by Neometro

The Justin Art House Museum

Design - by Open Journal

Retired architect Charles Justin designed the first three of his family homes. For the most recent, he let his daughter take the reigns.

“This one is streets ahead,” he says with conviction as we tour the one-year-old Justin Art House Museum in Prahran.

“The reason I know that is that my wife had no end of complaints about the first three, and there’s been not a peep for this one.”

After retiring five years ago from SJB, the behemoth architecture firm he founded, Charles Justin, along with wife Leah, turned their hands to a more personal project: putting their 300-piece art collection to good use.

Justin explains the motivations behind building a house museum – a space for both living and exhibiting – as we watch a video installation at JAHM’s entrance by Australian artist Stephen Haley.

Photo: Jaime Diaz Berrio, courtesy of Justin Architecture

“We wanted to share our collection with the public, to demonstrate how collectors live with their art and to explore ideas through the art,” he says.

The result – an unmissable converted apartment block shrouded in an angular metallic coat – can’t help but catch the attention of passing drivers on busy Williams Road.

“We’re in show business, and you can’t be shy in retirement,” Justin says with a grin.

If the exterior is somewhat harsh in its grey finish, JAHM immediately gives way to colour upon entrance, where visitors are greeted by an electric rainbow staircase, or, for those more inclined – an elevator fitted with a vibrant, striped artwork by artist Paul Snell.

Charles and Leah (who works in education at the Jewish Museum of Australia) tour visitors themselves – and take care of almost all the behind-the-scenes work.

“I hang all the exhibitions, Leah does the catering,” he explains as we make our way up to the first floor, after a quick peek at what doubles as both the Justins’ garage and JAHM’s projection room.

The couple has a part-time gallery assistant and an intern one day per week, but only during their exhibition periods – one exhibition of their own works each year (mostly emerging Australian artists), and one for which they appoint an external curator.

Photo: Jaime Diaz Berrio, courtesy of Justin Architecture

Currently JAHM is exhibiting ‘Digital: The World of Alternative Realities’, which explores the couple’s own digitally-generated works.

This includes a mesmerising and spatially-disturbing video installation from revered artist Daniel Crooks – played for visitors once the Justin’s have moved their cars out of the garage.

It’s this double-use of space that reminds visitors they are not simply touring a museum; they are inside someone’s home.

“One of the interesting things about house museums is that they’re all idiosyncratic and reflect the persona of the collector,” Justin says, referencing Melbourne’s first iteration of the concept: the Lyon House Museum in Kew.

He says the decision to separate the ground floor and first floor gallery spaces from their top-floor apartment, unlike Lyon House Museum owner Corbett Lyon, was important.

“[Corbett] has embedded the exhibition into his house, but we didn’t want to do that.

“We wanted to be able to close the door when we needed to.”

As a result, the first floor of JAHM does feel like a gallery space, albeit intimate, and without explanation plaques, which Justin believes can prejudice an observer’s reaction.

Most fascinating for visitors of JAHM is the insight into how Charles and Leah – who specialise in architecture, art and education between them – have negotiated the very personal intersections of their passions.

“I’m a big believer that the architecture shouldn’t intrude on appreciating the art,” Justin says.

“That goes generally for architecture – you need to make sure it doesn’t become so dominant that people don’t have breathing space.”

But, Justin emphasises as he points gestures to the fairy-floss pink walls, “We’re not black box people”.

JAHM is nothing if not flexible, and the Justins have committed to re-painting the walls to reflect each exhibition. Next up: blood red, for the upcoming exhibit ‘Black, White and Read All Over’.

Inside JAHM, the couple’s obvious passion for their collection adds another layer of meaning to the artworks themselves – the Justins advocate “slow art” (think: the slow cooking movement), and ask their visitors to consider a piece for much longer than the average 6–36 seconds.

Tours, which cost $25 for adults, are discursive in style and encourage participation and interpretation from guests.

Justin says visitors are mostly not “art people” per se, and are often most interested in what’s above the first two floors.

As we reach the couple’s third-floor apartment, it’s clear why.

Despite being pristine, impeccably styled and conspicuously adorned with modern art, it is quite obvious you are no longer viewing a gallery. You are viewing a couple’s private residence, and it’s fascinating.

Photo: Jaime Diaz Berrio, courtesy of Justin Architecture

At the conclusion of tours, visitors are invited upstairs for refreshments and to sticky beak into every room – even the bathrooms, which haven’t been forgotten by the curators.

As for the most burning question – how they keep the apartment so neat – Justin is pragmatic.

“You don’t let mess build up. It’s the same amount of work, the question is when you do it.”

Both passion and attention to detail are in abundance at JAHM, where the Justins even arrange their personal library to feature books relevant to the current exhibition.

It’s clear the couple believes art should be collected thoughtfully, slowly and not for social status or name-dropping.

Justin says the pair of cream leather couches in the living room are thirty years old, but he sees no reasons to upgrade.

It’s this authentic connection to artifacts – artistic and not – which makes JAHM a space so worth the visit.

“It’s like displaying the archeology of your life,” says Justin.

Words: Rose Donohoe


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