Friday, June 3, 2016

Arts funding: budgeting for the soul

When it was suggested to Winston Churchill that he cut the arts budget to fund the war effort, he replied, “then what are we fighting for?”  Well, so the meme goes.  The fact that the then British Prime Minister didn’t actually say this doesn’t really matter. It’s remained a favourite social media meme and oft (mis)quoted moment because it’s not an arts advocate, an artist, a curator or an arts-loving writer arguing for arts funding – it’s a politician.  It seems so unusual that a politician would care about the arts. 

On the whole, politicians are considered philistines when it comes to the arts.  As we come into the federal election, it’s evidently not a priority.  The headlines are all about wealth-creation (or barriers to it): surplus, superannuation, taxes, housing, ‘boat people’, dole bludgers, construction, unions, penalty rates etc. etc.…. And that’s why the arts community gave a collective sigh of relief when Malcolm Turnbull  - a known art-collector and supporter of the arts - was elected PM.

The arts community was thus understandably upset when the new arts minister appointed by Turnbull announced that the changes to arts funding brought in by the conservative, ballet-loving George Brandis were not going to be reversed. Over the last year, the arts community has waged an admirable war against the changes.  Last year’s senate enquiry into the Liberal’s art budgets, for instance, received a record 2719 submissions, leading one LNP senator to label the response as a conspiracy.  Evidently, our politicians underestimated the passion and sheer doggedness of the Australian arts community. 

Last month the effects of the arts changes became particularly obvious when around 65 arts organisations, many of them established and respected, were de-funded in part as a result of the funding changes.   Because of the Australia Council’s funding structure, the cuts in funding have disproportionately affected the visual arts and writing communities.  As Alison Croggon pointed out in The Guardian, there’s been a massive 70% reduction in individual grants since the 2013/14 financial year. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the changes, and I recommend you google Croggon’s articles in The Monthly (16 May) and The Guardian (19 May) for a more detailed account. Instead, I want to emphasise why we should fund the arts, and more specifically the visual arts (I’ll let my fellow columnist, Paige Turner, argue on behalf of literature).

I strongly believe one of the major errors we’ve made in our argument for greater investment in the arts is to use the language of conservative economics.  Our arguments have been based on financial return and job creation.  Let’s be honest, no one goes into the visual arts in order to make money.  We make, support and view art because it makes us happy and fulfils our intellectual curiosity.   This is also backed up by science. According to Neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp, the key to human happiness is the act of seeking, which encompasses the quest for knowledge, anticipation, and the creation of new forms of expression.  For an easy dopamine hit, create some art.

Visual art a method of storytelling that we can trace back to our early ancestors.  Archaeologists have discovered figurative cave painting in Indonesia and Australia that pre-dates the famous caves in Europe, and this concurrent emergence of visual expression suggests that art is something innate in us all.  It defines us as humans.

Art has also long-served as an important pre-literate method of communication.  The pre-Modern frescoes and stained glass windows in the churches and palaces of Europe, for instance, were in part designed to communicate biblical stories, local history, and political authority to a largely illiterate public.  Art has the ability to express stories, ideas and emotions in ways that words simply cannot.  Even now that we live in a highly literate society dominated by written language, we’re incorporating emoticons and other forms of pictorial communication to convey nuanced emotion where words fail. 
Detail of the stained glass window called Notre-Dame de la Belle Verrière, a section from the 13th century, in Notre-Dame de Chartres cathedral. This is the central image of a section depicting the Marriage at Cana.
Source: Wikimedia

When we view art, we experience emotions.  Entering a maze-like installation might inspire feelings of curiosity, excitement, and perhaps even a bit of adrenalin-pumping fear. A portrait of a dog may invoke affection, and a painting by J.M.W. Turner is undeniably visually pleasurable.  Even the most abstract artworks can appeal to our emotions - many years ago I broke down in front of Robert Morris’ Minimalist L Beams.  Art often demands a level of intellectual engagement from the viewer and can challenge us, ask difficult questions and expose us to different worldviews.

