New art is popular

This article appeared in Crikey on April 8th.

Celeste Boursier-Mougenot "From here to ear (v. 13) 2010". Mixed media, exhibited at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. Image: Queensland Art Gallery.

Your correspondent was in Brisbane last weekend, where he was able to spend a couple of afternoons at the Gallery of Modern Art’s latest contemporary art exhibition, 21st Century: Art in the First Decade.

The gallery was filled with people from across the demographic spectrum: young hipster couples, tourists, senior Australians, and families. So many families. This is an exhibition that seems to to capture the imagination of kids, as well as those who refuse to grow up.

And who can blame them? This particular vision of art in the 21st century could be criticised for many things (some have even used that most devastating of artworld barbs: “safe”), but one thing you can’t fault is its sense of sheer, innocent joy. GOMA’s take on the art of the past decade is filled with the interactive, the relational and the funny, from Martin Creed’s room filled full of purple balloons (Work No. 965: Half the air in a given space (purple)) to Carsten Holler’s signature slippery dip Test site, and from Rikrit Tiravanija’s key relational work — a Thai meal for four — to Olafur Eliasson’s giant Lego play pen, The cubic structural evolution project.

Martin Creed, "Work No. 956" (2008), exhibited at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. Image: Queensland Art Gallery / Natasha Harth

Of these, Holler’s Test site is something of a signature work of the show, dominating the gallery hall over two levels as visitors enter the space. Crikey’s correspondent was struck by the long stretching lines of kids queuing to go on the slides.

Two of the most popular works at the show were interactive and tinged with a sophisticated play of emotions: Rivane Neuenschwander’s wall of ribbons with wishes printed on them, I wish your wish, and the indoor finch aviary of Celeste Boursier-Mougenot’s From here to ear (v.13). Neuenschwander’s work knowingly winked at the unattainability of so many of our hopes and dreams (Crikey particularly enjoyed “I wish I was a famous cricket player”), while Boursier-Mougenot’s work echoes some of the best installation work of the past two decades, such as Hirst’s 1000 Years, and takes it in a sadder, quieter and more sublime direction.

The exhibition certainly has several potential flaws. As a show substantially built up from the gallery’s own collection, it has an unashamedly Asia-Pacific focus; many of the works chosen to represent important artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Julian Opie and Chris Ofili are far from the best examples of their ouevre. On the other hand, this Asia-Pacific collection is the gallery’s obvious strength, and has taken on a chilling importance with the recent imprisonment of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose Painted vases are a part of the show.

A show such as this is something of a risk for a big gallery — or at least once might have thought to have been — especially in comparison to tried and tested blockbuster exhibitions of old masters. Hence, it must be gratifying for the gallery to mount such a well-attended show, despite the devastating floods of summer. Brisbane’s Gallery Of Modern Art/Queensland Art Gallery complex is now themost popular art gallery in the country, according to recently released figures.

It’s indeed interesting that two of the most exciting recent exhibitions in contemporary art in this country have occurred at Brisbane’s GOMA and in Hobart, where the Museum of Old and New Art, or MOMA, continues to wow Australian contemporary art lovers with a collection whose breadth and vision is unmatched in the country (for a recap, have a look at Andrew Frost’s episode of Artscape for ABC-TV).

According to Queensland Art Gallery director Tony Elwood, speaking on a panel discussion as part of 21st Century’s talks program: “We are a soft target because we are innovative and because we are in Brisbane. We work twice as hard to get half the recognition because we are in Brisbane.”

Pointing to criticisms that the exhibition is something of a “fun park”,  he answers: “It’s just disappointing that … by demonstrating just how much we want to reach out to whole ranges of audiences, that we then become a target. Contemporary art is always going to be the most critiqued and the most misunderstood of all the different art histories.”

As a result, Elwood says the gallery worked particularly hard on the ancillary aspects of the exhibition: its didactic panels, itscomprehensive blog and the handsome catalogue. The catalogue is notable for a typically clever essay on the theory of contemporary art by the inimitable Rex Butler, who canvasses the Duchampian nature of the exhibition in a few stylish paragraphs, before declaring, in a wonderful double movement, that “the new motto for art in the 21st century should be ‘Please don’t touch’.”

He means that, as art “increasingly heads towards a condition of total immersion, of a psychedelic or even neurological model”, it also embodies a contradiction: “It would be something of the hand … in an age of digitality.”

Of course, you don’t need to understand the history of modern art to enjoy 21st Century — and that’s precisely the point. In its large-scale installations for children, in particular, the exhibition demonstrates just how vibrant and enjoyable a commitment to new art can be. This really is living art.


Audience demographics for New South Wales museums and galleries

Museums and Galleries NSW, the peak body for that sector in the Australian state of New South Wales, has just released an extensive audience survey. Entitled Guess Who’s Goingto the Gallery? A Strategic Audience Evaluation and Development Study, it’s a fascinating trove of demographic information about 32 museums and galleries across New South Wales.

