Michaela Boland on the fund­ing mod­els that make or break art shows

From Mel­bourne Now to the Ade­laide Bi­en­nial and the Syd­ney Bi­en­nale, con­tem­po­rary art in Aus­tralia is big busi­ness. But, asks Michaela Boland, how do the artists fit into the fis­cal pic­ture?

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IS the din­ner ta­ble de­tri­tus of a Mel­bourne share house wor­thy of dis­play in a mu­seum? At the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria it is. Should per­for­mance art be pro­grammed by col­lect­ing in­sti­tu­tions? Again the NGV doesn’t have a prob­lem with it. Are taxi­dermy cats plugged with pre­cious gems art­works? Ac­cord­ing to the ar­biters of taste in South Aus­tralia, ab­so­lutely they are.

Aus­tralia’s love af­fair with con­cep­tual art is reach­ing a crescendo this year with the NGV’s game-chang­ing con­tem­po­rary art show Mel

bourne Now clos­ing its doors this weekend af­ter hav­ing been seen by about 725,000 people. In Ade­laide the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia is see­ing record num­bers visit its Bi­en­nial of Aus­tralian Art sur­vey Dark Heart, now in its fourth week. And to­day, fi­nally, the Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney — be­set by con­tro­versy over an artist boy­cott re­lated to spon­sor­ship — will throw off the cov­ers at five venues across the city with ex­pec­ta­tions of more than a half-mil­lion vis­i­tors across three months.

For art lovers there is an abun­dance of work on dis­play, all of it free and much of it in non­tra­di­tional art forms.

Lynette Wall­worth’s col­lab­o­ra­tion at the AGSA is a multimedia bo­nanza. It con­sists of a large can­vas by the Martu artists of cen­tral Western Aus­tralia, a time-lapse film of the work be­ing painted, two videos and an au­dio track fea­tur­ing sounds made by renowned vo­cal­ist Antony He­garty of Bri­tish Mer­cury Prize-win­ning band Antony and the John­sons.

One of the hits of Mel­bourne Now has been Juan Ford’s You, Me and the Flock, made up of small bird stick­ers given to vis­i­tors to paste on the gallery’s walls as they choose. The nev­erfin­ished art­work emerges from the pat­terns those lit­tle fig­ures cre­ate. Was that in­stal­la­tion a one-off or will Ford — best known for his hy­per-real­is­tic paint­ing — rein­vent the birds in a col­lectable form?

In­deed, how does the con­cep­tual art econ­omy func­tion? Who is pay­ing for these epic ex­hi­bi­tions, which in the case of the Syd­ney Bi­en­nale con­sists al­most ex­clu­sively of site-spe­cific in­stal­la­tions that ap­pear not to have an ob­vi­ous commercial value be­yond the event for which they are made?

Con­tem­po­rary art gallery owner Lisa Fe­hily ad­mits it is a vexed ques­tion. She says in Aus­tralia there is a limited pool of art col­lec­tors and few of them have the deep pock­ets and com­mit­ment re­quired to in­vest in con­cep­tual art.

“Eighty to 90 per cent of our clients look first at paint­ings,” she says. “We have to broaden the cir­cle of col­lec­tors [in Aus­tralia] and we’ve got to start nur­tur­ing these new col­lec­tors through their jour­ney through the dif­fer­ent art forms.”

In eco­nomic terms, tra­di­tional paint­ing ex­hi­bi­tions in art mu­se­ums are straight­for­ward. Vis­i­tors pay about $25 to see a dozen paint­ings by Monet col­lec­tively val­ued at a fig­ure that is too painful for most to con­tem­plate. Ticket fees cover in­sur­ance costs and the loan fees; spon­sor­ship and gift shop sales also tend to en­sure block­buster shows are rev­enue-pos­i­tive.

In the commercial art sec­tor, tra­di­tion­ally a pain­ter will cre­ate a se­ries of paint­ings, their gallery will ex­hibit them and ideally some will sell — mak­ing ev­ery­one some money — and the cy­cle be­gins again.

