Artists in isolation, the ‘Lockdown Studio’ and a COVIDSafe arts ecology

As galleries and museums across Australia tentatively reopen, what was once envisaged as a return to normality seems more like the unfolding of an entirely new chapter in the progress of the pandemic. The most visible signs of difference are the ubiquitous antibacterial handwash stations and public health signage, yet a more optimistic indicator of change has been the continued dedication to online programs. These initially developed as a response of necessity in the face of dwindling revenue, but are now driven by a recognition of the opportunities that such programs offer for new forms of public engagement. Many of these initiatives have focused on providing channels for artists to speak directly to their audiences, sharing their personal experiences of the global crisis, their visions of a post-COVID future, their advice for those struggling to come to terms with current realities, and, of course, their art.

Griffith University Art Museum in Brisbane took an early lead in this space and has continued to set the tone for other galleries and museums seeking to join the conversation with the ongoing ‘Lockdown Studio’ series of artist videos, initiated on 20 April and updated weekly. In contrast to the high production values and carefully curated adherence to an institutional narrative that distinguishes related projects like ‘Together in Art’, overseen by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, these videos make a virtue of low-tech intimacy and unscripted immediacy. Collaborating artists are given the freedom to choose their topic and format, with the one condition that they use a mobile phone to record in a single take, but with no bars to further innovation beyond this simple instruction.

Like the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia’s ‘Artist Voice’ series, ‘Lockdown Studio’ offers a glimpse into the private lives and thoughts of collaborating artists. These participants, however, represent a much wider sample of the arts community, including younger emerging artists as well as more established voices. The initial motivation for the series was the need to support front-of-house and install staff at the museum by increasing the public visibility of their artistic practices. In the first uploaded video, former Sculptors Queensland resident artist Tiana Jefferies sets the tone for the series with a discussion of the ‘threshold between public and private spaces’ and the forms of contact we share even in isolation from friends, family and community. Both Jefferies and Brisbane-based photographer Patrick Lester, the second contributor, note the opportunity that isolation has brought to adapt their usual methods, forcing them to engage with new technologies and settings for their work. While they talk, candid and unrehearsed, the natural chorus of Brisbane provides a steady accompaniment, though the hum of passing cars and human voices is conspicuously absent.

For Richard Bell, one of the more well-known contributors to the series, this absence has been a welcome relief, a calm before the storm of ‘desperate economic times’ ahead. Bell introduces us to a series of monumental panel paintings that offer a prescient foretaste of the crisis now unfolding, ‘a conglomerate of protests around the world’ that he has likely found occasion to greatly elaborate in the past few weeks. Bell and other established contributors to ‘Lockdown Studio’ also starkly illustrate the differential impact of this crisis – while emerging artists like Jefferies and Lester are forced to adapt, he admits that ‘isolation really hasn’t affected me that much’. Lindy Lee gives a comparable assessment, glossing isolation as a fantastic opportunity to prepare for her upcoming survey show at the MCA and introducing her two studio assistants, about the same age as Jefferies and Lester. Also evident in Lee’s contribution, however, is the intimacy of the working relationship between artist and assistant, shedding light on the usually invisible networks of mutual support and reciprocity that animate the arts community.

It is this insight above all that distinguishes ‘Lockdown Studio’ from other online public projects. Each video in the series stands alone as an intimate portrait of an individual coming to terms with the constantly shifting conditions of our shared isolation. At the same time, as a collective endeavour, these videos map a complex constellation of careers, professional roles, social and cultural backgrounds, personalities and perspectives, united by a shared commitment to artistic expression. Raised in unison and speaking from the heart at a crucial moment on our path out of crisis, the voices of those involved offer a template for mutual understanding that dissolves the artificial boundaries too often imposed between the arts and everyday life. 

