In the US last year there was widespread consternation when it was revealed that nearly one third of all museum shows there came from artists represented by just five commercial galleries.
In Australia a similarly small coterie of commercial dealers and collectors act as cultural gatekeepers for our taxpayer funded arts institutions. The commercial Sydney gallery Roslyn Oxley9 has during the past 33 years provided a staggering 11 artists from its stable as Australia’s representatives at the Australia Council- funded Australian pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
In Daily Review last year John Kelly caused a storm when he looked at the small circle who determined the choice of artist as our representative at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Our 2017 choice is no different. While Kelly admires the selection of Tracey Moffatt, he asks in the essay below, why, given such a small group of people have influenced our choice of artists for Venice for decades, it has taken them so long to choose an indigenous artist in a solo show as Australia’s representative?
THE WAY THINGS GO BY JOHN KELLY
Dwyer: You are an expert?
Young: Well I am called that.
Dwyer: You call yourself that, don’t you?
Dwyer: Don’t you call yourself that in the Sydney telephone directory – “Art Expert.”
Young: No, that is by accident … I personally do not like it.
Dwyer: What don’t you like about art experts?
Young: I don’t like any man that calls himself an expert … I have moved to have that removed from the telephone book.
Edited extract from the transcripts of the William Dobell trial,1944
Who do museums ring when they need a contemporary art expert? An artist? A critic? A curator? If recent statistics from the US are to believed museums ring a commercial gallery. But not just any commerical gallery. As 2015 drew to a close, Ben Davis of Artnet, listed the year’s most important essays. At number one was The Art Newspaper’s article by Julia Halperin’s that used data analysis provided by Nilkanth Patel to reveal that nearly one third of all museum shows in the USA came from artists represented by just five commercial galleries.
Between 2007 and 2013, 90 per cent (or 11 out of 12) major solo exhibitions at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum featured artists represented by the same five galleries.
It was a revelation to learn how closely museum culture has become entwined with the operations of a few commercial galleries These galleries covet a museum’s imprimatur because it is good for business.
Back in Australia look at the former Museum of Contemporary (Sydney) board member Mikala Dwyer’s exhibition at the MCA in November which was complemented by her concurrent commercial exhibition at Sydney commercial gallery Roslyn Oxley9.
It makes perfect sense and raises no eyebrows even when one is aware that its owner, Roslyn Oxley OAM, was a former member of the MCA’s Director’s Working Circle.
In response to the American statistics Robert Storr, the Dean of the Yale University School of Art, suggests; “Museums.. should be looking at a much wider swathe of artists…”
Concurring with this judgement, in May 2015 I argued in Daily Review that in the Australian context there had been a repetitiveness and a narrowness in the art selected for the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
During the period of 2009-2015 artists represented by Roslyn Oxley9 had a disproportionate representation in Australia’s Venice pavilion.
This research also led to the discovery that no indigenous artist had ever represented Australia with a solo exhibition in Australia’s 60-year participation, despite the extraordinary cultural contribution of indigenous artists.
This glaring omission was inadvertently brought to the fore by Oxley9 artist Fiona Hall curating a group of Aboriginal artists for her own Venice exhibition in 2015. In a gesture that — to me at least — came across as somewhat colonial, Hall advised them what to make and benefited from the association, without acknowledging their personal identities in the exhibition (though this was later rectified). The work seemed to be anything but contemporary. The discussion went viral and much debate ensued.
In December 2015 the Australia Council for the Arts announced Tracey Moffatt was to be the 2017 Australian representative. Moffatt is also represented by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. The 2017 commissioner, Naomi Milgrom, said in an Australia Council press release:
“Tracey is the first Australian Indigenous artist to present a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale marking this appointment as significant, bold and inspirational. A moment to be celebrated by all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, as it will be by all Australians.”
I am sure we will all welcome the selection of the first indigenous artist to represent Australia. However we might challenge the idea that this long overdue selection is a ‘bold’ or ‘inspirational’ one given it also reflects many years of discriminatory neglect — it might be better described as belated.
Should one celebrate tardiness? It is also noticable that the indigenous identity is being used to promote the selection which counters Moffatt’s earlier stance. In the ’90s Moffatt declined to participate in Who Do You Take Me For?
“I have never been a mere social issues type artist, in fact my work has never been BLACK. (If there is such a definition). I have made a point [of] staying out of all black or ‘other’ shows. … I want to be exhibited in Contemporary Art Spaces and not necessarily always bunched together with other artists who make careers out of ‘finding themselves-looking for their identities.”