Carl Spitzweg, The Poor Poet (1839). Source: Wikimedia
It benefits society to have ready access to art both in galleries and public spaces, and therefore we need to support the producers.  If you ask an artist why they make art, they’re not going to respond ‘to increase tourism to the region’.  Increased tourism is great for Hobart’s many coffee shops, hotels and high-end restaurants, but it doesn’t change the fact that some local galleries do not even pay artists to exhibit or even provide material allowances.  It’s particularly galling when you consider that the gallery’s cleaner gets paid in money, rather than the oft-cited ‘exposure’.  We shouldn’t ask artists exhibiting in public galleries to work for free, and public galleries need to be funded so that they can pay artists fairly, just like they do the cleaners, plumbers and other workers. 

Art should be seen as a public good like health or roads, and it should not be expected to be financially self-sustainable.  Art departments in schools and universities need to be better funded. We know creative expression can be therapeutic, so we need to use it as a method of healing in hospitals and prisons, and provide cheap and easily accessible spaces for community groups to create together. 

Many years ago I worked as an art therapist, and I remember one non-verbal client who would silently wrap objects in string, over and over with precise rhythm, resulting in a delicate cocoon.  A few years later I attended art school and watched as a fellow student did the same thing.  The instinct was the same, but only one needed an artist statement (or so the university’s unit outline stated).  

We invest far too much money in the worst parts of ourselves (the recent $50 billion on military submarines immediately comes to mind). It’s time to better fund the better side of our nature.

This article was originally printed in the June issue of Warp Magazine.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Review: Birchs Bay Sculpture Trail

This year marks the eleventh anniversary of the Birchs Bay sculpture trail.  Originally called ‘Benchmarking Birchs Bay’, the recent name change to ‘Art Farm Birchs Bay’ reflects the expansion of their art program, which now includes art and craft workshops and an indoor art gallery: the Old Distillery.

I’ve visited a number of their previous trails, and have watched it mature and develop into a diverse and thought-provoking exhibition. Of course, there are a few of the usual twee sculpture trail offerings, such as mosaic flowers, and stick and shell constructions. But on the whole, the current exhibition easily rivals major public sculpture events in terms of scope and artistic engagement with the surrounding environment.

It’s about a 45 minute walk through the bush. We initially wind our way through the working farm, including a pear orchard, which is quite appropriately scattered with oversized ceramic pears.  After crossing a plantation of Tasmanian native pepperberry trees, we wind our way up to the natural bush trail.  I walk with my small dog, who seems particularly attracted to the sculptures with a lingering smell (especially the caged oyster shells).  The trail is on private land and presumably relies on their café revenue to partly fund the initiative, but visitors are nonetheless encouraged to bring their dogs, their kids, and a picnic.  At one point I encounter a family of picnickers (including a happy Labrador) enjoying the incredible view over the Great Bay to Bruny Island.  For awhile, I’m followed by a family who’s playing a game of ‘guess the price of the artwork’, with the ‘answer’ printed in the accompanying catalogue.  Artwork sales are obviously important to the exhibition’s financial sustainability, but I also have a tendency to get distracted by price tags. As a result, I walk the rest of the trail without reference to the catalogue, enjoying the unexpected artwork encounters sans map. 

Dean Chatwin, Nature's Way, 2016. Image credit: the artist.
The standout for me is Dean Chatwin’s witty installation, Nature’s Way.  His sculpture mimics the design of Tasmanian street signs with one exception: like a weathervane, a gust of wind will alter the sign’s orientation.  On one hand, the structure is an unexpected aesthetic intrusion, but it’s also such an everyday object that it’s comfortingly familiar, even natural. At the time of my visit, ‘Nature’s Way’ points to a barrier of bush scrub, although it could just as easily be pointing in the direction of the working farm.  We might think we can control the world around us, but as the sign suggestions, nature will ultimately have its way.

Unlike Chatwin’s work, which deliberately stands out against its surroundings, Sally Brown’s ­­­­Web, Net, Lace (2007) has weathered and faded over the years.  The cobweb-like structure high between two trees is easily missed, particularly if you’re buried in the sculpture map.  Each year, a couple of sculptures are acquired by the owners and remain permanently along the trail, aging sympathetically to their surroundings.  There are sculptures by a number of fairly high-profile Tasmanian artists, such as Brown and Marcus Tatton.    Brown’s other permanent work is a field of metal flowers dotted around the upper trail.  Like ­­­­Web, Net, Lace, the flowers are weathering and rusting, blending with the surrounding environment despite the material’s industrial roots.

