News & Commentary, Visual Arts

The network of connections behind Australia’s Venice Biennale choices

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In the past two years, artist and writer John Kelly has chronicled the small group of wealthy collectors and commercial gallery dealers who collectively determine who is chosen as the artist to represent Australia at each Venice Biennale. The event is the most important and prestigious contemporary art show in the world, which is why millions of dollars of Australian taxpayers’ dollars are spent on the choice.

Last year, Kelly was nominated for the inaugural Walkley award for excellence in arts journalism for his Daily Review article, RoslynOxley9 Gallery and its 33 year winning streak at the Venice Biennale. Kelly’s articles in Daily Review prompted changes by the Australia Council to the selection process for the 2019 choice. But below, Kelly, once again joins the dots to show that nothing much has changed for Australia’s select group of cultural gatekeepers in the recent announcement of Australia’s 2019 Venice Biennale representative.


“I’m Mad as Hell and I’m Not Going to Take It Anymore”

“Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon”.

Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, 1976


Dear Readers,

Last week I received an unsolicited email. I will call my correspondent, ‘Pen-Pal’. Pen Pal’s email stated I had failed in my ‘campaign’ to stop an artist from ‘Roz’ or ‘Anna’ (Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne) being selected for the Venice Biennale, 2019. I was surprised at this correspondence from somebody who has acquired considerable influence in the Australian art world. I was also bemused because it has never been my intention to deny any artist the opportunity to be selected; quite the contrary, I wanted the process changed in order to be open and transparent and to make the selection free of controversy.

My writing has never been personal, but my pen pal seems to think it is. Maybe the fact the two galleries use their owners’ names as business monikers makes it feel personal, however it is not from my side. Pen Pal’s use of their first names might suggests the correspondent is very good friends with these two gallerists and maybe that is the source of both the implied umbrage and the smugness.


Rupert Myer, Chairman Australia Council of the Arts 

[Rupert] “Myer says the changes have been made in the interests of transparency and contestability, and should not be read as a criticism of past exhibitions.”

Simon Mordant, financier, collector and Venice Biennale Commissioner 2015 

“Over the following week the Council made some attempts to consult with a few parties and amended the selection process to be away from the Board subcommittee to a panel chaired by Callum Morton.”

“In my view the best artists are unlikely to apply to an advert. I further expressed concern that I thought key supporters may withdraw their support and noted if these changes were made I would not financially support the 2019 Venice Biennale.”

The Chairman of selectors, the curator and the artist

Callum Morton, artist and academic was Chair of Selection Panel, Venice Biennale 2019

Angelica Mesiti selected as Australian artist for 2019 Venice Biennale

Callum Morton (artist) and Angelica Mesiti (artist) are both represented by Anna Schwartz Gallery


I am sure my pen pal would have to agree that waiting until 2017 to give the first Indigenous artist, Tracey Moffatt, a solo exhibition in the Australian Pavilion in Venice hints at a touch of discrimination in the past. That no male Indigenous artist has ever had a solo show in the Pavilion reinforces this discrimination. That two commercial galleries have dominated the Australian Pavilion for the past two decades also leads to questions of a clique forming. So it would seem quite fair to have the old system reviewed and updated. The Australian Council seemed to agree.



The number of Australian gallery artists exhibited at the Venice Biennale by the following galleries since 2001 (10 exhibitions including 2019). Note: Callum Morton is represented by both galleries.

Roslyn Oxley Gallery: 6

Anna Schwartz Gallery: 4

Others: 5

Simon Mordant

I expressed dismay that there had been no consultation with the sector or key supporters, that I didn’t believe the Board had any members with deep contemporary visual arts expertise and that I didn’t believe an open expression of interest was an appropriate way to source our leading Australian artist. 

Rupert Myer, Chair of the Australia Council

The changes follow a directive from Venice regarding commissioning authorities, and Mr Myer said artists expected the Australia Council to be independent and transparent in its decisions”.

Chair of the Selection Panel, the artist and the curator

Callum Morton: Head of Department and Practice Professor – Art, Monash University

Juliana Engberg: Angelica Mesiti’s curator for Venice 2019.

Juliana Enberg: Adjunct Professorial Fellow at Monash University

Juliana Engberg wrote essay on Mesiti’s exhibition at Monash’s gallery, MUMA in 2017

Callum Morton completed a commission for the European Capital of Culture Aarhus 2017

Angelica Mesiti completed a commission for the European Capital of Culture Aarhus 2017

Juliana Engberg: Programme Director for European Capital of Culture, Aarhus 2017

The Selection Panel

Kathryn Weir:

ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) is today proud to announce the recipient of the inaugural $80,000 Mordant Family VR Commission.

