Sydney and Melbourne archbishops of art


National Gallery of Victoria: Living Water, Contemporary Art of the Far Western DesertIn a week full of the glitter of celebrity and the opaque mirrors of politics it seems appropriate to refocus on the big question of who will take up the reins of the National Gallery of Victoria.

This is no flippant question as culture in Australia is now big business. Finding yourself in proximity to its magic ambience will bring power, prestige and position well evidenced by the rise of philanthropy and major corporations aligning themselves with the apparent 'power' of art. Culture, it is believed, rubs off and becomes a sign of your educational status, your sense of national pride and your ability to engage the world of ideas that hover just above the masses.

Art is the most savoury of educational experiences and the most seductive in terms of financial ones.

Impeccable scholarship would have once been the only qualification to fill the role of Gallery Director at a major cultural institution in Australia. There was little regard to things such as charisma, political clout, or management brilliance. Now such appointments come with a horizon of expectations that would have been once reserved for the enthroning of an Archbishop or a monarch. A director of an art gallery is now a caretaker of national pride and community aspiration.

These cultural priests or gurus need to grip their always-full wine glass with all the inherent complexity of post-modern theory, they need to do miracles by turning simple material things into priceless objects, they need to convince the skeptical of their ability to skate upon thin ice, to walk on water, and turn fuzzy financial clouds inside out to reveal their golden lining.

Now that the Art Gallery of NSW has announced the appointment of Michael Brand as its new director, the pressure is on for Melbourne. Brand comes with well-deserved credentials, having worked at major institutions with vast resources such as the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Brand managed the difficult negotiations of returning works to their countries of origin that had been obtained through possible black market sources. He did this in a manner that garnered goodwill and in return obtained priceless works for loan, that had never been seen before in the US.

Clearly Brand has the political ability to fill the colourful socks of Edmund Capon who took the AGNSW from a provincial archive to a dynamic cultural institution filled with crowds seeking the enlivening air of cultural experiences.

No doubt, Melbourne had their eye on Brand. They would also have considered Timothy Potts, their former director who has done very well at the prestigious Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. But in a strange twist last week, Potts was named as the successor to Brand in his old job at the Getty.

Such an offer at an asset rich institution like the Getty cannot compare to the NGV where rumours are surfacing about financial difficulties. The outgoing director Gerard Vaughan admits Australia's oldest cultural institution is facing 'tough times'. He anticipated 'smaller' 'blockbusters', an impossible thing to imagine given that state galleries vie for the ability to deliver the biggest and best.

In contrast, Brand found the AGNSW 'ambitious for the future', an outlook that clearly attracted him to the job. Rumours of new building plans are rife.

But down by the harbour, Sydney is about to witness the re-opening of the refurbished and expanded Museum of Contemporary Art. It will open on 29 March after a $53 million dollar refit and expansion, which is credited to a unique collaboration between government, private and corporate donors, led by high profile MCA chairman, investment banker Simon Mordant, with a $15 million donation. 

This expansion, together with the upcoming Sydney Biennale, opening in June 2012, underscores the immense impact of culture as a form of social capital. The Sydney Biennale is now widely respected as one of the major contemporary art festivals in the world and a key destination for cultural tourists. The MCA will be a key venue for this global showcase of culture and ideas.

MCA director Elizabeth Ann McGregor would probably have some key advice for the NGV in their current search. It's clearly a job of impossible expectations, involving all the flash of celebrity and the smoky mirrors of politics. It involves fixing a price on how we remember our past, and how we anticipate our future as a diverse and creative culture. 

UPDATE: The NGV's search has ended with the appointment of Tony Ellwood of the Queensland Art Gallery being announced this morning by Victorian Premier Ted Bailleu. 

Rod PattendenRev. Dr Rod Pattenden is an art historian, educator and chair of the Blake Society. 

Topic tags: Rod Pattenden, National Gallery of Victoria, Museum of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of NSW



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Existing comments

Our art galleries, like libraries, are absolutely essential to the quality of our lives. The long-serving Edmund Capon's contribution to the Sydney art scene is inestimable and his successor has big shoes to fill. Good luck to the NGV in finding a new director.
Pam | 29 February 2012

art (culture)is always there ready to lead us into new and revisiting ancient and recent perspectives.

It needs to flourish and be supported by govtmt /philanthropists,because if it is vibrant and seen as VITAL it empowers and changes social dynamics in a myriad of ways. Business fails if it is never just about $$$ -there must be a purpose and social benefit .With art and culture respected and highly regarded we learn to respect difference and our deeply shared humanity ;we will all live richer,healthier,more soulful lives.

Life is not about bank balances.
catherine | 01 March 2012

Thanks for your thoughts Rod. It's good to have such an overview of what goes on and why. I think we now have appointed someone from Queensland.
jean Sietzema-Dickson | 02 March 2012


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