Disquiet Minds of Victoria – The Dax Centre


In 1947 Dr Eric Cunningham Dax AO first exhibited artwork created by people with an experience of mental illness. Today, The Dax Centre celebrates 70 years of art in mental health, with the launch of Disquiet Minds of Victoria.

This exhibition highlights the visionary work of Dr Dax in psychiatry and the arts, his exploration to understand the mind through art, changes in mental health care from institutional to community care, and the advancement of patient rights and biopsychosocial treatments. Some artworks have not been exhibited before.

During his lifetime Dr Dax tirelessly exhibited these art works that now have a permanent home at the Dax Centre at the University of Melbourne. The Cunningham Dax Collection is recognised as unique amongst international collections of psychiatric art. It is a heritage listed art collection with over 1500 artworks made by people with an experience of mental illness or trauma.

Dr Dax was appointed from the UK, to become Chairman of the Mental Hygiene Authority in Victoria in 1952. He had a reputation as an innovator, and believed patient artwork had the potential to be an intervention that like psychoanalysis, may provide a direct insight into the makers mind, with the potential to aid diagnosis and shorten treatment times.

Dr Dax is credited with overseeing the introduction of the first organised art therapy programs in the NHS and Victorian hospitals. He recognised that engagement with the visual arts enhanced wellbeing as well as self-esteem through the acquisition of new skill. Indeed Eleanor Roosevelt was a champion of his work.

Within hospitals’, he set up studios, employed artists, and created scientific conditions for artwork to be made and then analysed. He developed a system of categorisation that equated symbolism with the symptoms of mental illness. For example a spider might represent depression. He presented his findings internationally, in medical journals and conferences.

He was a lover of art and a regular visitor to Mirka Mora's Melbourne gallery. Although the collection has never gained a reputation for its artistic merit alone, it is worth noting that artworks have been exhibited alongside artists such as Joy Hester, Albert Tucker, and other Heidi artists.

Perhaps his greatest legacy was his unwavering belief that the images create empathy and understanding for those marginalised due to mental illness. The Dax Centre oversees a lively exhibition program for those seeking to understand mental illness through the artist's stories. Today artists continue to expand the collection with their artwork representing their personal testimonies of the impact of mental illness and recovery.

Image: Elizabeth Turnbull, My Ancestors and Me, 2010. The Cunningham Dax Collection