For the Joy of It: WA Women’s Hall of Fame Honouree Dorothea Hansen-Knarhoi on her Long Career as an AGWA Guide

In a special ceremony on International Women’s Day this month, long-serving AGWA Gallery Guide Dorothea Hansen-Knarhoi was inducted into the Western Australian Women’s Hall of Fame for her extensive contribution to arts and culture in this state.

Instrumental in launching the Voluntary Gallery Guides in 1977, Dorothea has played a vital role in making the Gallery’s rich collection and exhibitions accessible to the varied audiences that attend each year.

We caught up with Dorothea to hear more about her career as a guide and how the Voluntary Gallery Guides association – and the Gallery – have evolved over the years.

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A favourite work in the AGWA Collection. G F Watts. Una and the Red Cross Knight 1869 (detail). Oil on canvas. 167.3 x 184.7 cm (framed) 134.6 x 152.4 cm (sight). State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased 1959.

You were one of the original guides who came together to form the Voluntary Gallery Guides association. Could you tell us a bit more about how it all came together?

Well, my job in life was as a physiotherapist. And when my children were little, I decided I didn’t want to work, but I needed something to keep my brain going. I enrolled in a fine art course at Claremont Technical School and it opened a whole new world to me. When a couple of friends said that they’d been doing some research here at the Gallery and suggested starting the Guides, I said, wonderful. I just love being around works of art. We started off with about twenty people who loved art, who were artists or people who’d done this course (at Claremont Technical School).

 

How do you think the guiding philosophy has changed over the years? 

I think it’s evolved in different ways. Everyone does it differently. But I really like to get the public talking with me. People enjoy it so much more if they can be involved. We don’t really want people just giving a lecture.

When I started, we didn’t have an official training course – we virtually trained ourselves. Now we have this training course and the emphasis is on ways to guide. When we do tours, we think it’s important to have links so that you have a reason to move from one painting to another and you’ve got a theme to take you through.

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Dorothea in 1982

Do you have any particular stories that come to mind about tours you’ve done or people you’ve met along the way?

Once when I had a children’s tour, there was this little fellow who didn’t seem to be very interested and then gradually came out of himself and started talking. In the end, he said, “I’m going to go home and get my mum and dad to come into this Gallery!” He would have been about nine or 10. It was so rewarding because you don’t often get feedback like that.

And one of the funny ones, this is the Sidney Nolan exhibition (Landscapes and Legends, 1987) – I had a huge crowd of around 50 people. At the end of the tour I said, “if you’ve got any questions, I’ll try to answer them.” A hand went up; and this woman said “could you tell me where you get your hair cut?” (laughs)

 

How do you feel the Gallery’s collection or exhibitions have changed since you’ve been a Guide?

When we first started guiding, there was hardly any Aboriginal Art and we kept saying: when people come from overseas, they want to see something that’s different; that is not other European artists, but our own works of art that are quite different from anywhere else. The first Aboriginal Art exhibition we had was the Art of the Western Desert exhibition (1979). Now, of course, we have plenty of Aboriginal Art and that’s great. But it took a long time to build up the collection and to build up the understanding that there was an audience for it. I feel that’s a great progression that has happened.

 

What does being a guide at AGWA mean to you?

What I think a guide should do is enrich people’s understanding of our own work, our own history and our own culture; but also the history and culture of other countries. 

I just love being around works of art and I loved communicating it to the public, especially if they would join in. I loved being able to open their eyes, when I could. And because I was also a physiotherapist, which is a very practical and scientific based thing, it was a lovely balance. I just found it a joy to do.

 

Guided tours bring the State Art Collection to life and offer visitors unexpected ways to engage deeply with artworks, exhibitions and their connections to West Australian history.

Experience how a guided tour can enrich your visit to the Gallery by attending a free Wesfarmers Arts guided tour of the State Collection and special exhibitions, running Wednesday – Monday. Free private tours can also be booked for small groups by contacting educate@artgallery.wa.gov.au (four weeks’ notice required).