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Michael Brand: boycotting art isn't in anyone's interest

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The Australian-born and American-educated Dr Michael Brand became director of the Art Gallery of NSW in mid-2012 after a sometimes tulmultuous ride running the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles from 2006  to 2010, a job he quit to be consulting director of the new Aga Khan Museum under construction in Toronto. He then moved to Sydney to take on the AGNSW directorship after the retirement of Edmund Capon, who had run the gallery for 33 years. We asked Dr Brand some of the same questions we have asked his counterparts at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of South Australia,  but began with asking him about the art controversy closest to home – the Transfield and Biennale of Sydney saga and its association with the AGNSW.
AGNSW-MICHAEL-WEBWhat do you think of the recent artists’ boycott of the Biennale of Sydney because of its Transfield sponsorship? Given the AGNSW’s long association with the Belgiorno-Nettis family (Transfield’s founders), how do you view such action,  and does the gallery have its own ethical guidelines for the financial support it will – or will not – accept? 
This is a complex and evolving issue. Artists, art museums and sponsors all work in a complex environment that requires nuanced strategies. Personally, I do not believe boycotting art is in anyone’s interest. Institutionally, the Art Gallery of New South Wales will continue to review all sponsorship opportunities on a case by case basis. We do not currently receive any direct funding from either the Transfield Foundation, Transfield Holdings or Transfield Services. We have, however, received an extraordinary level of personal support from the Belgiorno-Nettis family, most notably a $4 million gift in 2007 to establish a suite of four galleries for the display of contemporary art. Franco Belgiorno-Nettis served as a trustee of the Gallery from 1974 to 1980. Guido Belgiorno-Nettis has been a trustee of the Gallery since 2007 and was appointed to the role of president of the board of trustees by the State government in January this year. The Gallery has been a proud host venue for the Biennale of Sydney since 1976.
You have more hands on experience of the global museum scene and art market than any other director of a major museum in Australia, so where do you think major public institutions, including the AGNSW, are heading in the digital era?  
I know our team at the AGNSW is doing some really innovative work that is right up there with anything else being produced internationally, but none of us in Australia have all the answers yet.
What is the major difference between running a very wealthy privately owned gallery and running a large public gallery reliant on limited government funding?
Perhaps surprisingly, both situations seem to bring an equal amount of complexity. A wealthier private institution offers a degree of creative freedom in terms of funding but a publicly funded institution can have a more dynamic relationship with its audience, and be seen as even more relevant to its community.
Is art – particularly contemporary art – received in the same way in Australia as in other centres you have worked?
In general, yes. The big difference here is the scale of engagement with work by indigenous artists.
Is it sobering coming from the US where philanthropy is a given to Australia where it’s not?
Our cultural and educational institutions do face a more challenging fundraising environment but then again we receive way more government funding than our American colleagues. What I find heartening is the increasing number of major donations that have been made in Australia very recently. The bottom line is that fundraising is always hard work and you won’t have any success with out  a compelling vision for your institution.
There has been a worldwide trend for big arts organisations to make a greater effort to reach more people. If this trend continues what direction do you see galleries including the AGNSW going? How populist can you become?
We want to reach as broad and diverse an audience as possible, but through quality programming rather than populist gimmicks. I am convinced that the general audience will embrace new art and new ideas as long as we communicate with them in the right voice, without condescension or jargon.
Do you think there is an expectation now that art has to be entertaining?
There is a danger in that, so art museums have to be careful what expectations with raise with our audience. There is a good quote to the effect that “entertainment is not art but art can be entertaining” (I can’t remember who said it).
Is the emphasis on marketing and audience numbers at the detriment to smaller, more ‘difficult’ or more obscure shows and to scholarship within the museum (including AGNSW)?
It can be. Here at the AGNSW we have been very clear that we will not judge our success by numbers alone. We want to be relevant as well as popular. In other words,we must remain true to our mission, which includes an educational role. For this reason we will continue to stage some more challenging exhibitions along side those we know will appeal to a broader audience.
What have you been especially happy with since you arrived mid -2012 and what do you want to build on this year?
I have really appreciated the passion our audience has for our institution, and how much they care about what we do. Apart from the positive reception  of our “Sydney Modern” vision and masterplan launch last year what perhaps makes me most happy is the quality of new staff we are attracting. Together with the staff already here, I have a fantastic team to work with. I’m also very excited by the quality of art acquisitions we have made for the collection.
Do reviews of your shows in major media outlets – good or bad – affecthow many people come to a show?
Diverse perspectives are always good but I think they have less effect than they used to. What is also interesting is the increasing diversity of media providing reviews.
What do you think of the standard of art criticism in this country?
You know I can’t answer that question!
What’s the most surprising comment you’ve overhead from a visitor to the AGNSW?
What always makes us especially happy are comments on some of the smaller details, such as when we move an individual work of art and change the context in which it is viewed.
What would you like most to initiate and or change at the AGNSW?
The completion of the Sydney Modern project.
Do you think Australia’s art reputation was damaged by the Royal Academy Australia show last year?
Some of the reviews will have caused some damage but good art can always survive a bad review. In a weird way, it might also encourage the London audience to see what else we have.
It’s sobering that so private galleries are closing. Do you have any thoughts about the career path a young artist might now expect?
Being a serious artist is always going to be hard work (like most other life callings) but if you believe in it you’ve got to give it a try. Like in any other areas, I’d recommend trying hard to analyse why exactly you want to be an artist. If you understand what drives you it can be easier to make big decisions.
Why is there an art boom in many overseas centres and not here?
There are a number of reasons, including money, geography and familiarity (either too much or too little).
Despite its remoteness a country like Brazil still has huge cachet in the international art scene. Why is there no international buzz for Australian art?
Buzz travels in waves and is never permanent. What always puzzles me is that there has been more international buzz for Australian film and music than for our visual arts.
Is Australian art understood outside Australia? 
Not as much as it could be. And that is something I will be working very hard to change. We mustn’t only be an importer of art and culture. We need to make sure our artists can participate as art is created and consumed globally.

