As we begin to reflect on the discussions that Future/Forward has opened up about a contemporary arts sector that’s ambitious and fair, across Australia unprecedented billions of dollars are being committed to the contemporary arts – to bricks and mortar, that is, and not to artists themselves.
$244 million from the NSW Government towards a $344 million budget for Sydney Modern, to be designed by female-led Japanese architects SANAA. A $250 million request for Adelaide Contemporary, to be designed by NYC’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro in partnership with Australia’s Woods Bagot, with the SA Government commitment not yet announced – a competing bid from the South Australian Museum has also captured the new government’s attention. $396 million for WA’s New Museum and Perth Cultural Centre, with design led by Dutch global architecture firm OMA. Over $1 billion to relocate and rebuild the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney’s west (plus possibly a planetarium!), as well as building a new theatre and/or design space in its current location. And $208 million from the Victorian Government towards an as yet undisclosed budget for the Southbank cultural precinct and NGV Contemporary (seen in image above).
The contemporary edge of the artist is being coopted to create new public places, while artists themselves are increasingly displaced from the tangible benefits of that cooption.
That’s over two billion dollars of public and private money being invested in superbly designed galleries that will place contemporary art at the centres of our capital cities and the heart of our global culture.
And yet, not a cent of new investment is being committed to Australia’s emerging, established and internationally renowned living artists to develop their work, build communities of practice or reach new audiences. In the meantime, and in the wake of successive funding cuts at regional, state and federal levels, already scarce philanthropic funds will be slammed as artists struggle to compete with the lure of bronze plaques in gallery foyers.
So what will these billion-dollar spaces present to future audiences? At the same time as these announcements are being made, research is proving what artists across Australia already know: that average incomes, working conditions and prospects are approaching new lows. That non-payment and under-payment is rife. That intellectual property rights are widely disrespected. That women are woefully under-represented in exhibitions – in particular, at those very galleries. And that the gender pay gap is worse in the arts than in any other industry. We’re seeing Australia’s biggest ever investment in the arts at the same time as our artists are experiencing the worst conditions for sustaining their careers.
Just as gentrification inflates property prices by displacing the artists whose culture it coopts, the contemporary edge of the artist is being coopted to create new public places, while artists themselves are increasingly displaced from the tangible benefits of that cooption.
With great public money, of course, comes great cultural responsibility. First of all, the responsibility to pay artists.
Fiona Foley shocked the Future/Forward audience with the news that she’s leaving the arts and defecting to academia. In the previous Throsby study, Do You Really Expect to Get Paid?, Foley had been one of the only 6% of artists who are able to earn a living wage from their work. Today, despite being one of Australia’s leading artists, that’s no longer possible for her. Even an ABC journalist seemed to think it ok and somewhat inevitable that established artists should expect a lull in their career. Why is it that it’s only in the arts that we don’t expect our practitioners to have trajectories that strengthen over time?
With great public money, of course, comes great cultural responsibility.
First of all, the responsibility to pay artists.
Let’s see it become a condition of their government funding that all institutions working with artists have a policy on artist payment against industry standards. Let’s see total fees paid to artists clearly identified in their annual reports, both in dollar figures and as percentage of turnover. And if they wish to persist in not paying artists, let them publicly document why. And let’s see Australian artists paid at levels on par with internationals. In September I’m visiting Canada and the US to do some research on just that, spending time with CARFAC as well as Americans for the Arts, W.A.G.E. and others.
Let’s design procurement processes for public buildings and public art that welcome Australian artists and architects. Let’s see, as Fiona Foley has called, a 2% commitment to the arts for new public developments. I’m looking forward to close discussions with the Australian Institute of Architects about what works and what doesn’t in the enforcement of their industry standards.
Let’s fund artist-run initiatives ambitiously and look to them for contemporary arts leadership. In the case of Melbourne and the Southbank precinct, concerned responses to the unnecessary closure of Testing Grounds in favour of NGV Contemporary is a case in point, especially with the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art just round the corner; those are rare sites of artistic creation and commissioning in a precinct otherwise dominated by monumental structures for artistic consumption. The local arts scene is premised on adventurous independent practice – consider for example that the multi-artform Melbourne Fringe Festival predates the Melbourne Festival by three years, with founders joking that their choice of name would establish them firmly at “the fringe of nothing”. In Melbourne, the independent scene defines the mainstream, and not the other way around; ignoring it will prove perilous.
What does it say to us when each year’s most high-profile winter show at a government gallery is an over-exposed dead male European artist, or a globally touring fashion or museum brand?
A second great responsibility concerns gender and culture. Immediately I’m reminded of a now infamous social media exchange where a state gallery curator attempted to defend his gallery’s poor record on the presentation of non-male artists. History is long and can’t be changed, he wrote but with many more words, and women artists are only a recent phenomenon. That he hadn’t anticipated the outrage was not the most surprising thing about his erasure of women; the truly appalling thing was the failure to recognise both the privilege and the responsibility of his position to counter that erasure.
History can’t be changed? Wrong. In fact, the only way to create the future is by changing how we understand the past. And there is no more powerful way to do that than through contemporary art. The timely reinterpretations of the artist illuminate our cultural inheritance, transform our values, and explode our sense of what we can be. That’s why conservatives invent culture wars – the desperation to reassert the noble male coloniser as perennially central to the Australian story, against the power of the artist to present Australian perspectives whose truths resound across the land.
One of the most important responsibilities of the public cultural institution is to reinterpret the past ethically and adventurously. What does it say to us instead when each year’s most high-profile winter show at a government gallery is an over-exposed dead male European artist, or a globally touring fashion or museum brand? The exception that proves the rule comes to us from QAGOMA, who this winter presented a living female Australian artist as their blockbuster show. Patricia Piccinini, whose Future/Forward talk offered deep insights into a career founded in ARI work, recently told a VCA audience that such rare success – rare for herself, rare for a female artist, and rare for any living Australian artist – means she can’t expect to be considered for another major Australian show for a decade or more. The successful woman has had her chance.
In committing billions of dollars towards spaces for contemporary art, let’s make sure that every one of those dollars is supporting a critical mass of artists making new work.
Which leads us to a third key responsibility that comes with great public money: responsible cultural leadership.
A collection is not merely a state asset. It’s an ongoing opportunity to understand ourselves. Importantly, it’s also an ongoing obligation to artists to honour the custodianship of their work.
Beyond being careful custodians of state collections as public assets, leaders of cultural institutions exercise choices on how to interpret those collections, and those decisions have public impact. The work of the gallery presents an interpretation on the now from one unique perspective, drawing on tens of thousands of years of history. At Future/Forward it was inspiring to hear the NGA’s new director, Nick Mitzevich, share his vision for a national cultural institution that amplifies the voice of the artist. This is the very definition of the art museum and the contemporary gallery. To show the public how artists create our future.
In committing billions of dollars towards spaces for contemporary art, let’s make sure that every one of those dollars is supporting a critical mass of artists making new work in a sector whose conditions are ambitious and fair.
NAVA’s Future/Forward was held at the NGA and Parliament House on 14-15 August 2018 and recordings of the live stream are available.
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