Review: Sasha Grishinon Australian Art Exhibitions

Best in Show: Australian Art Exhibitions: Opening our eyes

Australian Art Exhibitions: Opening our eyes is an immensely ambitious, all-enveloping project that seems to have grown in all directions as the research progressed. Ostensibly, it is an account of art exhibitions in Australia over the past half-century and how their changing nature reflected and encouraged changes in Australian society.

However, a theme as broad as art exhibitions in Australia touches on a vast range of related topics, including funding for the arts, the training of the gatekeepers of exhibitions, such as curators, gallery directors and art historians, not to mention the structure, shape and funding of museums and art galleries. The book delves in some detail into federal and state politics in Australia, demographics and patterns of immigration, cultural policies, national and international economic trends, and philosophies of where the arts sit in the changing national psyche. Once the authors had embarked on this macro interpretation of the theme of art exhibitions, then questions arose concerning the nature of art itself, the training of artists and the positioning of art schools, as well as broader questions concerning the nature of ‘museum art’ as opposed to ‘community art’ and ‘street art’.

As a result of the encyclopaedic scope of this volume, much of the published material is synoptic in nature and appears in the form of a highly compressed databank of information – most of it scrupulously and meticulously researched and drawn from archival sources, interviews with some of the key players, and a detailed examination of numerous exhibitions and their catalogues.

This book is a team effort, not only by the four main authors – Joanna Mendelssohn, Catherine De Lorenzo, Alison Inglis and Catherine Speck – but also by scores of librarians, curators and gallery administrators, many of whom are listed in the acknowledgements. All four authors are very senior and distinguished art academics; Mendelssohn and De Lorenzo, after lengthy careers, now occupy honorary roles at the University of New South Wales, Professor Inglis is an art historian in Melbourne and Professor Speck in Adelaide. There is a confession in the text that not all of the exhibitions discussed have been seen by all of the authors, but many have been viewed by more than one member of the quadriga. Collectively, they have an enormous amount of first-hand experience of the visual arts in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide and positively reflect many of the values of women in the arts of their generation. The project was funded through an ARC Linkage Project Grant, (dating from a time before ministers autocratically intervened to decide the fate of peer-reviewed applications), plus numerous other university and institutional grants, as well as funding for the book by the Gordon Darling Foundation, which has been such a strong supporter of scholarly art publishing.

Originally, the focus of the book was envisaged to be on seventeen ‘core exhibitions’ held over a forty-year period between 1968 and 2009. In the process of research, the focus was modified with the chronological and the thematic scope extended. In their statement of goals, the four authors write:

We wanted to conduct a chronological study of Australian art exhibitions by investigating the impact of government, corporate and philanthropic funding, the changing nature of curatorship, and new modes of writing art histories in Australia. Our object was to work with our partner organisations to enable art museum personnel, art historians and the wider public to better understand the nature and impact of curatorial interventions.

The exhibitions examined in this book chronologically stretch from The art of Arnhem Land in 1957 in Perth to Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters in 2018 in Canberra. The appendix of exhibitions discussed or mentioned in the book runs to several hundred titles.

The epic proportions of the venture have invariably led to tough choices concerning inclusions and exclusions, but the real criteria for selection are more difficult to determine. For example, is an exhibition discussed because of its perceived historical and cultural significance? Its curatorial importance? Its venue, for example, an inaugural show at a new public gallery? Its critical acclaim or popularity with the public? It appears to be a somewhat subjective mix of all of the above with some relatively minor exhibitions receiving considerable attention because they thematically fit into a particular chapter, while others are left out because they are superfluous to the main arguments in that part of the book.

The chronological scope of the book can also be seen as somewhat problematic. While there is no doubt that in the past half century the institutional Australian art scene has reinvented itself from a small and somewhat elite operation to a huge billion-dollar industry that, on some estimates, attracts more people and generates more revenue than all of the sports at an elite level combined. However, it would also have been useful to have a brief summary of exhibitions in Australia prior to the 1950s as a background to the developments discussed in detail in the book.

The selection of exhibitions for discussion and mention in the nominated chronological framework of 1957 to 2018, if not problematic, is in need of some explanation and justification. The Field exhibition as the inaugural show in the temporary exhibition space in the new building of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in St Kilda Road in Melbourne in 1968 may be a self-evident choice and this show dominates the first chapter. Even if, at the time and in retrospect, the quality of the exhibits left much to be desired (something that is acknowledged in the book), the show did stir considerable controversy and may be viewed as signalling changing exhibiting policies and strategies at the gallery. The Antipodean show of nine years earlier, with its firebrand manifesto, is passed over in silence. Is it because one exhibition was at the NGV and the other was at the Victorian Artists Society? Certainly, the Antipodeans sent ripples throughout the Australian art world, and beyond; the exhibition did contain very memorable works by John Brack, Arthur Boyd and Charles Blackman, amongst others, and inspired counter exhibitions. Bernard Smith invited the artists and was the de facto curator of the show. The Antipodean exhibition of 1959 remains one of the most controversial and best-known exhibitions in Australian art history.

