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?
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.
MONEY-MAKING ACTIVITIES CAN REQUIRE ALMOST AS MUCH CREATIVITY AS CONCEPTUAL ARTISTS 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