Some of the top-line findings highlighted by the report’s authors include:

  •  One persistent finding across galleries and across regions is the skew towards females and towards the over 55’s in the audience base.
  • Around 2 in 3 visitors are female (rule of thumb) and nearly half (47%) of the audience is over 55’s. Both of these are over represented in galley audiences compared to the relevant ABS data.
  • Metro Audiences are younger than the region audiences (41% vs 30% under 44 years old). However the regional population is generally older than metro population (37% vs 18% over 55 years)
  • Also, it is interesting the public gallery audiences skew away from the under 35’s whereas the age group in the middle (35-54, ie: “the family age band”) are relatively proportionate to ABS data (around a third or 32%). In other words, the increase in over 55’s appears to be offset by the dip in under 35’s.
  • audiences in NSW public galleries are showing a skew towardstertiary degrees, particularly post-graduate degrees
  • Interest in the types of events, public programs and exhibitions at the gallery varies primarily by demographic segment. In general, younger audience members (under 35’s) show different tastes to older audience members, and in particular younger audiences have a greater interest in live performance and music at the gallery (whereas older audiences are more interested in artist talks and workshops), and have a greater interest in contemporary art and emerging art forms such as digital media arts.

The Australia Council turns its back on contemporary culture … again

The Australia Council has just released a major new piece of audience research. Entitled More than bums on seats: Australian participation in the arts, it’s a weighty and significant contribution to the field which features statistically significant market research surveys of more than 3,000 ordinary Australians.

Unfortunately, it suffers from some of the typical prejudices and problems of so much Australia Council policy and research.

Most notable is the definition of “the arts.” Perhaps for reasons of funding, or perhaps for political reasons, the research has defined “the arts” in a very narrow sense, essentially confining “the arts” to music, writing, visual arts and performance. Film and television – according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the most popularly consumed form of culture – are ignored, and, astonishingly, so are the digital arts and cultural expressions, like gaming.

It’s hard to believe that after all the debate and criticism of  the Australia Council’s recent history by people like Keith Gallasch, Marcus Westbury and myself, when it comes to the most significant piece of audience research by the agency in a decade, vast swathes of Australia cultural participation are simply ignored. But it’s happened. Again.

Here is the relevant paragraph, on page 13 of the report:

The focus of the study is upon the art forms that are supported by the Australia Council (visual arts and crafts, music, dance, theatre, literature). The definitions were agreed after a thorough consultation within the Australia Council and with key stakeholders.

So there you go: “the arts” are what the Australia Council funds. Unfortunately, this not only leaves out the most important cultural expression of the 20th century (cinema), it also ignores many of the important emerging cultural expressions of the 21st (gaming and digital culture). Sure, there are some cursory reference to “digital/video art” in the visual arts section, but you won’t actually find the words “games” or “gaming” anywhere in the report. Gobsmacking.

Moreover, it seems like a step back from recent well-intentioned efforts by OzCo to address digital culture. After looking at today’s  effort, one has to ask why the Australia Council even bothers with its “Arts Content for the Digital Era” strategy if it’s not going to bother to measure the most important forms of interactive digital culture.

It’s not that this isn’t a highly informative piece of research. Like the last such exercise, the Saatchi research report from the early 2000s, More than bums on seats represents important new data on the state of cultural participation in this country. I”ll be delving into it in more detail this week.

Still, it’s another piece of evidence of the ostrich-headed policy direction of the Australia Council under Kathy Keele. More than bums on seats is rather less than the full picture of cultural participation. What a shame.

Well-funded art museums cry poor, again

Christopher Menz has taken his bat and ball and gone home. So why should we care? Source: Fairfax.

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.”

Australian cultural funding, by artform category

As promsied, this week I’m looking at the fine print of Australian cultural funding.

Today I’m looking at funding by artform category. As you can see from the graph below, the big ticket items are parks and environment funding, public broadcasters, libraries and art galleries.


Australian cultural funding by artform category, 2007-08, all levels of Australian government, operational figures only (excludes capital funding). Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics data, collated by myself.

You can get a bigger jpeg of the graph above by clicking through on the image (it’s a link to a bigger file). Continue reading

Hazlehurst Regional Gallery’s Sylvania Waters Project


The Kingpins' "Unstill Life" (detail), 2009, from the exhibition page on Facebook

Tonight the ABC screened a documentary on a recent exhibition at Hazlehurst Regional Gallery in southern Sydney entitled “Reality Check”.

It’s a brief but interesting exploration of the curatorial process and ensuing artworks produced as a part of  this exhibition, which was commissioned by Hazlehurst’s curator,  Daniel Mudie Cunningham, and based around responses to the original Sylvania Waters TV series from 1992.

