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Sydney Morning Herald Column

2022 and Beyond

Published January 2, 2023
Art in Sydney/NSW/Australia in 2022

There’s been plenty to think about in 2022, including war in the Ukraine, a looming global recession and floods along the north coast, but if one had to nominate Australia’s most momentous event of the year it would have to be the change of government. Whether this was equally momentous for the visual arts remains to be seen, as Labor has yet to do anything that departs significantly from its predecessor’s policies.

For some people every day is Arts Day

The first disappointment was missing the opportunity to establish a dedicated Ministry of Culture, rather than simply treating “the Arts” as a minor portfolio to be handed to a minister with other responsibilities. As Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Leader of the House, Tony Burke has a lot on his plate. He may have a genuine interest in the arts, but he seems to have decided that it’s easier to keep things chugging along rather than look too closely at problems within the sector.

The terminology is important, because to say “Culture” rather than “the Arts” is to recognise that creative and intellectual activity is as important to a society as Health, Education, Defence, and other portfolios. Whereas “the arts” could be dismissed as a pasttime or an entertainment, culture, as the name suggests, has roots in the soil. It defines our very identity as a community, a society, a nation.

So much for the immaterials. Aside from an $80 milion grant to help kickstart a National Aboriginal Art Gallery in Alice Springs, and $50 million for an Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Perth, there was little money for the visual arts in the October Budget. According to the ABC’s analysis, overall arts funding fell by $244.7 million, with a notable neglect of regional arts.

And upon this site shall arise an Aboriginal Cultural Centre..!

The big ‘don’t-judge-us-too-harshly’ excuse is the forthcoming announcement of a National Cultural Policy, the first since Keating’s Creative Nation in 1994. The government has established five panels and an Advisory Group to formulate this document, which sounds like a case of too many cooks. While a National Cultural Policy is important, the preponderance of First Nations representatives on these committees suggests that the major initiatives will be skewed in this direction, with identity politics playing a central role in any document.

Already in film circles, it’s said that if you hold any hopes of securing funds for a project, you better have some Indigenous content.

Once ignored and marginalised, Indigenous artists, performers and filmmakers are now in the box seat when it comes to arts funding. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the danger is that we are constructing a new orthodoxy of institutional taste based on political categories rather than aesthetic merit. By privileging the claims of one group we are downgrading the rest.

What is “aesthetic merit” anyway? It sounds a wishy-washy term, applied in different ways by different people. Yet the vagueness of the concept is also its strength. It’s far better that we argue over the aesthetic merits of artists and works of art, instead of making cut and dried choices in advance, based on ethnicity, gender or any other signifier of identity.

I’m afraid 2022 will go down as the year we embraced identity politics and forgot about art.

Pablo Picasso, ‘The Matador’ (1970)

It’s been amazing to watch major institutions compete with each other to demonstrate their progressive, “inclusive” attitudes. The National Gallery of Australia launched a bureaucratic document on gender equity as if it were a blockbuster exhibition. The Queensland Art Gallery did the same with a policy for First Nations art. Yet the NGA was hardly a hot bed of sexism before this announcement, and the QAG was already one of the country’s great showcases for Indigenous work.

Wall labels across Australia have become ‘decolonised’ by the expedient of putting every artist’s Aboriginal nation alongside – or in front of – the conventional place name. Even thoroughly Caucasian artists now come from “Gadigal country” (Sydney), or “Naarm” (Melbourne). At the same time, Indigenous pieces have been freely inserted into displays such as the old master galleries at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Are we moving too far too fast? Is the average viewer going to be impressed or alienated by this manoeuvre? The galleries may see such measures as moral imperatives, but they have also acted as a substitute and distraction for exhibition programs struggling to bounce back from lockdowns that have destroyed revenue and raised the cost of overseas freight to astronomical levels.

Alexander McQueen hosted the only fashion show where a model was spray-painted by robots

The idea seems to be: if you can’t do good shows, show ‘em you are good people.

There were probably only two exhibitions that might be classed as international blockbusters in 2022, and they were both at the National Gallery of Victoria. The first was The Picasso Century, which found a new way of looking at the most famous artist of the modern era; the second, the freshly opened Alexander McQueen: Mind Mythos Muse. This survey of work by the world’s most controversial fashion designer will keep the ticket office busy for the rest of the summer.

