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
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
Simon Mordant, financier, collector and Venice Biennale Commissioner 2015
“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
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
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
Professor Nikos Papastergiadis:
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.
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, 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, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Artist and writer, March 2017
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
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