Is the NGV a high end Department Store?

Have the couturier fashion hijacked fashion as art? When the NGV or even the Metropolitan museum in NYC have a major fashion exhibition it is from a couturier fashion label. Fashion is like the art world in the nineteenth century, pre-Salon d’Refuse or the Vienna Session. The guild masters are still in charge and there are no independents or primitives or popular commercial lines.


Viktor&Rolf, Wearable Art, 2015-6 (photo by Team Peter Stigter)

I started to consider this when comparing the Metropolitan’s Modern American art collection their fashion exhibition, Manus x Machina, Fashion in the Age of Technology. In the Met’s art collection there are outsider artists, primitives and even a Norman Rockwell. However at the fashion exhibition there was only work from couturier labels and no outsider, primitives or mainstream fashion.

I considered this again when I read Natty Solo’s brilliant critique of Viktor & Rolf exhibition. Natty Solo is focused on sexism in the NGV’s choice of major exhibitions but still raises the question: “Have we sold out art by turning this museum into a high end Department Store?” This is another aspect of that conservatism that favours male artists for NGV exhibitions. This is about not thinking and making easy choices for sponsorship.

Admittedly the NGV has had an exhibition of t-shirts and the popular streetwear label Mambo but both were in the NGV Studio and not major exhibitions. In some ways Bendigo Art Gallery has done better in its choice of touring fashion exhibitions. By looking at fashion through Hollywood stars, Marilyn or Grace Kelly provide the focus for the exhibition rather than a couturier label. The exhibition is not a promotional vehicle for a label but an examination of fashion history.

The domination of couturier fashion in art gallery exhibitions raises the questions about independence of the gallery and its curators in their choice to promote certain labels or designers. The gallery is acting as a promotion vehicle for their product, some of which is sold at the gift shop at the end of the exhibition. It questions the reason for NGV or the Metropolitan’s existence, because promotion is neither an educational nor an aesthetic reason for an exhibition.

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

2 responses to “Is the NGV a high end Department Store?

  • Eucalypso

    Thanks for an interesting article. I’ve seen many fashion exhibitions including at the NGV and suppose it depends on whether you see a designer as an artist or not. An exhibition about Dior to present day would include a mix of designers who have worked under that label, but to my knowledge, the NGV has only featuring the designer, not the label?

    There is a difference between the art of fashion and watered down mass market knock-offs, and not all designers are artists. Perhaps by concentrating on couturiers, the gallery is showing the artistry of fashion, which is easier to understand at a hand-made level. I don’t see any difference between a Viktor and Rolf retrospective and that of any other major contemporary artist, but then I would think likewise about architecture. Have any exhibitions at the NGV featured architects?

  • Mark Holsworth

    This isn’t about classifying some fashion designers as artists, this is about the museums exhibitions being controlled by one section of fashion design. It was the difference between the Met’s collection twentieth century of art and design that emphasised how narrow the focus of the fashion exhibitions were to only concentrate on the couturiers.
    I don’t think that the NGV has had any major exhibitions of architecture and certainly not one that was just about one currently working architectural firm. They don’t tend to have solo exhibitions of mid-career artists or designers except fashion designers. It would appear less biased if it was an exhibition that featured several different couturier fashion labels rather than just one.
    One particular problem for fashion exhibitions is that unless you restrict your exhibitions to historical fashion you are kind of stuck exhibiting and consequently promoting the work of mid-career designers.
    (High fashion as art makes much of the couturier ‘hand-made’ but it is not the signature handmade of a pen but often the hand of anonymous workers acting like a machine sewing on feathers or sequins. Not that anyone in the high contemporary art world cares that much about the hand of the artist, not post Duchamp, not post Ai Wei Wei employing thousands of workers to hand paint his sunflower seeds.)

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