This year’s winning commission was selected by a panel of national and international industry experts including…Director of Cultural Development at Centre Pompidou in Paris, Kathryn Weir.

Angelica Mesiti lives and works between Paris and Sydney,…

The panel was co-chaired by Simon Mordant AM and ACMI CEO and Director Katrina Sedgwick.

Professor Nikos Papastergiadis:

Professor Nikos Papastergiadis, Director of the Research Unit in Public Cultures, University of Melbourne is married to Victoria Lynn the Director of TarraWarra Museum of Art (Victoria).

Callum Morton’s awe inspiring installation Valhalla has been given a permanent home at TarraWarra Museum of Art…Originally created for the 52nd Venice Biennale (La Biennale di Venezia) in 2007, the work has been installed at the entrance to TarraWarra.

In 2007, Julian Engberg was Senior Curatorial Adviser for the Australia presentations at the Venice Biennale.

Louise Neri:

Melbourne University educated Louise Neri is director of Gagosian Gallery in New York

A strange choice; why would you put a commercial art dealer on the selection panel for the Australian Venice Biennale? It begs the question: would you put the director of any Australian commercial gallery on it? I suggest you wouldn’t, and they haven’t in the past. Gagosian is of course a global player in contemporary art and that means Neri’s commercial dealings would also stretch to Australia.

Chris Saines:

Chris Saines, Director, Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art; seems to be in two minds on the value of this selection panel.

In a widening of the controversy, members of the Council of Australian Art Museum Directors (CAAMD) have written to Myer, urging him to reconsider the changes and expressing the belief that the new model will fail to attract an artist of the calibre of this year’s representative, Tracey Moffatt.

The letter, dated 3 November, was signed by CAAMD’s chairman, Chris Saines, who is the director of the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art. 
Saines’ letter echoes Simon Mordant’s view that the best artists will not apply, leaving presumably lesser calibre candidates to fight it out. Yet, Saines elects to join the panel. 

Franchesca Cubillo:

Franchesca Cubillo, Senior Curator Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art, National Gallery of Australia: the only panel member I could not find a network connection to.

A voice in my head

Am I getting through to you, Mr Kelly? You write your little essays and howl about the Australia Council and democracy. There is no Australia Council, there is no democracy. 


These essays can no longer ­­­continue. Pen Pal, you are right, I have failed in many ways but not the ones you suggest. ­­­I have given everything, but it is too big for a single artist and except for MONA, Moo Brew and Daily Review there has been too little visible support over 15 years; quite the opposite, ostracism has come my way.

Many artists approach me and encourage my writing, and other artists tell me things, but ask for anonymity; “I will never work in this town again” was the response when I asked one artist if I could quote his/her name. All this points to the emergence of an ugly society for artists where we have lost the ability to speak up. The evidence of history suggests this is a precursor of worse things to come and it is being created by people who see themselves as cultured and liberal thinking. I am sure they would decry Trump and his tactics, yet contribute to something mimicking his style.

I call upon my fellow artists to speak up by opening their windows and yell as loud as you can;

“I’m as Mad as Hell and I’m Not Going to Take It Anymore”

Facebook it, Tweet it.

Or stay anonymous and email the Chairman, Rupert Myer with your thoughts on the above to

John Kelly

Artist and writer, March 2017

Out Takes

In September last year, Callum Morton was on the selection panel of the Melbourne Prize. Daniel Von Sturmer won the prize. Daniel is represented by the Anna Schwartz Gallery. Daniel Von Sturmer represented Australia at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Juliana Engberg was the curator. Daniel Von Sturmer is Associate Dean of Education at Monash University.

­­Simon Mordant gets the last word

There is no room for democracy when it comes to choosing Australia’s leading artist


10 responses to “The network of connections behind Australia’s Venice Biennale choices

  1. Am afraid I find all the links and disclosures nauseating. Perhaps a petition be set up regarding all issues you have highlighted to gather support and then sent on to Rupert Myer.
    The more public this information becomes the more hope that at least the committee for Venice is more independent than this first panel and chair.

