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When Melbourne architect Corbett Lyon and his wife Yueji needed somewhere to house both their growing art collection and family, Lyon House museum was their novel solution.

By Jane Albert

It is hard to believe that one of the most respected, comprehensive and indeed enviable collections of contemporary Australian art is held in a tasteful, purpose-built gallery that doublesas a family home.

Attracting visitors from all over the world, Lyon House museum in Melbourne’s leafy Kew is the brain child of architect Corbett Lyon and his wife Yueji and is understood to be the first of its kind internationally.

A third-generation architect and co-founder of the Lyons architecture practice, Corbett conceived the idea of designing a home for his growing family that also served as a public gallery when the art collection they’d begun in the early 1990s began requiring more space.

Rather than follow the conventional route of separating the public and domestic spaces, Corbett conducted an architectural experiment and merged them together into a single building that- opened to the public in 2009.

“I think this is what makes it unique and interesting forpeople who come to visit, by thetime they’ve left they’re not quite sure whether they’ve come into a house or a museum,and that’s the whole idea,” Corbett says

Inspiration came from two public figures who had turned their own homes into public galleries: American collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim and English architect and collector John Soanes.

“I’d visited the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in 1980 and it was fascinating because there you were looking at her art collection in the context of her home, so, you also learnt something about Peggy Guggenheim the collector,” Corbett says. “It was a very different experience from going to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, much more intimate and personal.”

Corbett and Yueji’s collection now numbers around 350 artworks by 60 artists and contains an impressive roster of many of Australia’s most talented and collectible contemporary artists, including Patricia Piccinini, Howard Arkley, Brook Andrew, Shaun Gladwell and Callum Morton. The couple does not use an advisor, but clearly they have an exceptional eye.

“It’s one of the largest collections in Australia and because we’ve collected artists in-depth. Art historians say it’s one of the most significant,” adds Corbett

Since opening, the Lyon House museum has welcomed 20,000 visitors from around Australia, the UK and Europe, including representatives from New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Tate in London, in addition to art and architecture students.

The property recently expanded to include the adjacent block on which Corbett designed a second, public exhibition space that fits within the more conventional notion of the white-walled gallery. Both are open to the public and used for artist talks, workshops, and tours run by Corbett and Yueji themselves. Modest visitor fees offset running costs.

Corbett says Yueji and the couple’s daughters, who were aged nine and 11 when his idea was born, were initially sceptical about sharing their home with the public, but they now appreciate the cultural contribution being made. While the couple has plans to move down the coast next year, the house and gallery will remain open to visitors, run by the family foundation.

“Our whole thrust has been to not only collect and support contemporary art in Australia but to share it through visits to the house museum, and that won’t change.