for two years and on his return they decided to marry and migrate. Quotas were full for the United States and Canada: “because everyone wanted to leave. Europe was in ruins.” In 1953, they chose Queensland but Rie’s severe onboard sickness convinced them to leave the ship at Fremantle. In hindsight, Rie believes her sickness was due to stress. She was frightened of the move. Fortunately, the WA coastline from Gages Road looked inviting.
14:15 Through a Dutch clergyman on the wharf, they found unappealing accommodation in Beaconsfield: crowded and very basic. Rie describes their first days in Perth and job hunting. They found work in at the Walpole guest house. The landscape, recently burnt, was “ghastly”. The work was tough, long hours and hard work. David was clearing land and milking cows.
18:30 On early feelings about moving to Perth: “I wish I never had, I was lonely, people were unpleasant and rude. Australians didn’t welcome migrants in the 1950s.” David studied interior design at TAFE and met David Foulkes Taylor and was invited to work with him. With no galleries in Perth at that time, David Foulkes Taylor showed artists, such as Robert Juniper and Guy Grey Smith, in his showroom. Rie and David met local artists where they were welcomed.
21:40 Introduction to this community was very important for Rie’s future career: they developed an interest and knowledge in art. Rie visited New York at the invitation of friends. She visited galleries and went to the theatre: “my eyes were out on stalks.” She found work at the Australian Consulate and studied the history of art at the Pratt Institute of Fine Art in Brooklyn. She would like to have stayed but David didn’t want to move.
25:15 Rie was terrified about running an art gallery, but David pursued the idea and rented the Old Fire Station in McCourt, Leederville to start an art gallery [which ran from 1968 to 1976]. They borrowed money and did most of the work themselves: “It was very brazen but we had the support of many, many artists…it took off and went very well.”
29:15 Rose Skinner, at the Skinner Galleries , showed mostly well known, established artists like Sidney Nolan. Apart from Cremorne Gallery in Hay Street, no one else showed local artists. Rie and David chose to show young local artists most of whom had not previously exhibited and who stayed loyal to the gallery: “It was exciting ... no money in it, but that didn’t seem to matter as long as we could make ends meet.”
30:50 There were no other galleries in the late 1960s but much later there was a flourish of galleries. Most closed their doors with the GFC [Global Financial Crisis 2007-2008]. Rie learnt to run a gallery “by trail and error” and the use of common sense.
31: 55 “It’s the selection of artists that’s important … if the work appealed to me, even if I didn’t think it was saleable, but I felt it was good work, I would show it.” Some shows therefore barely made a profit, the more popular ones balanced things out. Miriam Stannage, for example was difficult to sell then. Now Chris Capper sells now for $3,500 - $4,000 Rie battled to sell his work for $250 or $300. The artists she has shown have all done well. [Rie believed it was important to support local artists and amongst those were many women like Miriam Stannage, Nola Farman. Carol Rudyard, Elise Blumann, Portia Bennett, Marie Hobbs, Helen Grey-Smith ,Helen Taylor, Mary Dudin and others].
34:00 Prices were determined in consultation with the artist, Rie taking 25 per cent commission, all the costs were the gallery’s. Now galleries charge 40 to 50 per cent with artists paying costs. Rie did all the work herself: climbing ladders to hang paintings, writing media releases, developing and executing marketing ideas. [You have to unpack works, carry them and put them on the walls. When you are by yourself, as I was in the Old Fire Station it is hard work. You are up and down ladders, adjusting lights and hanging paintings. You need to be good with an electric drill and screwdriver etc. When you have a ceramics or a sculpture show you lug those around. It is not easy. Setting up a show is very physically demanding.]
37:50 Rie chose work based on her personal preferences, sale-ability came second. She found that people without art knowledge are often attracted to showy work of little merit: “Rubbish sells readily”.
40:00 Rie discusses the challenges of running an art gallery: “Keeping your head above water” is number one; the work is physically difficult; being tough enough to let people down gently when their work is not good enough. During the nickel boom people spent money on art. Rie didn’t sell art for investment, her advice to buyers was to buy work they wanted to live with and if it increased in value, all the better.
45:15 “To stick it in a vault because you bought it as an investment, that’s not buying art.” The relationship with her clients was important: offering them good pictures and her advice. Competition between galleries was very competitive.
48:45 Relationships with the artists was “fantastic and they’re still my friends, still.” On her retirement from UWA a breakfast was organised with artists presenting a piece of work to her for the occasion. She was given over 140 pieces of art.