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

The Art Gallery of NSW Has Just Announced Its Blockbuster Exhibitions for Summer 2020 – Concrete Playground

After a tumultuous start to the year, the Art Gallery of NSW is back. At the moment, you can catch a heap of free exhibitions, including the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Some Mysterious Process: 50 Years of Collecting International Art and Shadow Catchers. Now, the major cultural institution is looking to the future, announcing its huge lineup of spring/summer exhibitions — including the much-anticipated Archibald Prize. It would seem Sydney’s arts scene is getting back to normal (with restrictions, of course).

The prestigious portrait prize was meant to kick off last month, along with the Wynne and Sulman, which recognise the best landscape painting of Australian scenery, or figure sculpture and the best subject painting, genre painting or mural project, respectively. But, due to growing COVID-19 concerns, the exhibitions were postponed by the gallery back in March, with hopes to show later in the year. Yesterday, Tuesday, June 23, AGNSW revealed new dates, which will now run from September 26 right through January 10, 2021. So, you’ll have plenty of time to check it out.

Also coming to grace the gallery’s walls is a landmark retrospective of celebrated impressionist landscape painter Arthur Streeton, which will run from November 7, 2020–February 14, 2021. A member of the Heidelberg School of Australian impressionism, Streeton produced works that were (and still are) quintessentially Aussie — from sun-drenched pastoral landscapes to the waters of Sydney Harbour. He also received the Wynne Prize in 1928. At the AGNSW, Streeton will feature more than 150 works, some of which have not exhibited for over a century, and will include a selection of works from the artist’s time in Egypt, England, Italy and WWI France, too.

“We’re extremely excited to delve into the life and work of one of our most influential Australian painters, Arthur Streeton, who defined a unique image of this country,” AGNSW Director Michael Brand said in a statement. “Streeton’s brilliant evocations of light, land and sea are among the most enduring paintings for many Australians.”

That’s not all that you’ll be able to catch over the warmer months, either. Kicking off next month is a solo exhibit of major works by Lebanon-born Australian artist Khaled Sabsabi, which will run till sometime next year. Titled A Promise: Khaled Sabsabi, it’ll feature the artist’s large-scale immersive works and more intimate paintings.

From October, there’ll be a collection of drawings by eight contemporary Aussie artists, dubbed Real Worlds: Dobell Australian Drawing Biennale 2020, as well as Joy: an Indigenous art exhibition, featuring objects and short films by artists from across the Central Desert, including Judith Inkamala, Marlene Rubuntja and Sally Mulda. Both exhibitions will be free and kick off on Saturday, October 24, with closing dates yet to be announced. Then, from Saturday November 14, the gallery will house a provocative and humorous retrospective of Australian artist Pat Larter’s work over the past 30 years, which challenges conventions of the male gaze and stereotypes of female sexuality.

Unfortunately, the scheduled 2020 Sydney International Art Series exhibitions, Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris and Matisse Alive have been postponed indefinitely. As have exhibitions Brack, Margel Hinder, Classicism and The Purple House.

For more information on the Art Gallery of NSW’s current and upcoming exhibitions, head to the website. Ticket information for the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes 2020 will be available here from Saturday, August 1. Ticket information for Streeton is yet to be announced — we’ll be sure to keep you updated. 

Top image: Art Gallery of NSW

Published on June 24, 2020 by Cordelia Williamson

Staff cuts will hurt the National Gallery of Australia, but it’s not spending less on art. It’s just spending it differently – The Conversation AU

On September 10 1965, Sir Robert Menzies commissioned the National Art Gallery Committee of Inquiry to consider the establishment of a national gallery for Australia.

The resulting Lindsay Report, published in 1966, is an ambitious document, describing an art gallery to serve the nation through the quality and range of its collections and exhibitions.

It emphasised the need to have an all encompassing collection of Australian art. The report recognised, in the second half of the 20th century, it was not possible to acquire a significant collection from European art history and advised a focus on modern art, including from Indigenous Australian artists, south and east Asia, and the Pacific Islands.

