Compelling and urgent: Artist initiatives in a New York under crisis

As a curatorial intern in the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art, I was only supposed to stay in New York until April. But it was clear by mid-March, with the Australian borders closed and unpredictable flights, that I would remain quarantined here indefinitely. It has been a strange time, being in a city relatively new to me, observing as an outsider how things quickly unfolded. By late March, New York had become an epicentre of the pandemic with a staggering number of deaths. Studies have revealed that the virus has disproportionately affected black communities at a rate nearly two times higher than other ethnic demographics. There were public outcries at how the pandemic has amplified existing injustices and left the marginalised more vulnerable. These outcries, however, were soon subsumed by a harrowingly familiar incident: the killing of an unarmed black man by police officers in broad daylight. The death of George Floyd on 25 May in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was met with immediate outrage, sparking #BlackLivesMatter protests that continue to resonate worldwide.

Poster House and Between Bridges, two cultural organisations that launched creative communal projects in response to the pandemic, have since shifted their focus to different forms of activism, amplifying the voices of black creatives in support of police reform initiatives and calling for solidarity against racial injustice. Their projects represent a microcosm of grassroots responses by New York artists to the socio-economic impacts of the ongoing crisis.

Among the first New York museums to close due to the pandemic, Poster House initiated one of the largest COVID-19-related projects. An ongoing city-wide public art campaign, #COMBATCOVID commissioned over 20 designers to produce posters of ‘love, gratitude, and solidarity with New York City’s frontline workers’, as well as messages of public health and safety. The posters have been displayed on nearly 1800 digital screens, including the iconic billboards of Times Square. In the wake of Floyd’s killing, Poster House took to Instagram to emphasise their mission of collecting work by BIPOC artists and designers. Most notably, they showcased two 1969 posters by Emory Douglas, the African–American graphic designer who worked as the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, and contextualised these works within a long history of black activism. As a museum with an educational mission, Poster House also dedicated their Instagram Stories platform to share resources relating to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, continuing their commitment to engage and inform the broad public of significant social issues that posters visualise and communicate.

2020Solidarity’ is a fundraising project by Between Bridges, a non-profit space founded by artist Wolfgang Tillmans in 2006. For this initiative, the Turner Prize-winning German photographer invited over 50 international artists to each contribute a poster design to be sold at a set price of US$50, with all proceeds going towards supporting independent spaces and publications threatened by the economic impacts of COVID-19. Between Bridges prints and distributes the posters free of charge and encourages non-profits to participate. Major New-York based organisations like Artists Space, ISCP and Visual Aids are among some of the many spaces that are involved in selling the posters to fundraise. On his Instagram feed following the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests, Tillmans highlighted Marlene Dumas’s poster of the late African–American writer James Baldwin (2014, from the ‘Great Men’ series), a new print being sold at London’s Black Tower Projects, with all proceeds going to police reform and educational campaigns in the United Kingdom. Such initiatives follow Tillmans’s own activist commitments in the area – he took photographs of one of the first #BlackLivesMatter protests in New York in 2014, one of which, an image of a hand raised in the air, prominently featured on the cover of Artforum’s March 2017 issue Show of Hands. Six years since that photo was taken, the image and the issues that first prompted the formation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement remain as compelling and urgent as ever.

Annette An-Jen Liu, New York

Annette An-Jen Liu is a 2020 Critic-in-Residence at ANCA, Canberra, in a special project partnership with Art Monthly Australasia supported by artsACT.

National Gallery of Australia says it must ‘modernise’ as it confirms redundancies and restructure – ABC News

The National Gallery of Australia could make 12 per cent of its staff redundant as part of an “operational restructure” after a reported $3.6 million funding shortfall.

In a statement today, the gallery’s director Nick Mitzevich confirmed redundancies would have to be made “across the organisation” to “protect the gallery’s long-term offering and financial stability”.

The institution had been beset by budget woes before being forced to close altogether due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU).

The union called on the Federal Government to protect staff from an efficiency dividend they said was “unsustainable” and had forced the gallery’s hand.

Director says NGA must change to be sustainable

National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich said the institution would need to change to survive.(Supplied: NGA)

Mr Mitzevich said a voluntary redundancy process would be implemented initially before the restructure could begin.

“We will be consulting with all employees during this process, and those team members who are leaving the gallery will be paid their full entitlements and offered wellbeing support and career assistance opportunities,” he said.

The gallery is presenting the restructure as a way to “modernise” its offering as a major cultural institution.

“The National Gallery of Australia represents Australia’s people, our diverse ideas and aesthetic expression, histories and relationship to the world,” Mr Mitzevich said.

He said becoming sustainable would mean change to the way they operated, including improving “data optimisation, asset renewal and service stabilisation.”

“The new structure will focus the National Gallery’s programs and create greater opportunities for the Australian and international community to engage with the national collection beyond its physical presence in Canberra,” a statement from the NGA said.

NGA vital for Canberra’s tourism recovery: Chief Minister

The gallery was reopened to the public on May 28 after coronavirus forced it to shut down in March.(AAP/Lukas Coch)

The CPSU said the NGA was being forced to come up with $6.8 million, meaning it was likely 30 to 40 staff members would lose their jobs in 2020.

They said this latest announcement followed a 10 per cent cut in staff four years earlier.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr called the news of the job losses “hugely disappointing” and said the NGA was struggling to meet efficiency dividends, which cuts public sector budgets by a certain percentage each year.

Introduced by the Hawke Labor government in 1987 in an effort to reap the benefits of advancing technology, the percentage has dialled up significantly in the past decade.

“At a time when our country is hurting, continuing to enforce efficiency dividends on our National Institutions is reckless and hurtful to many families,” Mr Barr said.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said he was “hugely disappointed” the NGA would have to cut jobs.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

Mr Barr said the announcement was also a blow for Canberra’s ailing tourism industry and called on the Commonwealth to do more to help it recover by offering support to the NGA.

“Rebuilding our tourism industry is an important component of Canberra’s Recovery Plan,” he said.

“Our tourism industry contributes over $2.5 billion a year to our local economy and employs tens of thousands of Canberrans.

“When the Commonwealth can fund $500 million for the redevelopment of the War Memorial, there should not be job losses in other institutions.”

Union says maintenance costs partly to blame

Jackson Pollack’s ‘Blue Poles’ was covered up as the NGA closed its doors amid the pandemic.(Supplied: Nick Mitzevich)

The CPSU blamed utility costs, building maintenance and falling interest rates as just some of the financial pressures faced by the NGA.

Already impacted by costs after a destructive hailstorm badly damaged the gallery’s roof and some of its outdoor exhibits in January, the gallery was then shut down due to the pandemic.

The union said more needed to be done at a government level to rescue the NGA, which was still unable to draw the kinds of crowds it had seen before coronavirus.

“Whilst the gallery remains open, serious measures to ensure public and staff safety mean that access is restricted and the future exhibitions uncertain.”

The union’s deputy national secretary Beth Vincent-Pietsch said the gallery was more than just an employer and was a part of Australia’s national identity.

“More than that it has a legislated mandate to collect, exhibit, and restore the very best of Australian and international art.”

A spokesperson for the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts Paul Fletcher said $27.8 million in capital support was given to the NGA by the Federal Government over the previous three years.

“The National Gallery of Australia is implementing measures that, while difficult for a number of staff, will make its operations more sustainable for the future,” the spokesperson said.

“The Government provides significant funding to cultural institutions such as the NGA, and all publicly funded bodies are expected to operate efficiently and deliver value for the public money that is being invested in them.”

Gunnedah Gomeroi artist’s work Burra Dee Dee now displayed in town – Namoi Valley Independent