State galleries, like the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria, my local state gallery) or the Louvre, or even the Milwaukee Art Museum are a symbol of the power and cultural sophistication of the state. They are the symbolic cultural treasury of the state. How the state gallery represents art history and the culture of the country is a political issue. The history of how and from whom the collection is acquired is also a matter of state politics. How the gallery represent the state – how the NGV represents Australian art, especially contemporary art and aboriginal art is a political issue. Who and what is exhibited or not exhibited is also a political issue. And how the state gallery tells art history is another political issues as is all history. The politics of these galleries is so obvious that Hyperallergic ridicules Dan Keegan, the director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, who claimed that museums should be apolitical.
Sydney artist Stephen Copland wrote: “My early series was about identity through the prism of inherited objects and became political as soon as I stepped down on the ground in Cuba. This meant the exhibition could not be shown in USA.”
To dismiss any romantic notions about politics in art start with a look at the structure of art world’s major institutions; the state and national galleries and other government funded art galleries. The politics of all these institutions is rarely dramatic or even obvious but they are entwined in the larger state politics. The various state galleries represent the state as an expression of the state’s collective consciousness. And every exhibition is a media opportunity for the state politicians.
For a mundane example of the politics of these state galleries look at the NGV’s “European Masters” in 2010 on the surface there is little that would be considered. The media kits for the exhibition contained pages of comments from the then Premier of Victoria, John Brumby, and his Minister for the Arts, Peter Batchelor and the then Victorian Minister for Tourism and Major Events, Tim Holding. Tim Holding estimates that the “Winter Masterpiece” exhibitions inject more that $14 million per year into Victoria’s economy. A minimum of 200,000 visitors is anticipated for these blockbuster exhibitions that fill the temporary exhibition galleries at the NGV (that is the MCG filled to capacity twice, for all the Melbournians who like the localized sports standard). When you can regularly attract that many people and communicate with them you have political power.
State art gallery funding and the media opportunities for politicians affect the arts and the artists. Earlier this year The Age published Gabriella Coslovich’s article “Gallery fights ‘moribund’ tag” and it got a lot of people talking. Under discussion was the quantity of contemporary art in the (NGV) collection. It is important to be aware of and to discuss the politics of state galleries collections rather than ignore them or focus on dramatic controversies.