Among other international shows the stand-outs were Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, and Richard Mosse’s extraordinary multi-channel film about the Amazon, Broken Spectre, which can be viewed at the NGV until April. The Shiota exhibition was a brave project that relied on word-of-mouth to attract local audiences who could not be expected to recognise even the best known contemporary Japanese artist. It was also an elaborate set-up that required huge skill and commitment.

Chiharu Shiota wowed everyone in Brisbane

In Sydney, the Art Gallery of NSW’s Matisse: Life and Spirit exhibition lingered until March, although I found it hard to get excited about yet another package from a foreign museum. The saving grace was that the artist was one of such towering stature. For most of the year the AGNSW was counting down to the Sydney Modern launch, relying on old faithfuls such as the Archibald Prize, but more about that later.

The city’s best international exhibition was the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Do Ho Suh survey, which continues until 26 February. This absorbing collection of work by one of the leading artists of our time was easily the museum’s highlight of the year.

Do Ho Suh, ‘Staircase III’ (2010)

Other Sydney exhibitions that warranted serious attention included Shaken to his Core: Nolan’s Auschwitz at the Jewish Museum; Heart of Country, a first-rate collection of bark painting at the S.H. Ervin Gallery, and two brilliant shows at the National Art School Gallery – a retrospective of Colin Lanceley, an important artist who has been too easily overlooked since his death in 2015; and Captivate– an encyclopaedic, carnivalesque celebration of the 100th anniversary of the NAS, with extra material drawn from its pre-history as Darlinghurst Gaol, from 1841-1914. The show ran for barely five weeks, but it deserved to be a permanent display.

It would be remiss not to mention the ongoing success of the White Rabbit Gallery – Judith Neilson’s private museum of contemporary Chinese art, which is drawing progressively bigger numbers. Go along almost any day and the place is swarming, which is more than can be said for most public art venues. There’s no secret to this popularity, just two high quality shows per year, installed with verve and imagination.

Colin Lanceley, ‘Songs of a summer night (Lynne’s garden), (1985)

By scale alone, the four biggest art events in Sydney this year were the 23rdSydney Biennale; the Sydney Contemporary art fair; Sculpture by the Sea, and, inevitably, the Archibald Prize.

José Roca, the director of this year’s Biennale, titled Rivus, had an incredibly tricky job in putting together a large international exhibition at a time when travel was almost impossible, loans were difficult to obtain, and freight was prohibitively expensive. That he managed to assemble such a coherent display was a credit to his perseverance and desire to host a show that engaged in a meaningful way with the climate crisis.

Sydney Contemporary was a huge party in which artists, dealers and collectors celebrated the return of business-as-usual in the galleries. The fair regathered the momentum it had pre-pandemic, which has confirmed Sydney as the capital of Australia’s commercial art market, even if Melbourne has the superior museum culture. There were a lot of good shows in the commercial galleries this year, but if I start listing them it would be a tedious process. Suffice to say the sector looks healthy, even though there may be unsettled weather ahead.

John Gerrard, ‘Leaf Work (Derrigimlah)’ (2020), from this year’s Sydney Biennale

After 25 years, Sculpture by the Sea doesn’t have anything to prove. It is a deadset crowd-pleaser, and its restoration after two years in hibernation was the signal for all of Sydney to converge on Bondi.

It seems to require only the slightest hint that the Archibald Prize is approaching, for people to get excited about a show that has long ago departed the realm of art and become a staple of local popular culture. It is the AGNSW’s only guaranteed revenue raiser of the year, and a surefire media sensation. Given the new institutional emphasis on Indigenous art it was predictable that a First Nations artist would take out the prize, and in Blak Douglas, we got two for the price of one, as his subject, Karla Dickens, is also a rising star. The good news is that Blak Douglas’s portrait was, in my book at least, the obvious choice.

To gauge the real strength of Indigenous art today, there’s no substitute for that first week in August, when the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards are held in Darwin. This annual event allows an overview of the field, and always throws up a few surprises. The satellite shows and events are just as important, as the commercial exhibitions often provide a better indicator of emerging talent.

Blak Douglas, ‘Moby Dickens’

And so we return to the museums – and here one needs to distinguish between the art museums and institutions such as the Australian Museum and the National Museum of Australia. The former get all the glory, but the general museums are arguably more effectively run, and more responsive to audiences. The Australian Museum has been getting record attendances, while the NMA has pursued an innovative exhibition progam, both at home and abroad, with the travelling Songlines, set to be the most successful and widely viewed Australian touring show in history.

