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NGV Problems

Some have greeted the news of the appointment of Tony Ellwood to director of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) with joy. I am more cautious as the NGV has a lot of problems with its space, its collection and its role. Tony Ellwood was the directorship of both the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art and we will see what he brings to the NGV.

Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square

“At the beginning of the twentieth century the National Gallery of Victoria was one of the world’s most richly endowed galleries as Alfred Fenton’s bequest made available to it an annual amount exceeding the combined grants of London’s British Museum and National Gallery. Yet money alone could not secure quality or build a collection of distinction.” Elieen Chanin and Steven Miller, Degenerates and Perverts – The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, (The Miegunyah Press, 2005, Carlton) p.219

Elieen Chanin points to a series of problems with the NGV’s acquisition policy. At the beginning of the twentieth century the NGV was spending a lot of money on replica paintings and sculpture. The NGV also purchased of works of dubious authenticity like the “Rembrandt Self Portrait” in 1933. The NGV collection was focused on public approval and so many opportunities to buy modern art at good prices were ignored; unlike the Americans who leapt at the opportunity. The NGV then paid higher prices to acquire similar work later when public opinion had changed. There was criticism of these acquisitions at the time but the NGV choose to ignore rather than respond to them. Buying from Britain may have been loyal and patriotic when Victoria was part of the British Empire but 19th and early 20th British art has become a sidetrack in art history. And so the NGV’s collection is full of conservative taste, tax dodges and political interference and although this has improved in recent decades the effects on the collection remains.

The addition of the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square has improved the way its collection is displayed and along with the NGV Studio for street art and the NGV Kids space the NGV continues to expand in useful directions. However space is still an issue for the NGV, for example, their fashion exhibitions are still divided between galleries at the NGV International and NGV Australia (disrupting this distinction).

“There are 32 curators at the NGV but not one major exhibition” Juan Davila (talk 3/2/2012 “Dispersed Identities”, University of Melbourne)

Issues of space and the display of the collection in that space ultimately lead to the question of what is the purpose of having a public art gallery. The idea of the art gallery has been under-examined compared to the extent that it influences on the art it exhibits. Especially once the state had acquired all that valuable art. There is assumption is that an art gallery is educational housing a high quality collection to educate the next generation of artists and designers. However this educational assumption would exclude most contemporary art from the collection or force the gallery assume about the place of contemporary art in future education. Or is the role of a state gallery to enhance reputation of contemporary artists represented by Australian commercial galleries? Should its collection include examples of Melbourne’s burgeoning street art? Or, is it simply a location for infotainment, for host travelling international blockbuster exhibitions that can be measured in visitor numbers and revenue?

(See also my post about State Galleries & Politics and Arts Diary 365 for a 7 part examination of the NGV’s collection. Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, & 7.)


The Gallery Director

Q: Do you think this multiplication of galleries implies a certain lack of progress in artistic creation?

Kahnweiler: No, I don’t think so. I see it as a purely economic phenomenon.

Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler was 23 years old when first opened a little art gallery in Paris, prior to that he had worked in finance, after that he became Picasso’s dealer. (Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, My Galleries and Painters, Thames and Hudson, 1971, p.33)

Last year Christine Abrahams Gallery closed after 25 years of business. I met Guy Abrahams, director of the Christine Abrahams Gallery, once or twice when I we were both studying at Monash University. Guy was studying law and I was studying philosophy.

Christine Abrahams Gallery was a clothing factory before architect Daryl Jackson converted it to a gallery. This is typical of many of Melbourne’s galleries; as clothing manufacturing moved to outer suburbs or other countries, many of Melbourne’s former clothing factories have been converted to art galleries. Flinders Lane was the centre of Melbourne’s clothing industry and is now the centre of art galleries.

Before Christine Abrahams founded her gallery in 1983 she had been manager of Powell Street Gallery and a co-director of Axiom Gallery. Regarding being the director of a commercial art gallery, Guy Abrahams said: “It is a role that involves an appreciation of art and a passion for it, an interest in people and sensitivity to the needs of the artist and one’s clients. Business skills are also vitally important because commercial galleries depend on sales to survive and on selling art for the sake of the artist”. Australian Jewish News reported 9/9/08

The well planned and announced closure of Christine Abrahams Gallery stands in contrast with the sudden closing of Groundfloor Gallery, Belamain in Sydney in September 2008. Several Sydney artists claiming they are owed more than $20,000 collectively for sold works by Groundfloor Gallery director Jeannette Mascolo.  The difference between these two gallery closures is clearly is one of business skills and not artistic.

I am happy to celebrate the opening of an art gallery with a free glass of wine but I do not mourn the closure of any art galleries; they are businesses. More or less art galleries are not an indication of artistic progress or vitality. Art galleries do have an effect on art but then so do the shops selling art supplies (art critics, art magazines, etc.).


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