Mike Limb, Cello
I’m conflicted over Mike Limb’s descriptively titled Cello.  While the subject leaves me cold, there’s a lovely relationship between the curled strips of rusted steel around the instrument’s bridge and the scraps of bark littered around its base.  Julie Milton’s Eucalion mimics the surrounding environment more directly – a steel and acrylic version of the surrounding natural grasses.  I also enjoy Keith Smith’s Cuckoo Nest made from ‘beach float-some’, including shoes, rope, fishing nets, and hats, although I wonder if the awkwardly-located rusted metal birds are really necessary.  The sound and light elements of Edith Perrenot’s towering sculpture aren’t working on my visit, but I’m nonetheless intrigued by the cheeky figures peering out from the golden vestibules.

Keith Smith’s Cuckoo Nest (with my dog Pip)
We have a couple of high-profile art philanthropists in Tasmania who understandably receive a lot of media attention, but we’re also lucky to have a lot of smaller, privately-run art initiatives, such as Art Farm Birchs Bay.  I urge you to check it out.

This review was originally published in the May edition of Warp Magazine.

Friday, June 12, 2015

On the Recent Changes to Australian Arts Funding

I started this piece at the opening of the Venice Biennale.  It was going to be about all the tote bags I’d scored, the outrageous outfits, and my lack of party invitations.  The fact that Arts Minister Michael Brandis opened the new Australia pavilion didn’t even register until the following week when he announced massive changes to arts funding.

The changes include the establishment of the ‘National Program for Excellence in the Arts’ (it deserves inverted commas), the funding of which will be transferred from the Australia Council for the Arts (Ozco) – a move that will disproportionately and deliberately affect individual artists, particularly visual artists, filmmakers, writers, and small and/or regional arts organisations.  Tasmanian artists and audiences should be concerned.  

In Venice, Brandis basked in the reflected cultural prestige of the world’s largest visual arts event, rubbing shoulders with the Australian art world’s most influential players.  I guess it wasn’t the place to announce cuts to the very organisation that administers Australia’s involvement in the biennale.  To give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he hadn’t decided yet.  One of the stated aims of NPEA is to encourage cultural philanthropy, and as the pavilion was largely funded with private money, perhaps it inspired Brandis’ scheme.  Unfortunately, it's only ever financial donations that are acknowledged on golden plaques and programs, not the in-kind support provided by artists who often go unpaid or underpaid for their essential work.  If we stopped participating tomorrow, the cultural economy would collapse, which explains why last year’s Sydney Biennale boycotts were so threatening to the status quo.

I did attend one party at the biennale by the way.  I wasn’t invited, but the champagne was flowing and the art was terrible.  I guess I was a welcome rent-a-crowd.  The Sheikh had evidently paid a large amount to stage the exhibition (it costs $30,000 just to register as a collateral event), but as the saying goes, money doesn’t buy taste.  Ozco isn’t perfect, but if we leave it to rich individuals to decide what is and isn’t supported, the diversity of Australia’s art scene will undoubtedly suffer.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Paris beckons

In a few months, I'll be off to Paris to stay at the Rosamond McCulloch studio at the Cite Internationale des Arts.  The studio was a bequest by the late artist to the Tasmanian School of Art (now Tasmanian College of the Arts) to allow former students to undertake residencies in the oh-so-cultural city.

My time in Paris will be spent examining the dialogue between pre-Modern art and architecture in a number of key buildings, including churches and palaces, in order to expand my existing knowledge on contemporary site-specific art practice.  My PhD thesis, which I submitted in late 2012, examined site-specific art in Australia’s public museums.  One of the aspects of site-specificity that I have become interested in, but for many reasons was unable to pursue in my thesis, is the pre-twentieth century relationship between art and architecture, as well as other models of site-specificity such as Visionary Environments (large scale installations, often defined by the maker’s lack of formal art training, and are thus often associated with Outsider Art).

When theorists define or describe site-specific art, they usually look at art from the 1960s onwards, viewing the art form as a relatively recent trend that followed the art ideals of Modernism.  However, my belief is that we can extend our knowledge on contemporary site-specific art by examining the way in which pre-twentieth century art was usually made for a particular site, purpose, and most importantly, made in dialogue with architecture.  For instance, the altar pieces that we so often see in museums, cut-off from their original environment, were not designed as stand alone artworks, but as an integral part of the church and site.  My intention for Paris is to examine the relationships between altarpiece and museum (such as the Louvre), and in sites such as the Saint Chappelle, altarpiece and church.

