Newsletter 518

Published November 24, 2023
Kandinsky sits in front of a diagram of the AGNSW efficiency dividend

This week’s column looks at the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. To say it’s “long-awaited” is an understatement as it’s the only international exhibition the gallery has initiated since Matisse, in November 2021. There’s been a Biennale in-between, and the opening of Sydney Modern, but it’s simply not good enough to go two years without a major show. Over that time I’ve reviewed international exhibitions in Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra, Brisbane – and Orange.

Sydney Modern shouldn’t be taken as an excuse – as if the effort required to open a new building absolves management of the responsibility to run an active exhibition program. Anyone with the vaguest experience of museums – and AGNSW director, Michael Brand has spent his entire working life in museums – should recognise that a new building offers a golden opportunity to attract new audiences. Many people will come along to see the new structure but will only come back if there are changing exhibitions.

Just as concerning is the nature of the international exhibitions the AGNSW has hosted. Matisse was a package from the Centre Pompidou, while Kandinsky is a package from the Guggenheim. This time around they haven’t even bothered to do a separate catalogue with a checklist of exhibits. I don’t know if this is due to some contractual issue, or sheer laziness, but it’s an omission that highlights the gallery’s drift away from the most basic tenets of museum scholarship and protocol.

Having lost approximately $3 million from this year’s operating budget, due to the actions of the NSW government’s efficiency dividend, one might imagine the AGNSW would get the hint, roll up their collective sleeves and cut the spin. When the director tells Budget Estimates: “I think the reason behind the success of the Sydney Modern Project is the ambition of our vision and our long track record of delivering a fantastic public art museum for Sydney,” one wonders what he’s been smoking.

If a three million dollar hit is an indication of success, what would failure look like? It’s reminiscent of Dr. Nick in Canberra celebrating the great success of the National Gallery, after accepting an emergency bailout of $265 million from the federal government.

Like most people, I believe the efficiency dividend is bad policy: a sneaky way for governments to claw back  money they’ve grudgingly handed over. As both the Coalition and the Labor Party support the practice, it has to be rotten. At worst it’s a blunt instrument that penalises institutions even when they are victims of circumstance, not mere ‘inefficiency’.

On the other hand, when the powers-that-be at the AGNSW know full well how this penalty operates, it might be imagined they would do everything possible to avoid it. Private donations and revenue from venue hire clearly haven’t sufficed. Maybe they should consider a more radical manœuvre such as holding the occasional exhibition.

To back up this argument, Exhibit A is Leo Schofield’s 1,001 Remarkable Objectsat the Powerhouse Museum. Although the PHM has been a desert for audiences for the past few years – thanks to the enlightened policies of current management, Leo’s riotous anthology has been packing ‘em in. The would be yet another scandal if the PHM decides to close the show on 31 December. As it’s the only thing that has drawn audiences in ages, anybody else would be tempted to make it a permanent fixture! Alas, this doesn’t fit in with management’s desires to decolonise the museum and close it for the next few years while pernicious, unwanted renovations reduce the Ultimo exhibition space by half. Wakey wakey, NSW Labor!

Exhibit B is Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharoahs at the Australian Museum. Director, Kim McKay, can boast advance ticket sales of more than 100,000 for this Egyptian blockbuster. It proves, as if it needed proving, that Australian audiences adore shows of artefacts and antiquities – all those musty “museum” things the ultra cool directors of our art museums find too boring to consider. They much prefer another contemporary art show or three.

Here, I exempt Tony Elwood at the NGV, who figured out a long time ago that art museums need to deal with both the present and the past. The massive, super-ambitious NGV Triennial of contemporary art that starts in early December, will be followed by a big Egyptian show next year. And why not?

For all my quibbling, I’d encourage everyone to go see Kandinsky at the AGNSW, because the Guggenheim has a sent a fully representative collection of his work, and because he’s one of the most original and influential artists of the modern era. I’ve tried to do him justice in this week’s column.

The film being reviewed is Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s dark satire on the wealthy English upper classes, as seen through the eyes of a malevolent aspirational in the form of Irish actor, Barry Keoghan, who revels in his first lead role. Like The Origin of Evil, it’s as much a horror movie as a comedy, but I suspect it will draw a healthy audience. There’s a grotesque fascination in watching a group of people undone by their own weakness and arrogance, whether we’re talking about English aristocrats or senior art bureaucrats.