Good­will lost as gallery changes its out­look

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pa­tri­cia An­der­son Christo­pher Allen

In the 18th and 19th cen­turies mu­se­ums be­gan their lives as the pub­lic face of pri­vate pas­sions. The Lou­vre, the Bri­tish Mu­seum and the Her­mitage, to name a few, all bear wit­ness to this sim­ple fact. To­day mu­se­ums are ad­min­is­tered by gov­ern­ments but be­long to the pub­lic whose taxes sup­port them. So far so good. But what hap­pens when th­ese in­sti­tu­tions are in dan­ger of be­ing hi­jacked by spe­cial-in­ter­est groups?

Ju­dith White, a for­mer long­stand­ing di­rec­tor of the Art Gallery So­ci­ety of NSW, shines a bright light on this is­sue in Cul­ture Heist, a taut ex­pose of re­cent devel­op­ments at the Art Gallery of NSW and other cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions in Syd­ney.

Dif­fi­cul­ties sur­faced af­ter an op­ti­mistic (some thought fatu­ous) an­nounce­ment back in March 2013 to a burst­ing lec­ture hall at the AGNSW of plans to spend $450 mil­lion on an am­bi­tious ex­ten­sion to the gallery, by the then head of the gallery trustees Steven Lowy and the gallery’s new di­rec­tor Michael Brand.

Eye­brows were raised. Af­ter all, the gallery’s ex­hi­bi­tion spa­ces have ex­panded over the years through build­ing projects — most re­cently a sen­si­tive restora­tion of the en­tire un­der­ground stor­age fa­cil­ity, which pro­vided an ad­di­tional 3300sq m for dis­plays. Fur­ther­more, the new plan in­volved swal­low­ing tracts of much-loved emer­ald spa­ces and en­croach­ing on the Royal Botanic Gar­dens.

As White points out, Brand came from the “fi­nan­cially su­per­charged world of Amer­i­can that pre­ceded the Great War. Many of them had once been cu­bists or even ab­strac­tion­ists, but grew dis­sat­is­fied with the steril­ity of for­mal­ist styles. As Hy­man mem­o­rably ob­serves in his in­tro­duc­tion, ab­strac­tion had ceded ‘‘all that was most loved’’ in the art of the past to cin­ema. Worse, as Ge­orge Grosz wrote, for­mal­ism was es­sen­tially ir­re­spon­si­ble in its re­fusal to speak of the so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence of its time. Bernard Smith was sneered at for mak­ing a sim­i­lar point in 1959.

It was al­ways a strug­gle, for the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the world and of hu­man fig­ures could no longer be taken for granted as the nat­u­ral lan­guage of art. Cu­bism had de­con­structed the ra­tio­nal ma­trix of space evolved since the Re­nais­sance and ab­strac­tion had ques­tioned the very re­al­ity of osten­si­bly ob­jec­tive ap­pear­ance. art mu­se­ums” — a world where, ac­cord­ing to art critic Jerry Saltz, th­ese mu­se­ums were in­creas­ingly in dan­ger of be­com­ing “busi­ness­driven car­ni­vals”.

For­mer prime min­is­ter Paul Keat­ing was one of the most vo­cal crit­ics of the AGNSW projects, sug­gest­ing it was “all about idol­a­try of spe­cial events and the pro­vi­sion of com­mer­cial venues for hire … The Art Gallery of NSW is an arts in­sti­tu­tion; it is not a func­tion cen­tre or an ob­ser­va­tion plat­form.

“Nor is it a re­tail out­let. It is an arts mu­seum and de­serves to re­tain the in­tegrity of a mu­seum.”

White quotes the ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian Joe Kin­sela, who con­sid­ered the pro­posed de­sign “an ex­er­cise in bad man­ners”, re­spon­si­bil­ity for which lay not with the splen­did Ja­panese At the same time, the catas­tro­phes of two world wars, near eco­nomic col­lapse and the rise of sav­age and in­hu­mane po­lit­i­cal ide­olo­gies had pro­foundly shaken con­fi­dence in the most ba­sic as­sump­tions and as­pi­ra­tions of western civil­i­sa­tion.

This is why the fig­ure is so of­ten painted in an awk­ward, gauche or even grossly dis­torted man­ner, as artists seek to ex­press the pain and con­fu­sion of their time; or why so many seek in­spi­ra­tion in prim­i­tivism or the art of chil­dren or out­siders, striv­ing to find new ways to evoke the poignancy of hu­man des­tiny or the long­ings of the spirit, be­yond forms that were felt to be shop­worn, men­da­cious or too close to the su­per­fi­cial­ity of the pho­to­graphic im­age.

Hy­man touches on th­ese and other themes, but the great strength of his book is that it is not ar­chi­tects but with “those who set up the terms of the de­sign brief”. Rather than feed­ing the Syd­ney ob­ses­sion with har­bour views, he sug­gested “the views that mat­ter in a gallery are views of paint­ings, sculp­tures and other works of art”.

White is par­tic­u­larly acute in her dis­sec­tion of the numb­ing ef­fects of cor­po­rate mum­bo­jumbo, the “strate­gic frame­works … hedged around by an im­pen­e­tra­ble thicket of mar­ket­ing jar­gon” which are gen­er­ally ac­ti­vated when the goal is ob­fus­ca­tion rather than clar­ity. And when lay­ers of con­sul­tants with fancy ti­tles, fat fees and in­com­pre­hen­si­ble func­tions be­gin to crowd out cu­ra­tors, artists, de­sign­ers, ed­u­ca­tors and crafts­men, she be­lieves some­thing is amiss.