The Venice Biennale Australian Pavilion is definitely the new premier contemporary art space for Australian art and Moffatt’s selection is clearly partly based on the artist’s indigenous identity, otherwise why mention it in the press release?
In light of Moffatt’s selection is it possible that a none too subtle message is being sent to other indigenous artists that the raising of social issues might be a hindrance to their selection? For when was the last time we had an artist raise important indigenous social issues in our Venice pavilion?
Quite clearly Moffatt’s work and many other indigenous artists could have been selected for a solo show at any time over the past 30 years but they weren’t — why not?
At the 2015 Venice Biennale there seemed to be some consensus that Fiona Hall should also have been selected many years previously. This leads one to ponder the possibility that the selections might be based on historical “non-decisions” and the exhibitions are mere acknowledgements of service — but that hardly fits the defintion of a rigourous contemporary art and risks a perpetual time lag.
It could also just be that our institutional selection process is dysfunctional.
Moffatt would have benefited greatly if selected in the ’90s or even in the 2000s alongside her contemporary video artists such as Tacita Dean, Steve McQueen or Sam Taylor Wood who have gone on to great international success in film. But in 2017, with the prevalence of electronic screen devices and a Shaun Gladwell-like Slo-Mo on every iPhone, video art is dating extremely quickly.
While wishing Tracey Moffatt well, rather than celebrate our institutional slow motion we might reflect on the processes that have excluded indigenous artists. This echoes another sin of omission. The first Australian female artist to have a solo exhibition at the Australian Pavilion was Jenny Watson in 1993 — 40 years after our first representation there. Watson, coincidentally, is also (and was at the time) represented by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.
Given that Oxley9 artists statistically appear far more likely to represent Australia (11 gallery artists have been selected for Venice according to the Oxley9 website) than artists from any other gallery it is obvious that it is the most influential gallery in Australia — and has been for the past 33 years.
But this leads to a perplexing puzzle. While Oxley9 has been the most dominant gallery in Australia, no indigenous artists have been selected for a solo exhibition in Venice until now. It raises the question; did it have any influence on the “non-selection” of indigenous artists during the past 30 years?
Halperin’s essay raises the international problem of a shrinking set of influences on public institutions that flies in the face of a culturally diverse 21st century western culture. The number of visual artists has increased exponentially in the past 16 years but the cultural gatekeepers have shrunk the eye of the needle they must pass through to be considered by institutions and biennale selection committees.
With Moffatt’s 2017 selection, the Oxley9 Gallery (which represents approximately 40 artists), has now represented three out of the past four solo Australian representatives (the fourth artist was also previously represented by Oxley9).
In fact, if you go back to 2003 you will find an Oxley9-associated artist at seven out of the past eight Venice Biennales selected by the Australia Council for the Arts with 2005 the only exception.
By Oxley9’s own figures one in four of its artists have represented Australia at Venice. The estimated 500 commercial galleries and 40,000 artists in Australia suggest that this is an anomaly.
From Halperin’s essay we learn that in the US:
“In the run-up to a major solo [museum] show, [commercial] galleries often provide curators with access to archival images, pay shipping costs, pre-order hundreds of catalogues and help to finance the opening reception, according to sources. “If a major museum is flirting with a show, we’ll play ball as much as we have to,” says one director of a medium-sized US [commercial] gallery.”
In the US it is causing major concern that its museums would seem to select from just five commercial galleries but in Australia it would seem to be of no concern that our Venice representative is selected from not much more than one.
Oxley9 can accept the accolades of its successes, and there have been important ones (Jenny Watson for example), but it should also acknowledge that they were in a position of utmost influence when indigenous artist after indigenous artist was not selected during the past 30 years.
In that time Roslyn and husband Tony Oxley have received AO awards for their support of Australian art and that is linked to their support of the Venice Biennale. Roslyn Oxley sat on the Venice Commissioners’ Council in 2015 and one of her artist’s stable was Hall who represented Australia that year at the Venice Biennale. Her work was shown in the striking brand new Australian Pavilion. This building was funded by a group of philanthropists who included Simon Mordant the Australian Venice commissioner (2013 and 2015). He is a collector and is chairman of the MCA in Sydney.
But Oxley9 Gallery did not select Fiona Hall or Tracey Moffatt for Venice did it?
“Tracey Moffatt was selected by a five-member panel comprising: Naomi Milgrom AO, Australian Commissioner for the Venice Biennale 2017, Chair of the Selection Advisory Panel; Nicholas Baume, Director and Chief Curator, Public Art Fund, New York; Rebecca Coates, Acting Director, Shepparton Art Museum and independent curator; Lisa Havilah, Director, Carriageworks; and Chris Saines, Director, Queensland Art Gallery I Gallery of Modern Art.”
