Goodwill lost as gallery changes its outlook
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