4 responses to “Michael Brand: boycotting art isn't in anyone's interest

  1. It’s interesting I was just at a dinner party here in Berlin with a former Director of a Sydney Biennale and immediately upon meeting each other the person obviously wanted to talk about the current situation in Sydney re: Transfield. My main point to the former Director was it seemed that the pendulum had swung too far away from artists and their concerns and towards the goal of ever increasing audiences, sponsors, government art workers ‘up the chain’ etc. It was very telling that suddenly last week the Biennale Board discovered that the heart of the whole Biennale was artists after all. The former Director of a Biennale seemed to agree, or maybe she/he was just being polite. Of course Michael Brand is being polite here too. What is interesting is the Biennale of Sydney’s current situation has given Australian art at least some glimmer of notice on the International art radar. This is getting international attention.
    We have the ongoing saga of Transfield and the Biennale sponsorship but also attitudes towards artists have become and will continue to become raw and rawer judging from media tart Malcolm Turnbull’s partisan entry into the fray (probably more in search of a headline and some small meat thrown to the Right of his party). As Polititians start to give the saga more oxygen the artists will sense they are still on track. However the more important matter underlying all this is that Australian contemporary art of the Biennale/ Triennial kind was seriously losing steam big time: no commercial market for Youtube like videos and installations of objects only interesting because they have been taken (literally) off the street and placed in the un-secular space of art (this is the one radical aspect of contemporary art as Jean Baudrillard tells us in The Conspiracy of Art) and an over reliance on Government funding and the ongoing control art public servants have over the whole Australian art scene where careers and audiences have overtaken art and artists as a prime concern. Add to this the obvious mammoth failure of Australia at the Royal Academy (even former AGNSW Director Edmund Capon is on record saying that NGA instigated exhibition was terrible) and also add the failure of other more expensive Australian showcase exhibitions such as 2003’s Faceup survey of Australian art in Berlin which I can assure no one here wants to even remember apart from Mikala Dwyer who seems to be the only artist to have any sort of presence here. Add to all this the obvious inability of successive Australian art ‘leaders’ to fashion any lasting context for Australian art internationally and Houston we have a problem!
    Just when the Australian art status quo thought contemporary art could be everything to everyone because it’s art objects were literally anything BY anyone (here mimicking the mindset of international Capital) the whole edifice seems to be crumbling! Why? Because a few artists woke up to the fact that they are being used. I mean folks my 30 year career has taught me one thing: I am expendable to those up the chain. Cause even the slightest hint of bother, ethically disagree and upset the money men from the big end of town and you will be dumped as they can always find another artist. One Biennale inclusion will mean nothing in a curatorial/ bureaucratic system that has far too many artists to deal with. In fact we can view the Biennale events of recent weeks as a real sea change in how contemporary art is run in Australia. Young people are not just bored unpolitical individuals as the mainstream media tells us, they have shown themselves to be only waiting for meaning. Real meaning and not the carefully vetted PR we see above form Mr Brand. So the Biennale sailed into a perfect storm that won’t die down soon.
    I also told the former BOS Director that Australia’s great problem is that the international art world needs new ideas and not just more product, meaning everyone stop just trying to sell coals to Newcastle and start doing actual ideas based exhibitions at Venice etc. just sending artists a select few think may make it OS (almost none have, it’s still just Tracey Moffat spoken of in Berlin) and start actually using your brains not what passes for experience in Australia. I know many in Australian art have just given up as Australian art becomes unrecognisable from the hollow and venal state of Australian mainstream politics and media, enter Turnbull in that same leather jacket stage right.
    Perhaps Australia’s young artists can change the game by protest and ugly injection of real meaning into the dead wood of Australian art and thus do what artists always have done for over a century and a half and that is smash it all up to start again. Funnily enough what looked like yet another bland offering of international art cliches will turn out to be important in the negative. Let’s hope so. Also it is of note that Web 2 is now 20 years old and one of the lasting impacts of its innovation is that individuals are now able to online media and social media to generate alternative opinions and stances just as I am doing here. However you do need to me prepared to make noise and upset those you want to target to rise above the noise. Use their systems of PR and power against the status quo and they will be powerless, it’s only perception as Michael Brand says above. Move one thing from one place and put it elsewhere and it all looks different…just like art…just like activism…

