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Newsletter 311

Published November 5, 2019
Japanese pop culture embraced by the Art Gallery of NSW

Late again this week! Apologies for the delay with this newsletter, but it’s been another round of extra obligations, tight deadines and – alas – unnecessary delays. As I’ve left you waiting so long already I’ll take my time with the explanation. The story begins with the Sydney Morning Herald asking for an early review of the show, Japan Supernatural, at the Art Gallery of NSW. The newspaper has been doing this for about six months now, signalling a renewed interest in responding quickly to major arts events. It is, without doubt, a good thing for the venues that host the exhibitions.

In order to write an early, short review that doesn’t preclude a second, more considered piece further down the track, I asked about getting access to the show a couple of days before the opening, when the hang was all-but-complete. This is pretty standard procedure. I’ve seen dozens of shows before the set-up was complete, and I’ve hung dozens of shows in a curatorial capacity.

To my surprise, this was the reply from Simone Bird, in the AGNSW media department:

“We’re not in the position to grant access to art critics to review an exhibition while it’s still being installed.  (The exception of course is the Archibald, when we are not working with lenders). You’re most welcome to attend the media preview on Friday morning.  Alternatively, I’m more than happy to look for an opportunity early next week for you to review the exhibition alone.”

The issue here is that if I had to wait until the media preview on Friday morning it was no longer possible to write something for Friday’s newspaper. This was, in fact, a blanket refusal to co-operate with a piece that would have assisted in the pre-publicity for the exhibition.

The idea that “working with lenders” precludes access is an entirely novel concept in my experience. As for being lumped into a generic category called “art critics” this sounds slightly bizarre. There is hardly a genuine art critic to be found in the Australian media nowadays. It would seem a rather extreme position to invent a policy for “art critics” when that would refer to a mere handful of people – and I was probably the only one asking.

After more than a day of no-reply to me and to-and-fro with SMH editorial, I was finally allowed in to see the show at 4 pm on the Thursday, meaning that: 1.I had less than a hour with the curator  2. It was now impossible to file for Friday’s paper 3. The timing meant that my obligations on Thursday night and the following day gave me very little time to write – hence the lateness of this newsletter.

I’m not in a position to discuss such matters in the newspaper, and I certainly wouldn’t want to waste my valuable column space on this topic, but the newsletter is a different story altogether – a personal space in which I can raise all sorts of issues. And so it is, that I’m left wondering aloud at the role of a PR department that acts as a gate-keeper rather than a facilitator. I’m wondering if this was a personal initiative on behalf of Ms. Bird, or if it represents a policy decided at a higher level. Either way, it is severely counter-productive. It returns ill will for good will. It paints a picture of the gallery as a paranoid institution. It turns the most casual procedure into a bureaucratic nightmare. It leaves me – and others – wondering about the kind of culture that exists at the AGNSW.

I freely admit that I’ve been critical of the gallery in the past, and if the need arises, will be so in the future. I also contend that every criticism has been tied to an argument not a prejudice. When Edmund Capon was director we disagreed on many things, but always managed to maintain a working relationship. The PR team of those year – sacked in the most humiliating way by the current administration – saw it as their role to help the press get what they need, not to put obstacles in the way.

Art criticism – and independent journalism in general – will always be a matter of give and take. There will be both criticism and praise, exchanges of opinion, issues that require investigation. As it turned out, I came away with a generally favourable view of the show, but felt disappointed in the huge Murakami pictures which had been hyped to the skies. (I’ve included the piece as a blog the week). I suspect the AGNSW only wants to hear its PR parroted back, with no disagreements, but this kind of toadyism has never been on my agenda.

True professionalism demands a certain degree of objectivity, a commitment to play the ball not the man. When an institution works against its own best PR interests in creating unnecessary barriers to coverage the machine is malfunctioning.

So much for the weirdness of the AGNSW. This week’s art column looks at the annual Sculpture by Sea exhibition, which has its own share of issues this time around. A feud between Founding Director, David Handley, and the Waverley Council has threatened the continued presence of the show at Bondi, but I suspect the head-line grabbing tensions will soon be resolved. Otherwise, the party continues as usual.

This week’s movie is Terminator: Dark Fate, which I liked more than I’d expected. Perhaps it’s simply Arnold Schwarzenegger, who only gets more charismatic over time. Arnie has at least two desirable traits that would make him an excellent director for an Australian arts institution. He’s utterly fearless and seems to have a sense of humour.