50:40 Art training was good then as artists taught students. For example, Guy Grey Smith taught at Curtin, Robert Juniper taught at Guildford Grammar School and they passed on their knowledge. Most artists needed to teach to earn a living.
52:00 Rie gave up the Old Fire Station Gallery when the mining boom collapsed and her marriage ended. She made a late application for the position of curator at UWA and was offered the job after appearing before the University Art Collection Board of Management which included David Lawe Davies, Headmaster Guildford Grammar School as Chairman. Rie was successful she says because she was a hard worker and used her imagination to promote artists and the gallery. Importantly she was a board member of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council and had run a successful private art gallery over many years.
With the Australia Council, Rie travelled around Australia meeting artists and gallery owners at public hearings to determine how best to run a successful arts program. The Whitlam years were exciting for the visual arts, theatre, dance.
55:50 Rie was introduced to interstate artists through this work and she exchanged artists with, for instance, Watters Gallery in Sydney. At UWA, Rie showed Fred Williams, Sidney Nolan, Charles Blackman, among others, at the Undercroft. Rie describes these and other shows at the Undercroft as very exciting.
57:00 Rie’s brief as Curator of Pictures was to look after the university’s collection; establish an exhibition program over 12 months and purchase new works of art. Purchases had to be within the modest annual budget which, while augmented by bequests from the John Collins bequest and others, was still small. Rie travelled interstate to view collections. She describes the collection she inherited: a strong core of Antipodean artists—Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, John Percival, Charles Blackman. Rie discusses works by Nolan in the collection.
59:00 Local artists included Guy Grey Smith, Robert Juniper, Geoffrey Allen plus graphics and silk screens from European artists that “didn’t make sense.” Others had been bought from the Skinner Galleries and Rie’s gallery. The collection lacked cohesion and Rie attempted to fill the gaps. For instance: “Women had been completely ignored.” Rie believes she did reasonably well on a small budget. Women artists were still cheap to acquire then.
1:02:36 Acquiring the works Rie wanted meant scouring catalogues and staying in contact with galleries Australia wide. One interesting group came from Europe in the 1930s escaping Nazism: “they were damn good painters and they hadn’t been collected,” because they weren’t painting traditional Australian scenes. Rie had to present works she wished to acquire to a monthly board meeting: “it’s not easy to convince academics as a non-academic and a woman.”
1:07:00 By the end of her tenure, Rie was able to make themed exhibitions with the works she had acquired. The criteria was for Australian artists: to acquire historical works to fill the gaps and strengthen the contemporary collection.
1:08:00 The collection was housed all over campus. Annually a stocktake was done to check the condition of works, for instance, some had been hanging in the sun, some had disappeared. Staff could chose works to put on their walls. The Australia Council had a system for registering works which Rie adopted to ensure a solid record, she then rented a suitable warehouse to store the works in preparation for the new gallery [to replace the Undercroft previously used for exhibitions].

Interview 2

00:00 Introduction by Anne Yardley
00:35 Rie discusses the European artists [mentioned in interview 1] and the contribution they made to Australian art :
Yosl Bergner, a Jewish artist form Warsaw. Rie discusses her reasons for buying The Pie Eaters; and German artist Elise Blumann “a strong gutsy painter” Rie describes Summer Nude and On the Swan at Nedlands; Evening on the Yarra Claris Beckett,was gifted to the collection, “a beautiful picture.”.
05:20 Some Australian artists understood the European newcomers, for instance Melbourne artist, Noel Counihan: The Pumpkin Seller – painting what life was like for many in Melbourne; Harold Vike, a Norwegian socialist who lived in Perth, his work The Reading Room and People on a Tram. Rie says they are “a slice of life” and works depicting urban life are as important as bush scenes.
10:05 At times it was difficult and stressful convincing the board to collect these painters. The board included a student guild member nominated by students. Rie recalls Digby Cullen and John Carruthers.
13:00 Rie explains how she attracted donations. It was very competitive and hard work. She gave talks to various groups and was often invited to view people’s private collections. Tax deductibility encouraged donations.
17:30 Acquisitions most commonly came through purchases which meant going to every exhibition for local, contemporary artists. The works would be shown to the Board. Rie would notify all galleries in Australia of work she sought.