  2. Scott Redford’s right when he says that Australian artists are not on the map in Europe. That’s across the board, in the performing arts as well. If we think otherwise it’s because we’ve fallen for our own publicity writ by government agencies whose missions have been hijacked by marketing and publicity agendas. The mention of Brazil in Michael Brand’s interview is notable. The cultural sphere there operates rhizomatically in direct response to history and locality. Here we have top-down silo formations engineered by a cultural policy that still owes more to the Empire than it does to the Asia-Pacific reality that we actually inhabit.
    Scott’s also right about the fact there is a sea change. Australian artists are activating because they have nothing to lose other than their ethics. We are at the bottom of the arts food chain. Our autonomy has been curtailed by policy that has institutionalised us within organisations, venues and programs that curate culture on behalf of funding agencies. We have little or no influence in determining our conditions as we are barely visible at elite levels of governance. We are the lowest paid members of the Australian workforce. Direct funding for individual artists in Australia has fallen by one-third since the 1990s. Unsurprisingly and contrary to industry perception, our numbers are decreasing not increasing. And most troubling, our diminished condition has been facilitated within and by the Australian arts industry whose growth is predicated on maintaining our inequitable position in the equation of artistic production. It is often when one feels most disempowered that one appreciates one’s actual power. The fact is: if we don’t turn up, there is no show.
    Until arts managers, bureaucrats and administrators feel the very real undertow in the artist’s community, until they can read it and appreciate its momentum, they will continue to be blindsided by actions like those of the protesting Sydney Biennale artists who are not ‘boycotting art’ – as Michael Brand asserts – but an art event in which they feel their complicity is untenable. This is a simple, important difference.

  3. Last line- an event in which they feel their complicity is untenable- resonates like brass in an orchestra.
    In this lucky easy country where money and politics construct dialogue to smooth away discomfort – is it artists who couldwake us up to the monstrous immorality of the cruelty we have subscribed to. As we collectively ‘hold our noses and avert our eyes ‘ ( Marr).
    Is it artists who can wake us and shake us to the untenable complicity of us all in a terrible collective cruelty?
    God knows nothing else has.

  4. three excellent comments, and thank you Scott once again. to say a boycott is “in no one’s interest” is offensive in the extreme. it may not be in your interest, or that of your corporate sponsors, Dr Brand, but i imagine refugees and Palestinians, for example, might beg to differ, as would the beneficiaries of the removal of Sth African apartheid. when your entire value system is determined by the allocation of money (and we welcome Malcolm Turnbull to the debate, showing his true colours), we would expect no different, but one of the reasons i always welcome the arrival of radical reactionary governments like our present regime is that only they tend to radicalise the artists and give us some hope of shaking things up…

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