National Gallery of Australia – Quo Vadis
On November 10 2014, Dr Gerard Vaughan AM took up the post of Director of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. In 2012 he had stepped down as the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, a post that he had occupied since 1999, and, prior to this, he had a string of outstanding appointments in Britain. In Canberra, he followed in the footsteps of the four previous directors, James Mollison AO, Betty Churcher AO, Brian Kennedy and Ron Radford AM.
Mollison, Churcher and Kennedy each served as director for seven years, Radford broke the mould with ten years at the helm and Vaughan, in what was always going to be a short-term appointment, stayed for three-and-a-half years.
In 2017, Vaughan foreshadowed that he would be retiring in 2018 and, true to his word, he announced that he would be leaving on July 1 and Nick Mitzevich will take up the reins as Canberra’s sixth director on July 2, 2018. Mitzevich has been a strikingly successful director at the Art Gallery of South Australia, where he has had tenure since 2010, and prior to that was director of the Newcastle Art Gallery and subsequently at the University of Queensland Art Museum in Brisbane.
The National Gallery of Australia has been the poisoned chalice of Australian art.
Thanks to the visionary policies of its inaugural director, James Mollison, and the nurturing creative environment of the government of Gough Whitlam, the National Gallery established superlative collections in numerous areas, unmatched by anything else in Australia. These included heritage in-depth collections in Australian art, including 20th century and contemporary painting, printmaking, photography, Indigenous art and the applied arts; spectacular focus collections, such as Russian Ballets Russes and Russian avant-garde art, American modern and contemporary printmaking as well as dazzling holdings in American and European post-war painting and sculpture.
Sadly, from the outset, the National Gallery was beholden to its political masters and the problem with Canberra is that there are too many politicians seeking the limelight and too few people seriously committed to the arts.
Prime Ministers Whitlam and Paul Keating loved the arts and artists loved them back. Prime Minister John Howard was afraid of the arts and saw artists as the natural enemy of his brand of conservative politics, unless it was in the realm of portraiture or art that glorified the military. Under his long and bleak administration, the National Portrait Gallery and the Australian War Memorial flourished, while the rest of the arts community in Canberra largely marked time, despite the relatively robust economic growth that occurred nationally thanks to the mining boom.
The Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard governments, despite their expressed sympathy for artists, were too busy with other things, including infighting, to do much for the arts, while the Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull administrations took the knife to the national arts organisations in Canberra.
Prime Minister Turnbull is perhaps the biggest disappointment as many in the arts community were hoping for the winds of change after the savagery of the Abbott budget. At least, Lucy Turnbull, it was thought, would breathe a note of enlightenment – but alas the so-called federal productivity dividend cuts continued and crippled the national heritage institutions, including the National Gallery.
Despite a supportive local Labor ACT government, the financial link to the federal government is the albatross of dependency that hangs around the National Gallery’s neck and this is something unlikely to change any time soon.
Nick Mitzevich, who will turn forty-eight in May 2018, I think faces three main challenges as he assumes the reins at the National Gallery in Canberra. The first is to restore the streams of funding to the Gallery. These have been severely cut, especially under the Abbott and Turnbull governments, and one would hope that during his honeymoon period he could employ his diplomacy and charisma in advocating for a national role for the gallery and persuade, or shame, the federal government into rethinking its short-sighted slash and burn policy.
The arts community is huge, it is national and it votes, something that may not be lost on a government facing re-election or annihilation in the next twelve months.
The second challenge is to make better use of the dysfunctional exhibition spaces at the National Gallery. An enormous achievement of Gerard Vaughan was to rearrange the display of the gallery’s collection and the international collection has never looked better.
The Australian art display is still a work in progress and the idea of constantly revolving displays on the ground floor is not fully viable without a much larger curatorial team. The greatest strength of this gallery is its permanent collection and many more exhibitions accompanied by well-researched publications are required.
The third challenge is the need to reform the art culture in Canberra. There is one national art collection, which is distributed amongst several venues – the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of Australia, the National Film and Sound Archive, the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives.
For years, they have been like little medieval fiefdoms jealously protecting their autonomous territories. With changes in staff in several institutions, there is now an opportunity to attempt a more unified approach.
Why not set a project for 2020 for a National Triennial of Australian Art, where each institution will curate exhibitions in areas of its strength, swapping and loaning works? We could see the best of contemporary Australian video, photography, film, painting, Indigenous art, printmaking, drawing and book arts, applied arts, fashion, design and so on. It would be a unique exhibition experience that only Canberra could mount and all of Australia will want to see.
This is achievable, it does not require a huge budget, it will generate revenue and will attract more funding. The changing of the guard at the National Gallery of Australia opens an exciting prospect for a major renewal in the national arts scene.
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
Keep up-to-date with Sasha Grishin's blog with the RSS feed.
RSS offers ease of access and ensures your privacy, as you do not need to subscribe with an email address.
Click here to download a free feed reader