The detailed discussion of The Field exhibition in chapter one is exemplary but also slightly idiosyncratic. Although the later manifestations and interpretations of the show are discussed in considerable detail, including the small display in the focus room at the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) in 2009, the major exhibition The Field Now at Heide in 1984 is ignored as is, and perhaps more surprisingly, The Field Revisited at the NGV in 2018 with its recreation of the original show and a significant monograph devoted to the earlier exhibition. (This final omission may simply be a question of cut-off dates for submission of the final manuscript for publication – even though an installation shot from The Field Revisited made the cut.)

This highlights a problem with publications of this nature, where there is a rapidly developing field of scholarship and curatorial activity. Would a publication of this nature be better served as an e-book or, potentially, as a dedicated website, where new material, as it comes to light, can be seamlessly incorporated, errors corrected and hyperlinks included to the growing collections of online catalogues and exhibition ephemera? Personally, I love the security of a thick, profusely illustrated and closely documented tome, but I am forced to admit that some sorts of publications are better served in an online format. This could be an example of the latter.

The Whitlam years are correctly highlighted as the coming of age of the art exhibition scene in Australia. The revitalisation and proper funding of the Australia Council, and the structure of its boards, as well as the meteoric growth of the Australian National Gallery in Canberra are noted and carefully documented. The authors write,

By the end of the 1970s Australian cultural life had been completely transformed. Political and economic changes had made their mark, second wave feminism was in full swing and Aboriginal Australia was part of the national conversation. The changes in exhibitions of Australian art were themselves a part of the arguments for change. The new professionalism of those working in the arts, combined with the many opportunities seized when funding became available, had enabled new ways of configuring large survey exhibitions and smaller experimental shows. Lost histories and radically new work resulted in fresh exhibitions exploring Australian cultural practices.

One of the highlights of the book is its range of illustrations, largely consisting of rarely published exhibition installation photographs and images of the covers of exhibition catalogues. Frequently these are difficult to track down and it is wonderful to see how an exhibition was presented to the public in the 1960s and 1970s. Also, unusual archival photographs have been unearthed that show some of the key figures of the early curatorial world, including Daniel Thomas and Nicholas Draffin, in their heyday, rather than as revered elder statesmen.

The structure of the book is broadly thematic, set within a chronological framework. The twelve chapters are: ‘Taking the initiative: State gallery directors in the 1950s & 1960s’; ‘A national picture: the impact of Whitlam and the Australia Council’; ‘Exhibitions re-defining the nature of art’; ‘Blockbuster exhibitions and their consequences’; ‘Re-examining Australia’s past: Colonialism and nationalism’; ‘The centenary years and beyond’; ‘Australian Modernism’; ‘Modernism, feminism: what of the women’; ‘The Aboriginal art revolution’; ‘Exhibiting the present’; ‘A new Australia’ and ‘Different modes of engagement’. As is immediately evident from this listing, some chapters have a huge scope, for example, ‘Blockbuster exhibitions and their consequences’, while others have a much more discrete focus, such as the final two chapters that invite a more polemical account and a much more detailed engagement with a few, relatively minor exhibitions. The broad-brush approach, where the desire is to record patterns of change in the chronology of exhibitions, leads to an immense density of data where, at times, it becomes difficult to see the wood for the trees. One has the impression that the book has been constantly pruned back to make the length more manageable, but the resulting synoptic style sometimes makes the digestion of content difficult.

In a publication of this nature, it is difficult to gaze into a crystal ball and to predict trends for future exhibitions; the attempt at causationist links may be a little speculative and difficult to substantiate. After a detailed discussion of ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions, the authors conclude:

In real dollar terms the cost of international air travel in 2018 was less than 10% of the cost in 1968. The blockbuster exhibitions of the past, bringing rare wonders to a distant land, have lost their power. Instead curators can explore commonalities, and differences, across a number of cultures – including our own.

Although, over the years, many within the museums have argued that ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions have been a blight on the Australian museum scene and take away resources from ‘serious’ exhibitions that examine important issues in popular and artistic culture, the blockbuster has not gone away. The counter argument is that the eye candy of the blockbuster pays for the more esoteric curatorial exercises of high cultural value and, if done well, these blockbuster exhibitions can still be aesthetically and intellectually stimulating and make a substantial contribution to the local economy. The blockbusters buy the support of local governments and sponsors in the commercial sector that become partisan stakeholders in a gallery’s future development.