The no­tion that the gallery is chal­lenged when it comes to pre­sent­ing large in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tions is a mis­guided one. Even be­fore the vast un­der­ground ex­ten­sion, the gallery hosted a roll call of am­bi­tious and mem­o­rable ex­hi­bi­tions such as Mod­ern Masters: Manet to Matisse from New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in 1975, Pom­peii AD79 in 1981, and Qin Shi­huang: Ter­ra­cotta War­riors and Horses in 1983. The lat­ter gave Syd­ney its first ex­pe­ri­ence of a lively young cu­ra­tor, Ed­mund Capon, who went on to serve as gallery di­rec­tor for 33 years.

White re­serves her most de­tailed anal­y­sis for the ef­fec­tive hi­jack­ing of the Art Gallery So­ci­ety’s in­de­pen­dence. Of one new man­ager, re­spon­si­ble for its mem­ber­ship, she says: “I had no idea how I would re­late to some­one whose use of the English lan­guage in­volved de­scrib­ing her­self as a ‘cre­ate­gist’.”

She re­calls a con­ver­sa­tion with this ‘‘cre­ate­gist” dur­ing which the lat­ter asked: “Why is ev­ery­thing so com­pli­cated here? It’s just a build­ing with paint­ings on the wall.”

White was dis­tressed that highly a the­o­ret­i­cal trea­tise but a kind of patch­work quilt of a history made up of in­di­vid­ual stud­ies of artists and close analy­ses of spe­cific works, ar­ranged in roughly chrono­log­i­cal se­quence.

Hy­man rightly ob­serves that ‘‘true paint­ing goes deeper than con­cepts’’, and his fo­cus is al­ways on the artist and the work, seek­ing the unique qual­ity of in­sight ar­tic­u­lated in and made vis­i­ble to us through par­tic­u­lar acts of paint­ing.

He is won­der­fully per­cep­tive and gen­er­ous in his read­ing of paint­ings in widely di­ver­gent styles, pass­ing with in­tu­itive ease from the ma­te­ri­al­ity of the painted sur­face and the struc­tures of style to the most sub­tle bi­o­graph­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal or philo­soph­i­cal re­flec­tions. Time and again he makes us see fa­mil­iar artists with fresh eyes, both in re­la­tion to their own time ex­pe­ri­enced cu­ra­to­rial and ed­u­ca­tional staff were shown the door, among them Ter­ence Maloon, an ad­mired for­mer cu­ra­tor of spe­cial ex­hi­bi­tions, who sug­gested the cu­ra­to­rial cul­ture had been “down­sized and evis­cer­ated”. Another ca­su­alty was the cu­ra­tor Peter Rais­sis, who mounted one of the finest ex­hi­bi­tions of 2014, Euro­pean Prints and Draw­ings 1500-1900 (for which there was no cus­tom­ary open­ing and very lit­tle pro­mo­tion).

In the same pe­riod new ‘‘man­agers’’ and con­sul­tants were ap­pointed. In 2015-16 the gallery spend $1,571,653 on con­sul­tants alone.

The Art Gallery So­ci­ety had a stel­lar and un­blem­ished record of stream­lined ef­fi­ciency, clar­ity of func­tions and scrupu­lous at­ten­tion to, and af­fec­tion for, its mem­bers. Staff, mem­bers, and the hun­dreds of vol­un­teers who as­sisted, re­garded it as fam­ily. As White points out, “good­will is one of those great in­tan­gi­bles that are cru­cial to the suc­cess of cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions, and it’s much eas­ier to lose it than to build it”.

The so­ci­ety was founded in 1953 with an in­de­pen­dent char­ter to en­cour­age com­mu­nity sup­port for the gallery. White sug­gests it has an “un­matched record of con­tribut­ing to the in­sti­tu­tion’s suc­cess”.

Per­haps the last word should go to Jus­tice David Levine QC, who first be­came a mem­ber of the so­ci­ety in 1958 and who sat on its coun­cil from 2005 to 2014: “This book sounds a timely warn­ing be­cause it demon­strates that our cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tions are be­ing mea­sured and man­aged by quite new cri­te­ria: not schol­ar­ship, education or cul­tural en­rich­ment, but com­mer­cial suc­cess, a false ca­chet and a self­delu­sional so­cial ad­vance­ment for ‘in­sid­ers’, largely from the cor­po­rate sec­tor.” and as po­ten­tial sources of in­spi­ra­tion for painters to­day.

So many books on mod­ern art are un­read­able be­cause the au­thors are es­sen­tially recit­ing from the same his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal au­tocue with its suave but dispir­it­ing flow of pre­dictable fal­la­cies. This is the op­po­site — as in­deed it should be, since Hy­man’s pur­pose is to make us look afresh at what re­ally hap­pened in the past 100 years or more. The re­sult is a de­light, deeply but lightly eru­dite, in­ti­mate, writ­ten with ex­quis­ite in­tel­li­gence, and en­tirely suc­cess­ful in re­veal­ing that the art of the 20th cen­tury was much more in­ter­est­ing than a long march to­wards noth­ing­ness. critic. is an au­thor and edi­tor. is The Aus­tralian’s na­tional art

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