Newsletter 503

Published August 7, 2023
Nothing unusual here... says the NGA

When I worked at the National Gallery of Australia over 20 years ago, there was a long-running issue with the air conditioning. The system had begun spitting black gunk on people and works of art through a vent, and there was a growing suspicion of a cancer cluster. I was told the root of the problem went back to the time of construction, when there was no clear idea about what kind of air conditioning was appropriate for such a large concrete building. We either used the wrong technology, or had no viable alternative.

I was also told it would be cheaper and easier to demolish the building and start again rather than attempt to replace the air conditioning. Instead, there has been a continuous routine of replacing components that would work for a while and then break down. Presumably it’s still the same story today. The final twist in the saga was that the government insurer, Comcare, was also the agency employed to investigate complaints about the air conditioning. Regardless of the issues raised by staff, Comcare gave the system a clean bill of health, avoiding messy details such as payouts, clean-ups and legal wranglings.

Was it a case of ‘the police investigating the police’? Many thought so at the time.

I raise this tale because this week the NGA has announced the results of its review into the works by artists of the APY Art Centre Collective earmarked to appear in the show, Ngura Pulka, which has been delayed for the past two months.

In brief, the NGA panel decided that “all 28 paintings meet the Provenance Standards of the National Gallery”. What are those standards? Apparently, if the artist says that he or she did it, that’s good enough. The panel says it has accepted the word of the artists and disregarded all evidence to the contrary.

To quote: “Without exception, the artists to whom we spoke unequivocally told us that the works under review in each case were made by them and expressly denied that there had been any improper interference in the making of their work.”

Other matters, such as “significant management problems”, an incriminating video, testimony from other artists and witnesses, and so on, were all judged outside the terms of the inquiry. The report also seems to accept the validity of the term “creative control” – weasel words the NGA has used to excuse the idea that white assistants can paint on Indigenous artists’ canvases. It’s a term so vague as to be meaningless. In theory, an assistant could paint the entire picture, so long as the artist feels he or she has retained “creative control”. It’s a unfalsifiable concept, and therefore of purely rhetorical value.

When the report says “the APYACC’s overriding purpose appears to be commercial”, this should have sent warning signals to everyone. In the pursuit of “commercial” imperatives is it OK to “juice up” an artist’s work and then sell it as an authentic expression of their Tjukurrpa? Such paintings should be identified as collaborative works of an abstract or decorative nature.

The only person I know on the review panel is lawyer, Shane Simpson, whose integrity is unquestionable. What is questionable are terms of reference that were too narrow to get beyond simply asking the artists if they painted the pictures. In a court of law questions would be asked about whether promises of payment, forms of influence or intimidation might have come into play. Anybody familiar with the way the APYACC is run, and the forceful personalities involved, can only feel sceptical about this “ask the artist” charade.

I was reminded of Donald Trump, after his one-on-one meeting with Putin in Helsinki, when he chose to believe the Russian leader’s story about election interference rather than the reports of his own intelligence services. “He said he didn’t do it!”

‘He said, she said’ is not a way of proving anything. The NGA Report will merely keep the pot boiling, pushing The Australian to double down on their own, ongoing investigations, and putting extra pressure on the more broad-ranging inquiry being set up by the South Australian government. One suspects the APY story will eventually be played out in court.

If NGA director, Nick Mitzevich, thinks this completely anodyne document gives him the green light to put on the Ngura Pulka show, when the APYACC has been expelled from the Indigenous Art Code, it would be a perilous, high-handed gesture. It would mean ignoring the concerns of the rest of the industry, putting his own judgement ahead of Aboriginal artists and experts who have expressed the gravest reservations.

Those Aboriginal groups have called on Manager, Skye O’Meara, to step down while these inquiries are underway, and she has resolutely refused to do so. Anybody who has ever experienced Skye’s personal charm will tell you it’s foolish to believe any inquiry will ever get to the bottom of this story while she stands in the way. It’s equally ridiculous that APYACC artist, Sally Scales, holds a position on the NGA Council after an exhibiting career of less than two years.

The NGA is too closely caught up with the APYACC for its own good. Such favouritism puts the institution at risk of serious embarrassment and suspicions of conspiratorial behaviour. The report is reminiscent of those consultants’ reports that government would commission when it wanted to give the appearance of independence to an investigation that could only ever go one way. It’s a waste of money and time.

This is not what we expect of a public institution that needs to be transparent in all its dealings. It’s simply astounding that the NGA would even consider going ahead with an exhibition from a group that has been expelled from the Indigenous Art Code. It can only be taken as an endorsement of the APYACC model and a slap in the face of every other Aboriginal group. To say it’s a bad look is the merest understatement – it’s sending a message that in the view of our national flagship art institution, ethics count for nothing.

While the NGA trembles on the brink of a self-generated debacle, this week’s art column travels to Hobart for the 2023 Hadley’s Art Prize. The winner, Vicki Yatjiki Cullinan is … wait for it… an artist from the APY lands! But allegedly not part of the APYACC – a claim since contradicted by APYACC manager, Skye O’Meara. This illustrates the fact that no-one – judges included – is really capable of saying who is or isn’t responsible for a painting which is accepted in good faith as the work of a single artist. Cullinan’s painting is a standout in the show, but if the current controversy is not overcome, there will always be question marks over a work’s identity. Do we appreciate it as an arrangement of colours and shapes, or as an expression of the artist’s spiritual relationship with country? The uncertainty is corrosive, and can only undermine art buyers’ confidence. One hopes it doesn’t cast a shadow on the Hadley’s, which is an exceptionally generous award for landscape, now attracting contestants from all over Australia.

I also got out to MoNA and caught the end of Tomás Saraceno’s Oceans of Air – an exhibition that has as much to do with science as art.

The page is late this week because the Herald decided, yet again to hold the art column from the newspaper and on-line, although it’s hardly controversial. They have, however allowed me to run it on the site. Pardon me if I don’t feel especially grateful.

The movie being reviewed is Chevalier, the ‘true’ story of one of the most amazing characters of the 18th century – musician Joseph Bologne, AKA. the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the mulatto son of a French plantation owner and a slave. Films like this always send me back to the historical record, and it was no surprise to find that the filmmakers have rearranged most aspects of an already extraordinary life. In the movies it seems that even the most adventurous biographies have to be repackaged to fit our own preoccupations. What hope has history got when there are entire TV channels and much of the Internet devoted to fictionalising the present? What hope for truth, when public institutions have a vested interest in seeing only what they want to see?