Sunday, April 10, 2011

the muses say "No more Dictators for Life!"

As durable and as self-promoting as Zahi Hawass - the Godfather of Egyptian antiquities- but no nearly so compelling, Edmund Capon has been dictator-for-life of the Art Gallery of NSW for since 1978
Down below, during the ArchieBald, the packing prize is decided by a dictatorship of one. Away with these unrepresentative swill, I say. The muses will not be dictated to.

No more dictatorships for life at the art gallery of NSW

The Art Gallery of NSW is a disgrace: what will the new government do?

For me what most illustrates the moribund nature of Sydney's administration is not the public transport(try Melbourne's). It's that sad old dowager, the Art Gallery of NSW, with its gappy 140 year old facade, with empty panels which should contain bronze friezes of the 19th century pantheon of western art. But for the four completed, the artists' names around the walls are an empty boast(art finishes soon after Giotto!).

Edmund Capon, appointed as an Asian art specialist and snappy, marketable exec, took a hidebound institution in the 70's and widened our horizons by creating the gallery's Asian section. He also undertook a major building program. The gallery has much more exhibition space. However, the building is a mess, and the hodge-podge lighting worse. Dim lights may be required for some unstable pigments in works on paper(though one could light them better, and exhibit each piece for a shorter period each year for an equivalent light exposure), but why bronze libation vessels need to sit in semi-darkness is a mystery to me. In the darkness the mystery appears?

When I visited on a trip back to Sydney recently there were ghastly missing teeth in the 19th century and the modernist sections, that is, paintings removed from display for conservation, but not replaced with anything more than a note. Is the budget so feeble, that there are no staff to hang artwork, or the curator's ambitions and interests non-existant? 

The only member of the administration who has not held their position for decades is a CPA who parachuted in from that other dynamic body, the Australia Council.

Edmund Capon, dictator for life, appointed in 1978, has taken the AGNSW the full circle, back to hidebound again. Head curator Tony Bond has been there 27 years, in which time it seems like absolutely nothing has happened in the areas for which he is responsible. I remember him dismissing the artists at the Gunnery as ephemeral(though we survived 6 years, without any assistance from him - quite the contrary), based on his experience living in a warehouse for 2 weeks in London, during his gap year. At the AGNSW, he's no ephemeral presence, more like a sculpture acquisition. Deputy director Anne Flanagan has only been around for 19 years, perhaps she is still familiarising herself with the layout?

The gallery treats its permanent collection with contempt. Moribund, seemingly unloved and static. Worst of all is the modern Australian section, which cuts off where it did in 1978 or so. Almost nothing in the ground floor display seems ever to be rotated with the rest of the collection. It seems like no-one ever comes along with a fresh imagination to dig out and reappraise any long-neglected treasures, or tell a new story with familiar materials.

Signs of life: On the entrance level only 2 exhibitions showed any when I visited. The HSC art express, and a beautiful show of artifacts put on by a Chinese provincial government, which was the only thing that seemed adequately resourced, enhancing its air of gravity and coherence.

Down below, the Aboriginal section is much better housed than 30 years ago( its former home in a 2 metre high dungeon with a carpet ceiling had to be seen to be believed). It also looks like the only area of the gallery that acquires living Australian artists, certainly the only part hanging art by an artist I know. But it's still hidden in the basement, when it should be a key part of the Australian collections on the entrance level.

Apart from a few derisory bequests from wealthy patrons the 'modern' Australian section remains as it was in the late 70's and early 80's. Not even a Jeffrey Smart, though Capon loves him. It seems no artist has entered the Canon in Australia since Brett Whiteley. This is a triumph of bipartison policy: With resolve and good management perhaps all artists will exterminate themselves in a few decades, leaving a rump of arts workers with their jargon, and the public marooned with TV sport.

The 'acquisition policy', to dignify it with a title, is to cater to the whims of a few wealthy benefactors while trying to fill the most obvious yawning gaps left by past haphazard collecting. What state funding there is goes to maintainence, staffing and capital works. So large sums must be spent to acquire Nolan's "First-Class Marksman", because the trustees didn't have the imagination to acquire Nolans while he was alive. But it's a better purchase than competing with billionaires and well-funded metropolitan galleries for Dutch and Italian masters, or French and German modernists. The Gallery has a Beckman, a Kirchner, and a Matisse beachtowel(handpainted in Sydney), and can't expect to get a top-line work by more than a smattering of prestigious international artists.

The AGNSW is a primary custodian of the cultural record in NSW and Australia, and as such should take some kind of interest in local cultural life. It should, with appropriate intellectual and financial discipline, and also imagination and risk, go out and acquire art by some of the artists at work here today. This would sustain the gallery for a future where the collection has the depth and breadth to create changing, rotating exhibitions, with different artists, periods and tendencies, seen through the eyes of different exhibition curators and audience. Schools of artists, and styles, are reappraised with each new generation and social revolution. Fashion changes, and what is despised today may later find itself in an unaccustomed position of respect. The state gallery cannot be a private fiefdom.

The syndicated blockbusters of the past few decades encouraged public galleries to ignore their responsibilities. The gallery outside these mass entertainments has fallen into the hands of a coterie who are not serving the public interest. And nowadays, if I want to see the "Garbage of the Pharaohs" again, I can look it up on the internet, or even actually go to Egypt and see it in some context. I'd rather the gallery introduced me to treasures I'm not familiar with. If the flagship gallery in Sydney lifts its game, and engages the public with its art and history, the smaller institutions and commercial galleries have something to strive toward, promising entertainment and enlightenment to the public.

One final peeve. Silent, vigilant, and art-loving attendants, one per room, have been replaced by a noisy breed of radio-toting, constantly squealing and staticing, goons stomping from room to room chasing members of the public who look like they shouldn't be there(as if they'd know). It was probably this kind of underresourced police-state initiative that contributed to the inside theft of a $1.3million Flemish miniature recently (Not to mention the corroding effects of understaffing and the goon mentality on morale). Put the attendants back, and if obsessed with policing the 'criminal classes' (ie us) put a more competent security staff out of sight in a video control room where they won't disturb the punters.

The thumping liberal victory perhaps gives the coalition the breathing space to put Edmund Capon out to pasture, as Carr should have done after the Olympics. But more needs to change. The tired old administration, and one has to suspect, the trust, need a broom through. A modest amount of funding should be available to acquire works of art, without having to beg private benefactors seeking an indulgence and some polish on their trombone. And the gallery should have enough staff(outside the restaurants) to do their job(mounting interesting shows). And there should be no more dictators for life, lest we strip naked and hurl our shoes at them.

There are no prizes for being an also-ran in an auction for some universally sought-after object. The AGNSW is likely to make history and be noticed through using imagination(in the 'clever country' LOL), local knowledge and artifacts, and through the particular mesh of native and inmigrated traditions that make us ourselves.

And who knows, perhaps they could even commission the missing friezes for the facade, perhaps changing the 'team of all time' to include some modern favourites. After all, if in the 19th century we could create this place, surely a vastly richer and larger Sydney could finish it.

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