Im­por­tantly, in this econ­omy some paint­ings grow in value and can be sold at auc­tion. The sec­ondary mar­ket is re­as­sur­ing for col­lec­tors, act­ing as an en­tice­ment for them to pur­chase new works in the first place.

The con­cep­tual art econ­omy is much more com­pli­cated. Many artists op­er­ate in a brave new world where their money-mak­ing ac­tiv­i­ties can re­quire al­most as much cre­ativ­ity as they in­vest in their art.


Take Swiss artists Gerda Steiner and Jorg Len­zlinger, who have cre­ated an ex­u­ber­ant and play­ful gym for the Syd­ney Bi­en­nale at Cock­a­too Is­land. Con­structed from sec­ond-hand pieces sourced from lo­ca­tions such as the Syd­ney re­cy­cling venue Re­verse Garbage, they have spent seven weeks work­ing on an in­stal­la­tion they ad­mit will have no value at the end of the art show. “When we work for mu­se­ums we have an artist fee but that’s not re­ally im­por­tant,” Len­zlinger says.

So how will they make a liv­ing from their huge in­stal­la­tion at Syd­ney Bi­en­nale? “That’s the art,” he says, smil­ing.

Jew­eller and taxi­dermy artist Ju­lia deVille has cre­ated an eerie, macabre Vic­to­rian sa­lon for Dark Heart in Ade­laide where taxi­der­mic cats are be­jew­elled and clothed in spooky cos­tumes. One lies in a baby crib em­balmed in black cloth and lace, ex­pres­sion­less, star­ing straight ahead. An­other is gussied up like a can­can girl and har­nessed to a tiny hearse car­riage.

Oc­ca­sion­ally there are buy­ers for deVille’s works, but dead an­i­mals for tens of thou­sands of dol­lars aren’t ev­ery­one’s idea of a good in­vest­ment, even if they are plugged with pre­cious stones. To off­set col­lec­tions such as deVille’s Phan­tas­mago­ria, wherein she has given her imag­i­na­tion full flight, the artist pro­duces an ac­ces­si­ble line of be­spoke jew­ellery from which in­di­vid­ual pieces sell for a cou­ple of hun­dred dol­lars.

AGSA di­rec­tor Nick Mitze­vich cu­rated Dark Heart and in­vited the 28 Aus­tralian artists to con­trib­ute new works loosely linked to his theme. For their par­tic­i­pa­tion they re­ceived a trip to Ade­laide for the open­ing and a $2000 pay­ment.

Alex Se­ton has pro­duced one of the most pow­er­ful works in the show but he could not have done it with­out a $20,000 New Work grant from the Aus­tralia Coun­cil and even then he es­sen­tially worked for free.

His art­work, Some­one Died Try­ing to Have a Life Like Mine, con­sists of 28 life-size life jack­ets in­spired by news re­ports of jack­ets found washed up on the shore of the Cocos Is­lands and thought to have come from a sunken asy­lum-seek­ers’ boat. The jack­ets are crafted from slightly mot­tled-look­ing Wombeyan mar­ble, which Se­ton bought with the grant funds. The work is as­tound­ing, and af­ter the bi­en­nial the artist is free to sell it, but how is he sup­posed to sup­port him­self un­til then and what if a buyer can­not be found?

DeVille’s cats like­wise will have the im­pri­matur of hav­ing been shown in the pres­ti­gious bi­en­nial but she also spent many weeks toil­ing for a nom­i­nal fee and the chance of a sale down the track.

At least these two artists have pro­duced works that will ex­ist long af­ter the ex­hi­bi­tion is taken down.

Rather than see­ing lim­i­ta­tions in the mar­ket

The Is­land by Ben Quilty,

rear, and Some­one Died Try­ing to Have

a Life Like Mine by Alex Se­ton at the

Ade­laide Bi­en­nial of Art

Cre­ative di­rec­tor of this year’s Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney Ju­liana Eng­berg, left; and Nick Mitze­vich, right, di­rec­tor of the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia

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