In addition, the NMA has tried valiantly to work within its allotted budget, while its neighbour in Canberra, the National Gallery of Australia, finished the year by informing the government of a $265 million shortfall. Although this is largely a matter of ongoing maintenance for a troublesome building, the NGA has sent out all the wrong messages by previously going on a spending spree, announcing that it had bought an animatronic work by American artist, Jordan Wolfson, for $6.8 million, and a shiny sculpture by Lindy Lee for the mind-boggling sum of $14 million – a new record price for any Australian art museum, paid for an artist whose highest auction price recently stood at roughly $9,000. Since then, director Nick Mitzevich has added a “magnificent” sculpture by celebrity artist, Tracey Emin, for another million.

Lindy Lee’s ‘Ouroboros’. Snapped up at a mere $14 million

This lavish expenditure sits awkwardly with the straightened circumstances of all museums coming out of the pandemic. It looks especially irresponsible now that the NGA is claiming a cash crisis, warning it may be forced to sack 30 staff and close two days per week.

More than any of its counterparts, the NGA has relied on feel-good statements of its commitment to issues of gender and ethnicity to compensate for a lack of content. The gallery’s much trumpeted 40th anniversary celebrations look ridiculously threadbare, with the only event of any substance being the Cressida Campbell retrospective that runs until 19 February. It’s the NGA’s second major survey of an Australian artist this year, following the popular Jeffrey Smart show that ended in March. Take these two strong exhibitions out of the program and there’s little left.

Cressida Campbell, Night Interior (2017)

The NGA’s problems are repeated by every other institution in the country, but no other gallery has combined flamboyant spending and desperate begging in such an original manner.

Back in Sydney, 2022 is ending in a rose-coloured fog, with the long-awaited opening of Sydney Modern, an event that has seen politicians, media and public gushing with pride and affection. After nine years of anticipation the enthusiasm is understandable, but there should be concerns about policies that rely so heavily on the permanent collection, large-scale installations, and the pulling power of the new SANAA-designed building. Aside from another installment of the contemporary survey, The National, and the next Archibald Prize, the AGNSW has announced no new shows for 2023. At this point in a movie we would begin to hear ominous music.

The score would be a full-on Hans Zimmer disaster symphony if we sought a soundtrack for the Powerhouse Museum, which has seen its attendances plummet this year, as new schemes for its future have multiplied. Had the NSW government decided a decade ago to invest $500 million in renovating the existing museum and another $500 million in building a new art gallery for Parramatta in an appropriate location, it could have saved itself a huge amount of controversy and waste. So far we have had 1.2 billion dollars’ worth of spin, as we watch the existing PHM being transformed into a “fashion hub” with substantially less exhibition space, while an important collection is dissipated. The conclusion of the entire project, I predict, will be an albatross of a building in Parramatta, and a venue in Ultimo that struggles to attract the same numbers as the old museum. Taxpayers will have watched about $2 billion expended for a negative outcome.

In the Tank at Sydney Modern

It’s the brazen arrogance of the Coalition’s decision-making that threatens its hold on government at the next election. If Labor comes to power, as expected, it will be faced with some gigantic problems in the arts sector: namely, what to do about the Powerhouse Museum? How many millions does it take to run Sydney Modern? And recently, how to avoid a hare-brained scheme to “monetise” the state Archives.

This leaves us with a scenario at state level that closely resembles the one being faced by the federal government. The central requirement is to ensure the vitality and financial viability of the arts in a time of economic belt-tightening. It’s clear that Labor, like the Coalition, would prefer the arts to be a feel-good affair rather than a source of controversy, which is why Tony Burke’s office has tacitly endorsed the NGA’s dubious spending practices rather than asking pertinent questions. It may yet be forced out of that acquiescent mode by the shock therapy of a $265 million maintenance bill.

Inevitably, governments will look to the private sector to pick up the excess, but there is only so much that private and corporate philanthropy will do if the relevant venues are not already attracting large audiences. The dilemma is that museums all over the country have become so focussed on issues of social justice and identity they have assumed the public shares these fixations and will keep turning up, which would run counter to established patterns. Although viewers may be gradually evolving a more enlightened attitude towards different forms of art, the ongoing popularity of the Archbald Prize suggests that glitz, glamour and perhaps habit play a large role in museum visitation. In retrospect, 2022 might look like the year when we put a new set of cards on the table. In 2023 we’ll see if anyone picks them up.

 

Published (in edited form) in the Sydney Morning Herald, 31 December, 2022