The news that the Art Gallery of South Australia’s director, Christopher Menz, has declined a contract extension because the South Australian government has not increased the gallery’s funding has brought predictable squeals of outrage from the champions of the entitlement culture at Australia’s large cultural institutions.
Now art critic John McDonald has weighed in with a mendacious opinion piece in the Fairfax newspapers in which he claims that Menz’ dummy spit “represents one of the few occasions a senior figure in an Australian public art museum has shown the courage of their convictions.”
Was Menz asking for an outrageous sum of money? He wanted only another million. Over the past two years, even allowing for its slender budgets, the gallery has initiated important shows such as The Golden Journey, Hans Heysen, and Misty Moderns. There could be no questioning the quality of the staff’s work and commitment.
Well, there are obvious questions about at least one staff member’s commitment. The director has effectively resigned.
But what really annoys me about these kinds of articles is the utter detachment they show from the on-the-ground conditions in which actual working Australian artists ply their trade. Recall that the average Australian visual artist can’t even earn a wage above the poverty line from his or her art. Meanwhile, art galleries spend millions on acquiring thhe masterpieces of dead foreign artists. “Only another million” writes McDonald, without realising that this is by no means a trivial sum in terms of funding for individual visual artists.
Actually, the South Australian government injected more than $2 million in recent years to pay for renovations, but McDonald doesn’t let that get in the way of his spray, dismissing it as merely about “air conditioning” – which I would have thought was a rather significant investment in a city where summer temperatures regularly get into the 40s.
I’m sorry, but McDonald and Menz are nothing but whingers. Let’s examine the facts. Menz enjoyed a healthy salary to run a major cultural institution with a budget that would comfortably exceed all but a handful of Australian arts organisations. If this wasn’t commensurate with his talents and abilities, he is free to take his bat and ball and go home. But let’s not mourn his departure. The board of the AGSA should immediately get on with the business of appointing a young and dynamic director who can take the institution forward. For his part, McDonald should stop whinging.
Jane Rankin-Reid, in a devastating quote I have often cited, had this to say on the issue way back in 2002:
It is time Australian visual arts bureaucrats faced the fact that although they are professionally dependent on artists for their raison d’etre, the guy in the paint-splattered suit may never enjoy quite as high a standard of living as an arts management desk jockey. Ideally, artists are here to promote these and other truths, but the politesse of the Australian arts funding system often muffles these dangerous voices in our society.