  2. Welll done Mr Kelly I was not aware of the Callum Morton, Mesiti, Engberg connection at the EU Captial of Culture. And yes it is hard to be properly critical of how Australian Art actually works BECAUSE Australian artists are so reluctant to speak up due to the industry orstraciation they would DEFINITELY recieve. My case serves as an example. WE MUST now accept we live under an art version of Peter Dutton’s Homeland Securtiy Dept. Team Art Australia is pretty much all run by Government employees and some rich people. It is actually a scandal but the Fine Art Industry is the most unregulated industry in the world is it an wonder nepotism is rife. AND nepotism is a form of corruption.

    I am formly convonced that the State Labor Governments, especially Qld, are far more interested in the Govt Art workers BECAUSE they are Unionised and artists are not usionised. Unless artists get a proper Union OR we join one (no doubt easier) we will always be at the mercy of the Public Sevants of Art. As I say and John Kelly echoes it here: We are living in a time of Art Without Artists.

    I am moveing to the MOST RADICAL postion now. The clear weak spot of the entire Australian Government Art Ediface is that it is public funds that runs. The Gatekeepers get their power from the endless Govt Funding. BUT the weakness is the General Public think Contemporary Art is junk…and in 95% of cases they are CORRECT! Contemporary Art is NOT like the Modernism that came before it, Contemporary Art is a defanging of the avant garde and worldwide is at the mercy of Governments and vested interests. Modernism and its progressive movements got very little or no Govt incentives AND very little from the wealthy at the time of their emergence, later somewhat more money came their way.

    BUT I wll give an example of how things would go for any artist that speaks out. In Daily Review I criticised The Director of the Qld Art Gallery Chris Saines, basically I wanted proper guidelines ofr QAG in their dealings with Individual artists. Of course I was rebuffed by Saines. Now against my better judgement I allowed my commercial gallery to put my work forward for the big Comm Games Gold Coast Gateway Public Art Commission worth $2 Million. I was of course short listed as so many on the GC wanted me to do it given I was the token local and the artists who has done more on the Gold Coast Culture than any other artist. However I did not realise that Chris Saines was on the judging committee and would have been the most senior on that committee. $1 Million cam for the Qld Govt so Chrs Saines is on many many Public Art committees. I really wnated to pull out but my dealer gallery had done so much work on the submission I couldn’t. Of course I didn’t get the commission. OK fine BUT one doesn’t mind losing to a great work INSTEAD the work now built is a disaster! The work spells GOLD COAST in street lights BUT it faces the road not the traffic like a normal sign would! There are a number of comments pages on Facebook with over 730 comments on one and similar on the others and MOST comments are utterly contemptous of the finished work because it looks like a bunch of street lights with eir polls half painted yellow, no one can work ourt what it is meant to be doing….for $2 Million.

    So here we have the Director of the Qld Art Gallery and a Director of another Gallery and a University Professor and others and we get such an abysmal outcome. AND no one will take any responsibilty at all. The GC Council has just buried the entire disgrace. So my friends this is what you get from Government waged art people….Absolute CRAP!! Its sad, really sad.

  3. Look ultimately we have see the Venice thing is a wider context. We know that our Society is basically corrupt. Look at the Bankin Inquirary. Look at the politicians caught out. Look at the Gold Coast City Council and the 3 other Qld City Councils under corruption allegations.

    Honestly do we really think Ye Olde Arte Worlde would,be somehow magically exempt!!?? The art world loves to sell “Art” as some higher zone, some “better” place. IT IS NOT. Art is in fat WORSE because it pretends to be better. At least business people usually don’t try thatnone on.

    1. Merilyn, I hgope that you have ‘hit the nail on the head’ when you observe that John’s campaign (on behalf of a lot of fellow artists) has “opened a door that can’t be closed”!

  4. What I’m curious to know is, exactly how does the “cartel” benefit from remaining in control? This isn’t clearly outlined. The money trail – how does it start and end?

  5. A very interesting article, that raises so many issues about transparency, conflicts of interest and the processes in the art world which is in many ways self servicing.

  6. And what about the 2019 announcement for the 2020 Biennale? Again we see Callum Morton figure prominently. Marco Fusinato is Callum Mortons’ brother-in-law, they share the same dual townhouse property in St Kilda. Morton operates Monash Art Projects within Monash University Art Design and Architecture and spent a considerable amount of time preparing the winning submission for Marco Fusinato and the Curator Alexi Glass-Kantor. I would imagine that type of ‘in-kind’ support would be approaching 50K. Is that something available to other entrants with their submissions? Definitely not; Morton stated clearly in an email that MAP (Monash Arts Projects) only had time for their own projects and could not take on other work.

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