Worries that cheaper air travel would lead to fewer people visiting exhibitions of imported treasures in Australia have proved to be baseless. The most recent data suggest that, if anything, the trend is growing in Australian art galleries and museums to bring ‘rare wonders’ to this distant land. Van Gogh and the Seasons at the NGV in 2017 attracted a record attendance of 462,000 visitors, Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) in 2018 attracted a record attendance for that gallery of 159,442 visitors, and MoMA at the NGV in 2018 attracted 404,000 visitors. Museums in Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane in recent years have held remarkably successful imported ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions and the taste for these sorts of exhibitions in the past decade shows no signs of abating.

Chapter seven on modernism and the exhibiting of modernism in Australia is a subject for a book in its own right and this chapter, in places, resembles an annotated catalogue of interrelated themes and lists of exhibitions. Commencing with the pronouncement, ‘Modernism can be described as an endless questing for the new’ and declaring that ‘Nolan was the most experimental artist of his generation, in both media and subject matter’, the choice of who amongst the artists is discussed, and at what length, at times appears a bit arbitrary. Invariably, there is a geographical bias in the exhibitions and exhibition spaces examined. The Tin Sheds at Sydney University recurs constantly throughout the book, while a place like the Bitumen River Gallery in Canberra, that was an important alternative space for that city, does not rate a mention. A similar point could be made concerning MOCA in Brisbane that played a significant role for experimental art in that city and beyond in the 1980s and 1990s. Pronouncements on art by the Sydney-based Terry Smith punctuate many sections of the book, but we hear far less of the ideas of Alan McCulloch and Ursula Hoff in Melbourne or from the formidable Gertrude Langer in Brisbane.

In some constructs of Australian exhibitions, the Annandale Imitation Realists and their shows in Sydney and Melbourne, and the Roar group from Melbourne, who were also exhibited in Sydney and Canberra, are considered as of major significance, but are omitted from this book. The Print Council of Australia, so critical in circulating ideas concerning contemporary art in its exhibitions through the medium of printmaking from the mid-1960s through to the present, is also largely ignored.

Some would imagine that authors of a book focusing on art exhibitions in Australia would feel compelled to address the peculiarly Australian phenomenon of the Archibald Prize exhibition that has been such a feature of the Australian art scene since 1921. In the same breath, one could mention Sculpture by the Sea that commenced in Bondi in 1997 and in Cottesloe Beach in Perth in Western Australia in 2005 and which annually attracts about half a million viewers and has had a significant impact on the exhibiting of sculpture in this country. Neither of these annual exhibitions may fit the curatorial and museum model explored in this book, but both are integral parts of the art exhibition scene in Australia.

On reading this book, and I must declare that I read every word of the text, the appendices and the footnotes, I realised that it is more of an invaluable handbook for those already working within the curatorial profession – art museum personnel – than a book for the general reader interested in the history and the development of art exhibitions in Australia. Strengths of the book lie more in the individual case studies than in the overall picture. There is an excellent account of the origins and the development of the Asia-Pacific Triennials at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, which corrects some of the self-serving anecdotal accounts that have distorted reality. On the subject of Asian art, curiously the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art is discussed at some length, but Judith Neilson’s White Rabbit Gallery is passed over in silence, despite another ‘private’ museum, MONA, attracting considerable attention.

Another major strength of the book is an account of the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art exhibitions and their move from the periphery to centre stage. It is an area that has experienced a phenomenal growth in scholarship in recent years, but it is still dominated by ‘outsiders’ with the Indigenous voice a subject of study and not the dominant voice owning the discourse.

Throughout the volume there are many pleasant surprises, including listings of key survey exhibitions, particularly those mounted by Robert Lindsay at the NGV; a detailed and partisan account of the feminist intervention into curatorial strategies and the mounting of exhibitions as well as a moving engagement with the art made in response to HIV/AIDS in a section of the book entitled ‘Art for a cause’. The manuscript would have benefited from closer proof reading, especially in the appendices and index, to avoid such embarrassing revelations in the Institutional Career Paths section, that both Nick Mitzevich and Gerard Vaughan are continuing in the role of director of the National Gallery of Australia. In view of the enormity of the data contained in this volume, typographical transgressions are minor, even if at times annoying.

Australian Art Exhibitions: Opening our eyes is in many ways a landmark publication – a first concerted attempt made to isolate the different strands involved in the presentation of Australia’s visual culture. The decision made to extend the chronological scope of the book from the original proposed closing date of 2009 to 2018 has inevitably exposed the project to the tides of change that confront anyone trying to write a history of the present. The considerable achievement of this book has been to chart the various curatorial paths and strategies adopted by people working both inside and outside the official art establishment and the discussion of the fascinating intersections between these various paths. Although it is possible to note various lacuna and to question the choice of exhibitions, curators and events on which to focus, this book lays the foundation on which future scholarship in this area will build.