I haven’t seen the exhibition so I can’t comment on the artworks exhibited, but I thought the documentary raised (though lacked the length to explore) some interesting issues. To begin with, let’s look at the artists selected for the show: Mitch Cairns, Carla Cescon, Peter Cooley, John A. Douglas, The Kingpins, David Lawrey & Jaki Middleton, Luis Martinez, Archie Moore, Ms & Mr, Elvis Richardson, and Holly Williams. Sadly, we don’t get to meet all of them. But as a group, it’s collectively what you might call mid-level contemporary artists, some of whom, like Archie Moore and Luiz Martinez, have real talent and artistic credibility, and some of whom, like The Kingpins, I’ve always thought were better known for their splashy performances and canny artistic positioning than for any ground-breaking originality. I found myself wondering what an older, more established artist might have made of the project … or was I perhaps merely curious as to what happens to all the up-and-coming Primavera stars in 15 years time?

The documentary gives us an interesting snapshot of the artistic process in the 2000’s in Australia. One thing I immediately noticed was the run-down condition of the houses many of the artists lived in, hinting at the often penurious circumstances of working artists, even if few nowadays are prepared to take the next step and attempt a class analysis.

We also get to see some intelligent discussion of the original TV series by Catherine Lumby, who I would love to see doing more television and blogging, as well as some photogenic curatorial glosses from Mudie Cunningham.

Overall, the documentary left me a little disappointed. Perhaps it was always difficult to address so much in 25 minutes, but I don’t feel as though – on the basis of the documentary – that many of the artists really engaged with the subject matter at hand. The exceptions are John A. Douglas, who presents an impressively humane perspective on the difficulties faced by the Donaher family, and Luiz Martinez, who painted a scene from the original TV show that beckons an almost Hopper-esque tabluex of ordinary life.

An “island of culture” for the Gold Coast?


A mock-up of Super Colossal's Island of Culture in the Nerang River

This year, the Gold Coast City Council held a “Master Plan Ideas Competition” to decide what to do with a 16 hectare site in the middle of the growing city. The site is planned to house a new Gold Coast Cultural and Civic Precinct, eventually containing the Council chambers and a swanky new art gallery. The competition aimed to “generate creative new visions”, “stimulate community discussion” and “identify specific design features” for the site.

As the Gold Coast  competition website says, “the 16.5 hectare site is located at 135 Bundall Road and is bordered on three sides by rivers and canals. Formerly a simple rural cane farm, the site is now at the heart of a growing city with views across the skyline of Surfers Paradise, Main Beach and Broadbeach.”

Last week, the Gold Coast Council announced the winner of the competition and its $90,000 prize: Sydney firm Super Colossal, who proposed an entirely new island in the Nerang river for the precinct’s various civic and cultural buildings.

Competition judges praised the winning entry for its creation of open space, its many pedestrian bridges and its defensibility in the face of rising sea-levels. One judge even compared it to “the ancient islands in the Laguna Veneta such as the Isola Murano and Isola San Michele.”

“We think the Gold Coast is one of Australia’’s most interesting cities,” Super Colossal’s Marcus Trimble told me in an email. “Nowhere else do you have close proximity of the ocean, high rise towers, waterfront suburbia, natural and man-made lagoons and industrial buildings.” Continue reading

Ben Lewis’ The Great Contemporary Art Bubble

Tonight ABC2 screened Ben Lewis‘ documentary The Great Contemporary Art Bubble.

It’s a compelling contemporary history of the bubble in contemporary art between 2003-2008 and the dumb money and savvy art world insiders who enabled it to happen.

This is both a vital piece of contemporary art journalism and a fine exploration of the darker side of the art world itself. Lewis argues that key dealers and galleries colluded to routinely bid up prices for hot contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst. Featuring important on-the-record interviews with leading dealers, collectors and critics, including Jim Chanos (though, unsurprisingly, not those at the centre of the art world rumours – Sotheby’s, Jay Jopling, Larry Gagosian and Hirst himself).


100 years of Australian arts policy

Dr John Gardiner-Garden of the Australian Parliamentary Library has published a briefing paper on Australian federalm arts poplicy and administration. It’s another fine effort from this estimable researcher:

Commonwealth involvement in the arts began soon after Federation. For example, in 1908 the Deakin Government established the Commonwealth Literary Fund, and in 1912 the second Fisher Government appointed a Commonwealth Art Advisory Board.

In the post-war period non-government grant giving bodies such as the Arts Council of Australia and the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust were established with Commonwealth assistance, and the Menzies Government established the National Library of Australia.

The Holt Government involved the Commonwealth further in the arts by establishing the Assistance to Composers Advisory Board and agreeing to the establishment of an Australian Council for the Arts and an Australian National Gallery. The former was realised in 1968 by the Gorton Government.

 There’s plenty more in the way of a valuable overview of Commonwealth arts policy and funding right up to the initiatives of the Rudd Government.

Derek Fincham’s Illicit Cultural Property blog

Cultural policy blogs are few and far between so today I’m going to point to one which I think is well worth a frequent visit: Derek Fincham’s Illicit Cultural Property.

Apart from being handsomely presented, Derek covers an intriguing array of topics in the field of museums, intellectual property and antiquities. Recent posts include a pointer to Derek’s upcoming talk at the University of Chicago ‘s Cultural Policy Centre and a thoughtful post about admission fees at public museums. Enjoy!