The two other models of site-specificity that sit outside the contemporary notion of the term are the before mentioned Visionary Environments, and the studio as museum.  For some reason France has many of the most famous Visionary Environments.  A few of the sites are close to Paris, so I will also do at least one day trip during the residency period.  The ones high on my list Ferdinand Cheval's Palais Idéal (Ideal Palace) in Hauterives, south of Lyon; Adolphe-Julien Fouré’s Les Rochers Sculptés (Sculpted Rocks) in Saint Malo, Brittany; Raymond Isidore’s la Maison de Picassiette in Chartres (an easy day trip from Paris).  These environments are built around existing structures, often using local found materials, and while they are not site-specific in the critical sense of the term, they have an interesting relationship to site.  Similarly, I am interested in examining the relationship between art and environment in Paris’ studio museums, such as the “l’atelier Brancusi” outside the Pompidou museum, which is an exact reproduction of Constantin Brancusi’s studio as dictated by the artist in his will.

My other key aim is to not turn into a blimp thanks to a surplus of eclairs and cheese. Exciting times.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Commercial Scene

Tonight I'm heading to Sydney to help set up the Constance ARI stall at the Sydney Contemporary art fair.  Constance was invited as one of two ARIs to showcase work by local emerging artists, which is an indicator of the gallery's national reputation (unfortunately, we just found out that the recognition doesn't extend to the state funding body - the gallery will not be financially supported from January next year.  But that's another story...).  I've never been to an art fair, but I've wanted to ever since reading Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World, which profiles over seven 'days' the auction, the crit, the fair, the prize, the magazine, the studio visit, and the biennale. It's an amusing snapshot at a world full of contradictions, myths, personalities, and most fascinatingly for me, the commercial art scene.  I read it in 2008, the year I commenced my PhD.  I realised that although I had an honours degree in fine arts and was a budding arts writer and artist, I really had no idea what went on in the commercial art world.  I had never been to a high-profile art auction, the Venice Biennale or an art fair, and most commercial galleries I entered made me as nervous as entering, say, an Hermès shop.

Five years on and I have a PhD, I've been to the Venice Biennale twice, and I write for Australian Art Collector. I feel more comfortable walking into a contemporary commercial art gallery (the ones with Picasso paintings on the wall like the one I ventured into on Rodeo Drive earlier this year still freak me out), and I've been to one dodgy art auction. Hell, I've even bought art from a commercial gallery, even if minor.  But I still feel very much an outsider. I am part of the academic edge of the art world; I'm a maker, a writer, a museum invigilator, an ARI committee member and, most significantly, I live at the end of the world: Hobart (or at least that's how some of the international articles about MONA like to call it). 

My first Venice Biennale visit was in 2009.  I was lucky enough to receive a travel grant from the University of Tasmania to present a paper at a conference held in conjunction with the biennale. It was during the peak visiting season - late July - and it was crowded, hot, massive, and super exciting.  My second visit was in 2011. I worked as a team leader at the Australia pavilion during the opening month.  The vernissage - the three days of private viewing before the hoi poloi are let in - was overwhelming.  It was a scene that not even Thornton's book had prepared me for.  You could smell the wealth and exclusivity. Women stumbled over the gravel giardini in their ridiculous heels, men in full suits sweated (artfully, of course) in the June sun (although one man made a point of wearing a toilet seat around his neck), and I even saw one collector walk through the curated pavilion with what was presumably their buyer, pointing at a sculpture meaningfully.  Mega yachts parked outside the giardini venue, the largest of which was occupied by a single man wearing a pair of gold speedos to match his bronzed and buffed skin. Openings were held in ornate of Venetian palaces, and the guests were largely those who had donated enough money to the art foundation in question, which essentially 'buys' you a ticket.

Will the Sydney Contemporary art fair be like the Venice Biennale? Of course not. We don't have that kind of wealth in Australia, nor the draw of the biennale itself. However, I predict I will feel like an outsider.   I'm looking forward to expanding my art education by attending the four day event.  I look forward to people watching, some of the talks (if I have time), and of course viewing the hundreds of artworks on display.