By day he was a crane driver at the BHP steelworks, but it was life outside work that led Bronius ‘Bob’ Sredersas to the foundation of one of Australia’s biggest regional art galleries.
The apparent double life of the Lithuanian migrant, who went from being an intelligence officer in his home country to a steelworker in New South Wales, remains shrouded in mystery 36 years after his death.
Mr Sredersas came from a middle-class family in the northern European country and went on to work as a policeman for the Lithuanian Government’s Department of Security, where he was tasked with monitoring Soviet military activity.
His involvement with the civil service ended abruptly in 1940 when the Russians invaded Lithuania, prompting Mr Sredersas to flee, in fear for his life, to Germany.
“He was wanted at times by the Russians and the Germans, so it’s pretty cloudy as to what his movements were in the war years,” said the executor of his will, Michael Bach.
“We don’t know what happened to his parents, but he’s told me his sister was taken to Siberia by the Russians and he never heard from her again, so he was on his own.”
Migrant’s life anything but ordinary
Upon his migration to Australia in 1950, Mr Sredersas’ path was typical of many post-war migrants across industrial cities in Australia. He took up a labouring job at the Port Kembla steelworks near Wollongong.
But Mr Sredersas’ life outside of work could not have been more contradictory — he would not be seen at the local pubs that were filled with steelworkers or at the local football matches and horse races.
Instead, he would spend his time at his fibro cottage in the Wollongong suburb of Cringila, tending to a garden of roses, cabbages, lemons and a line of trees to absorb the dust from the steelworks.
It was in 1956 when he decided that his home needed a painting and he caught the train to Sydney, a journey he would regularly make over a period of 20 years.
Regularly referring to the renowned McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, he would spend his days off visiting Sydney auction houses and spending all his spare money on artworks.
He would be seen returning home from the train station carrying large brown paper parcels that contained artworks.
By the 1970s, every corner of his house was packed with works by some of Australia’s best-known artists, including Grace Cossington Smith, Arthur Streeton, Margaret Preston and William Ashton.
Donating a lifelong art collection to a city
In 1977, hastened by a break-in which saw 13 of the works stolen — including two Willian Ashtons and a Norman Lindsay — Mr Sredersas began to wonder where his collection would be stored over the long term.
He decided that the people of Wollongong, the city he felt he owed a great debt to, should own the paintings.
A devout Catholic, Mr Sredersas, who was then in his late 60s, enlisted the help of Father Michael Bach who was the administrator of Wollongong Cathedral at the time.
“One day Bob knocked on the door and said he wanted to give some things to the bishop,” Mr Bach said.
The bishop’s house, next to the city’s cathedral, became the temporary storage space while plans were hatched for a publicly-owned collection in Wollongong.
Harold Hanson was an alderman on Wollongong City Council and headed up a committee that was charged with setting up the region’s first public gallery.
“At that time, Wollongong was the industrial area of New South Wales, when anyone wanted to establish an industry — particularly with smoke stacks, coal trucks and other similar things — [chose] Wollongong,” Mr Hanson said.
“The city had expanded to an enormous extent in industry but it had very little in the way of community facilities and the like.”
It was the prospect of being given a major collection of artworks that then forced the council’s hand in setting up a gallery, and with support from the then-NSW Premier Neville Wran, it became a reality in 1978.
“Because it was obvious that a donation like that was a catalyst for being able to establish an art gallery, you couldn’t accept a donation like that without having an adequate place to put it for display,” Mr Hanson said.
Planting the seed for a major art gallery
Having lived, for a period following his arrival in Australia, at migrant hostels in Albury and Wollongong, Mr Sredersas enjoyed a relatively simple life and never married.
“It seems apart from collecting paintings he was a fisherman,” Mr Bach said.
“He used to ride out to Port Kembla Harbour on his pushbike and fish, and he’d bring the fish home to give to his cat Mitzie.”
Mr Sredersas is now being remembered in an exhibition being held as part of Wollongong Art Gallery’s 40th birthday. The inside of his home has been recreated and his artworks are hanging on the walls.
The exhibition’s curator, Anne-Louise Rentell, said it was important to reflect on how one person in a community could help drive major cultural change.
“There was a time when there was no gallery, and in Wollongong’s history that’s not very long ago, and we take this some of the cultural institutions for granted now,” Ms Rentell said.