As a group it takes only Google and a few minutes to see that this group of selectors are intrinsically interlinked.
In the OzCo press release Moffatt tells us a little:
“Naomi Milgrom and the wonderful curator Natalie King and I will indeed enjoy our Venice 2017 journey together and we three will make sure that we keep up the humour.
“But we three are dead serious about art. Naomi with her collecting and commissioning, Natalie who has worked as a curator for more than half her life and as for me, I haven’t really had a life; I’ve only had art.”
(The curator of the Australian Pavilion in Venice, Natalie King, is also the creative associate of Milgrom’s Milgrom Foundation’s MPavilion.)
While Milgrom collected, Saines hosted a Tracey Moffatt exhibition in 2014 and the Carriageworks venue in Sydney will exhibit her work in 2016. Before the Shepparton appointment, Rebecca Coates undertook a Phd. exploring the history of John Kaldor Art Projects.
Milgrom is married to the collector John Kaldor who was Australian Commissioner in 2005 and 2007. Within Coate’s thesis she quotes from a Baume essay on Kaldor and thanks are given to Milgrom, Kaldor and Baume in the credits.
In her thesis on John Kaldor Art Projects Coate’s spells out how she believes the art world works.
“As part of a globalised contemporary art world, an international group of high-profile collectors of contemporary art also became increasingly visible. While they had similar motivations for collecting as in the past, they forged much closer working relationships with art institutions – from the public art museum, to the international biennale. High profile contemporary collectors and their collections became part of a global network of artists, curators, writers, art museum directors, and other collectors with similar interests. Their increasingly visible role was reflected in their prominence in the equivalent of newspaper ‘society pages’, such as the reviews and updates from global art world events featured in Artforum’s ‘Scene & Herd’. The private collector’s acquisition of key installation works of art museum quality and scale by signature artists within the globalised world denoted a collector’s expertise, insider knowledge and networks.”
Coates goes on:
“…collecting can be an extension of a person’s business, enabling them to connect to new networks of people, and to differentiate themselves. In this case, collectors usually rely on experts to suggest artists, and identify potential works of art.”
This ‘expert’ role in Australia has for many years been played by the Sydney commercial gallery Roslyn Oxley9 who have explored their similar interests with their coterie of collectors. This gallery has been the fulcrum around which Australian contemporary art has been promoted both locally and internationally, attested to by the large number of their artists who are selected not only for the Venice Biennale, but also by the MCA and other important commissions.
The belated selection of Tracey Moffatt, who has at times, along with other indigenous artists, felt it necessary to abjure their identity, highlights not only the gallery’s success, but also suggests its dominance is part of the problem.
However the responsibility for the non-selection of indigenous artists cannot only be attributed to Roslyn and Tony Oxley, heirs of a retail history who are seen as art experts by a small coterie of collectors. It is also borne by the Australia Council for the Arts which for the past decade has placed the visual arts in the hands of a select few whose main qualification is that they either sell or buy art.
In overseeing this history the Australia Council for the Arts has ignored the tens of thousands of Australian artists who exist outside this nexus. What is transpiring is both troubling and exceedingly problematic.
The Australian Council now need to take responsibility and institute a cultural change. As a great supporter of the Australia Council for the Arts once proclaimed — “It’s time” — they represented all of Australia and devolved the power of selection on a rotating basis to an art institution (whether public or private) in each state.
In this way the selection process would spread across Australia and I suggest they start with Tasmania and move clockwise around the nation so that after 16 years every state and territory will have been able to put forward an artist or artists to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale. This would ensure that a diverse and vibrant array of artists could come to the fore with even a surprise or two along the way. It would also allow remote Australian artists a real chance to be selected.
The long lead-time and the rivalry between states and institutions would ensure a highly dynamic and successful set of representations. It would allow for the private galleries and collectors to stay involved but it would mitigate the odds that one commercial or institutional gallery and a small coterie of collectors could dominate the selection process. Imagine in 2019, Australia might even have the odds man himself, David Walsh, as its Venice commissioner.
Dwyer: After your name – after it appears in the telephone book, do these words appear “Art Expert”?
Young: They do.
Dwyer: But you do not like it?
Young: No, I don’t
Dwyer: … When did you become an art expert? Was it a sudden transformation or did it take some time? …Your life’s work was not completely associated with art prior to that was it?
Young: Yes, since about 1918.
Dwyer: At one stage in your career you were the proprietor of a ham and beef shop, weren’t you?
(Edited extract from the trial of William Dobell, 1944)
An artist returns to Sunshine