The Queensland commercial art dealer, Suzanne O’Connell, who received $485,000 in government money to fund an indigenous art exhibition in Monaco responds to criticism of the grant and explains why she is not a signatory to the Indigenous Art Code.
“It’s all good! Hello?” Suzanne O’Connell says down the phone from her Brisbane gallery. She seems at a loss as to why people would find the idea of taking a massive show of work by 50 contemporary indigenous artists from Queensland for a six month exhibition at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco so objectionable.
And object many have. Since the art dealer received the funds for the show in Monaco titled AUSTRALIA: Defending the Oceans at the Heart of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Art from the Federal government’s controversial Catalyst arts grant program (funded by its raid on the Australia Council funds), the internet has rippled with artists and arts workers commenting on the size of the grant and the intent of the show.
Some have argued that so much money should not be given to a commercial gallery to fund a show in an oceanographic museum — in Monaco of all places — when those funds could fund local, not for profit, indigenous galleries.
One of the few to go on the record, Tom Mosby, the CEO of the Koorie Heritage Trust told Daily Review: “$500,000 is a large amount for any organisation and as a not for profit indigenous art organisation we are dependent on government funds – even half of $500,000 would go a long way to do what we do – where we have a broad remit in Victoria to support and celebrate Aboriginal people and culture”.
But O’Connell is having none of that. “Anyone can go for it love,” she says of the criteria the government set for its Catalyst funds.
She feels no need to apologise for what she sees is a huge opportunity for Queensland indigenous art centres and its artists who, she says, are over the moon about the project. From next month their art — sculpture, installation, painting and objects will not only be inside the 19th century cliff-face museum in Monaco, but will be crawling up its exterior. (Brian Robinson will cover the museum façade in an installation of Malu Githalal (ocean crabs).
The museum’s rooftop will see Torres Strait Islander artist Alick Tipoti (pictured with O’Connell below) install a 670 square metre stencil floor work representing a giant sea turtle.
O’Connell has a very long and respected history in dealing in indigenous art — she’s (affectionately) known as ‘Marilyn’ in indigenous communities because of her platinum, Monroe-esque hairstyle. She says her motivation for the project was to let the world know about Queensland, its Barrier Reef and its indigenous artists.
When she travels to Monaco next month for the opening 20 artists and dancers will travel with her to participate in events and a schools’ education program — “No one mentions that, do they?” O’Connell says of her critics.
As for the Oceanographic Museum (exterior pictured below) as a venue, she says: “If it’s good enough for Damien Hirst to have a major show then I think it’s pretty good”. The museum’s annual practice since 2010 has been to ask major artists to present works on ocean themes. Artists have included Damien Hirst, Huang Yong Ping, Mark Dion and Marc Quinn.
O’Connell rejects criticisms of her using government funds for the project. “The money isn’t going to me, it’s going to the art centres. I just get a fee — and it’s not much given the time I’ve put into this.” (Her management fee is 8 per cent of budget).
“It’s not a commercial show; it’s not for sale,” she says of the total $1.24 million budget for the project.
Before she applied for Catalyst funds she was raising money for the project which includes $300,000 from private donors, funds from Arts Queensland and even $50,000 from the Australia Council for one community art centre to participate in the show.
“The Australia Council said to me ‘we support you and you should apply for Catalyst funds because it fits its criteria like a glove’,” she tells Daily Review.
But O’Connell feels no need to be a signed up member of the Indigenous Art Code despite her long-term work with indigenous community artists.
“I don’t have to be. I’m a member of the ACGA,” she says of the Australian Commercial Galleries Association which has its own code of ethics.
Nor does she feel that she needs to even be seen to be signed up to the Indigenous Art Code given she works so closely with indigenous artists.
“There’s a lot of shonky people who are members of that code — a lot of carpetbaggers — so I don’t need to be a member of it.”
She’s aware that her views might not win her fans among some people in the art world. “You have to get used to the knockers. I just ignore them. I’m not interested in others’ bitterness.”
AUSTRALIA: Defending the Oceans at the Heart of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Art is a major survey of contemporary artworks by Aboriginal and Torres Strait at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco as part of the exhibition Taba Naba – Australia, Oceania, Arts of the Sea People from March 24 to September 30, 2016.