James Mollison became the gallery’s first director and began collecting work in 1971, construction began in 1973, and the National Gallery of Australia finally opened in 1982. The Lindsay Report was most recently reviewed in 2017, and is still the guiding document for the gallery’s foundation and continuing collection policies.

Menzies understood a culture that supported the arts and the humanities was essential to Australia’s development. Although his aesthetic taste was conservative, often described as reactionary, he greatly valued the arts.

For many years, his successors showed equal enthusiasm for seeing the National Art Gallery grow into international prominence.

Now, with subsequent efficiency dividends, the gallery is facing a budgetary shortfall and will lose 10% of its staff. The gallery has also recently reduced the number of new acquisitions, leading some to assume a connection to the loss of funding. This is not the case.

A $6 billion collection

In the late 1970s, after the prices paid for American and European art became a political issue, the Fraser government placed restrictions on the price the gallery could pay for international art. Any major purchases would now require permission from parliament.

Read more: Blue poles 45 years on: asset or overvalued drip painting?

As the gallery’s acquisition budget was not otherwise constrained, the gallery redirected its purchases to create an encyclopaedic collection of Australian art. Over the years, the collection has matured into a balance between Australian, American, European, Asian and Pacific art, still keeping the bias towards art of the 20th and 21st centuries as proposed by the Lindsay report

Children seen inside Within, Without, by American artist James Turrell. The gallery acquired the sculptural ‘skyspace’ in 2010. Lukas Coch/AAP

The collection now comprises almost 160,000 works of art valued at A$6 billion – a remarkable achievement for a collection that began only fifty years ago.

Over the last decade, the gallery has added an average of 2,134 items to its collection each year, including 863 new purchases.

In the early years, under James Mollison’s directorship, there was a need to build the collection from a very small base of works that had found their way into the hands of the old Commonwealth Art Advisory Board.

Read more: James Mollison: the public art teacher who brought the Blue Poles to Australia

Collections policy is not governed by numbers of works but by the nature of what is available, and how it relates to other works already in the collection. Once the collection was established, acquisitions could be focused on areas of particular need. Rod Radford expanded the Pacific collection; current director Nick Mitzevich is focused on contemporary art.

The gallery’s significant budget cuts will not impact the acquisitions budget. Gallery director Nick Mitzevich tells The Conversation the $16 million annual spend on buying art will be maintained, and cannot be appropriated for other purposes.

With such a collections base to work from, he says the gallery will focus on the quality, rather than quantity, of works which can be purchased from the same budget: collecting major works, or, as Mitzevich describes, “absolute excellence”.

National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich. Lukas Coch/AAP

But while the acquisitions budget is being maintained, other gallery departments are facing serious budget cuts.

With the exception of the Australian War Memorial, which will receive a controversial $500 million expansion, Australia’s national cultural organisations have been hit exceptionally hard by a succession of conservative governments.

Read more: Federal budget 2014: arts and culture experts react

The gallery’s operations budget must comply with the Australian Public Service’s efficiency dividend. This year, operating revenue is reduced by $1.5 million. To counteract this reduction, the gallery will cut 10% of its total staff, beginning with voluntary redundancies.

This will inevitably mean a loss of senior staff, some of those with the greatest expertise.

Shifting worlds

It has been a difficult year for the gallery. Due to smoke from the bushfires on January 5 and 6, the gallery had to close for the safety of its collection, including the major summer blockbuster Picasso and Matisse.

It was the first time the National Gallery of Australia has ever closed for more than one day.

Xu Zhen’s European Thousand-Armed Classical Sculpture is currently on display at the gallery. Lukas Coch/AAP

Then, COVID-19 struck. The gallery shut its doors on March 23, not re-opening until June 2. Visitor numbers remain small. Yesterday, only 250 came through the doors. This time last year they were in the thousands.

Mtizevich has yet to calculate the full cost of these dual disasters to the gallery’s revenue. He told The Conversation the act of keeping to budget while keeping faith with the National Gallery’s objectives is “not an easy job, a tightrope”.

He is adamant the collections policy will remain unchanged.