18:50 Rie was keen to collect women artists as there were few apart from Elizabeth Durack in the collection. She describes Adelaide Perry’s Woman Pilot, 1931, as another strong image: “Those sorts of women should be in a university collection. They are just as important as the male artists.” Rie discusses other women artists.
21:15 It was difficult for women artists to make a living, Rie believes it is still somewhat true today. Portia Bennett painted Perth city, on site, as it was in the 1940a: Hotel Adelphi, 1948, on St George’s Terrace. Her husband didn’t approve of her painting.
26:42 Rie hoped to encourage students and anyone interested in Australian art. She tried to get a thread running from early Australian artists through to today’s artists. Rie mentions Ian Fairweather’s works that were gifted to the collection by Rose Skinner. A Melbourne dealer, Joseph Brown, also made donations.
31:25 The Visual Arts Board made many important works available and provided money for purchases. There was more money available in the 1970s. On her success, Rie says she transferred her methods from the Old Fire Station to the university. Rie used her own imagination to get publicity for the gallery. For instance the 9 x 5 and Love a Duck promotions.
33:50 Rie discusses the “9 x 5” promotion in 1989: 100 years after the original 9 x 5 exhibition in Melbourne where artists produced an exhibition of work painted on cigar box lids. Rie used 3 ply cut to size and asked artists to paint pictures which were then sold for fund raising. Bob Gregson acted as auctioneer and every picture was sold. Rie describes the function and how it operated.
37:30 “Love a Duck” was an earlier promotion in 1987. Ducks were made by an artist from palm fronds, Rie asked artists to paint the ducks which were auctioned in a similar event which raised over $30,000. Artists who contributed included Ken Done, Robert Juniper, Leon Pericles. Artists entered into the spirit of the event, they were prepared to assist to get a better gallery for the university’s collection. Their contribution went towards the furnishings.
42:10 On the challenges of the Undercroft as a gallery: the screens had to be dismountable as the Undercroft was needed for exams, Save the Children Fund book sale and other events. Despite the challenges: “we managed to have some good exhibitions that I’m still proud of.” There’d be about 12 exhibitions per year. There was a further gallery space at the back of the Undercroft near Rie’s office, literally a broom cupboard.
44:05 On what gave Rie the greatest pride: her acquisitions, especially the artists from Europe and the women artists. She didn’t plan to leave UWA [in 1989] before the new gallery was opened—it would have been a good place to work but her husband had retired and was keen for them to spend more time in their holiday house.
She had a great send off—a large group of local artists took her, and husband Ian, to breakfast and presented her with over 100 small scale sculptures and works: “They spoiled me rotten.”
48:00 Post UWA, Rie was asked to be on the selection committee for three new court buildings. She helped the City of Joondalup for several years and became a board member at the Art Gallery of WA before her husband, Ian, died. In 1989 Rie received a letter from Canberra asking if she would accept an Order of Australia. She felt embarrassed as it didn’t seem right to have an honour for doing something she enjoyed doing. She received the award on Australia Day 1990. Rie has often felt an outsider as a migrant and says It can still be hurtful not to be considered Australian. With the OA, for the first time she felt accepted as an Australian. She has no idea who nominated her.
53:34 Reflecting on her life in the Arts community, Rie says she thought she was cheeky to take it on without a Fine Arts degree: “I was thrown in off the deep end and I think I did a reasonable job, which is pleasing, but I think it was a bit of cheek.”
54:30 On the arts community in Perth now: “It’s in a sad position now since the GFC.” Many important galleries have closed their doors which makes it harder now for artists to earn a living: “I don’t know how they’re surviving.” It’s a lot of work for artists to produce the artwork and promote their own work.
[Rie makes the point that artists struggling in Western Australia is nothing new. They have always had it a lot harder because of our geographical isolation: “I recently bought a stunning linocut from an artist who has just finished a post-graduate degree at Curtin in Fine Arts and he has to do his work in the evenings as during the day he works as a bus driver. Artists have no easy job and I for one wanted to support them”.]
“We’ve gone backwards since the global financial crisis.” The state Art Gallery “can do a lot in supporting young local artists….and dare I say it, they’re not doing that.” Rie says the recent Guy Grey Smith is fantastic and very well curated but notes that it’s taken more than 30 years after his death to mount the exhibition.



Heymans, Rie, “Rie Heymans interview, 7 July 2014 and 10 July 2014,” UWA Historical Society: UWA Histories, accessed July 13, 2024, https://oralhistories.arts.uwa.edu.au/items/show/66.