The Politics of Art: (Part 3)

Research is creative and political. Research is like curating: you decide what to put in and what to leave out. What’s important and what’s not important. The presentation of research reveals the philosophy of the researcher as exhibitions reveal the politics of curators. Research is art as much as thinking is art. And art (like research) can uncover a labyrinth of information and you choose which rabbit hole you’re going to fall into. Or not.

My thirst for trawling through the lives of others is insatiable. I’m intrigued with the Belgiorno-Nettis family dynasty. Ranked 22nd wealthiest family on the 2014 BRW Rich Australian Families List ($564 million), the Belgiorno-Nettis family story is the stuff of mini series. Think The Thorn Birds but with Italian flavour. If Brandis hadn’t slashed the funding to Screens Australia, you’d be tempted to write the script, casting Vince Colosimo in the lead role as patriach Franco Belgiorno-Nettis (1915-2006). Franco is the most interesting of the Belgiorni-Nettis’. After emigrating to Australia he built a formidable construction and engineering empire from the ground up. Franco was a patron of the arts at a time when few Australians knew what that was. Patrons and/or the Arts.

Excerpts from an interview with Franco Belgiorno-Nettis:

FBN: We had the special privilege and the honour to give hospitality to the Pope. In that workshop, eventually in ’86, His Holiness the Pope came to Australia and Seven Hills (Belgiorni-Nettis’ industrial site) was chosen as the place where the Pope could speak to 15,000 workers … we assembled the families in [the] great hall. We cleared all the machines, everything, so the workshop became a sort of great assembly house and we heard His Holiness speaking with a very human tone about the sanctity of work — that was a very good message that he gave to everybody and to our people. That means if you don’t work, he said, you are not entitled to eat.

 Well, what an amazing coup to get the Pope to come to tell your workers to work hard. How did you organise that? Well, people, they were convinced that the Vatican had some shares in Transfield … [interruption] …

… So that was an amazing thing to have achieved to get the Pope … Very, very touching experience, that I had with the Holiness. He didn’t convert me. Still it was a great experience.

So, how did you organise that, that must have been quite a coup to get the Pope? Well, I didn’t organise it, things happen. There was a need of assembling people where the Pope could talk and the first message I received [was] from my good friend, Gerry Gleeson, that was then the Secretary to the Premier [Neville Wran]. He suggested that it could be a good idea if we could give hospitality to the Pope in some way. There you are, things just fall from the sky.

But sometimes things don’t fall from the sky and you have to plan and manipulate for them, and you’ve already described how one strategy that you used in business, you actually learned from Rommel. Have there been any other strategies that came from your military background that you have been able to employ in building up the business? Well, from my military background, I have a tremendous amount of gratitude. If you just read Machiavelli, that is one of my favourite handbooks of management …

Better than Fortune magazine? Much better. You find out that you have to maintain a certain kind of steady discipline and control and good behaviour. First with your example, you must be first in the line, the other people follow, so my experience in so many years is that people follow …

Now if art is good business as you say, why is it that so few other companies have supported the arts in the way that Transfield has? Well they are doing, they are doing, I could see, certainly we were pioneers. Transfield has been pioneer in this area but I could see also that other company are doing that and you would be surprised that in many boardroom, gradually, a very traditional type of painting that you were seeing exhibited, cows, pastures, etc, modern architecture …

… the Queen …the Queen, whatever, now things are moving tremendously. The maturity of Australian art in the world and I very well recognise that you could see, even reading a magazine in Europe, in America and in Asia, Australia is very well-respected

Do you think businesses get a lot of value out of being sponsors and supporters of the arts? Oh definitely, and taking an example of some Italian company that have been a promoter of art, more or less this kind of patronage, it was traditional of Italian signori in the Renaissance. Now Australians are realising that is an important message, I mean, no doubt about that, the very well-recognised presence of Transfield is also given to the role played by the company in promoting art and assisting in many aspects visual arts in the country.

Franco, do you like to be described as a modern Medici? It is certainly tempting … [laughing] … I am fascinating … literally fascinated by the artists and the art world. The creativity that come from that part of mankind is an incredible element of inspiration and in reality if you see other aspects — it could be science, technology — the art, in a way, is more easily touchable, you could feel the vibrating in immediately, instinctively so, from that point of view, that aspect of creativity of humankind is absolutely fantastic.

You have this great respect for discipline which comes from your military training and the way that you were brought up by your father, and yet you also have this great respect for the freedom of the spirit through creativity. Do you see any kind of tension between these two aspects of life that you admire? Definitely, there is opposite ends. I think that wherever there is too much regulation, too much restriction, too much guidance, you can’t imagine that creativity is possible to be allowed. So there is that kind of drama and I would say that the large creative spirit is … [above] all control. So it is a fact, it could be probably a mystery, a mystery of life. In reality, I don’t think that you could put the two things together — an artist must be totally free, sometime it must be rebellious, that’s art.

Franco Belgiorno-Nettis helped establish the Biennale of Sydney in 1973. In 2014, nine artists threatened to boycott the 19th Sydney Biennale over sponsorship by Transfield Holdings, which owned a 12% stake in Transfield Services, a company that had recently begun to operate immigration detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. Transfield Holdings board members (and Franco’s sons) Luca and Guido Belgiorno-Nettis, ended the family’s 40-year support for the Biennale over protesters’ claims that the family was running “concentration camps”. 

Artist Gabrielle de Vietri withdrew from the biennale over the detention centre issue, and continues to work with Mums 4 Refugees, a community based advocacy group.

Senator Brandis retaliated by writing to the Australia Council chair Rupert Myer, to warn that the Biennale and artists were endangering their government funding: “Artists like everybody else are entitled to voice their political opinions but I view with deep concern the effective blackballing of a benefactor, implicit in this decision, merely because of its commercial arrangements.”

The Australian’s columnist Chris Kenny welcomed this as a “muscular, culture-wars intervention”.

We may wonder what Franco Belgiorno-Nettis would make of the expansion of the business he founded into offshore detention centres (the aforementioned “concentration camps”). We may wonder also what Franco would make of the think tank project of his son Luca

Luca has put together a board including Nick Greiner, Lucy Hughes Turnbull, Geoff Gallop and Cheryl Kernot and together New Democracy is reworking the Westminster System of Democracy, because it “doesn’t work and we can do better”. Randomly selected randoms would replace elected career politicians. New Democracy gets gigs too, including in Darebin, where I live. New Democracy argues that the democratic vote we all like to take for granted, is too expensive and is to be replaced by demarchy. Here is Luca doing his pitch against free and fair elections.

And here are the speeches from the Opening of the 19th Biennale of Sydney, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Speeches littered with the politics of life in Australia today. Guido Belgiorno-Nettis, in his role as Chair of the Board of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, speaks peevishly of “a few artists”. It is a small world. Then George Souris, Minister for the Arts, New South Wales speaks, followed by Artistic Director of the Biennale, Juliana Engberg. Imagine What You Desire urges Juliana.

Here is an excerpt from a New York based art magazine, Osmos Magazine, Very, Very Interesting, Issue 06, Summer 2105, page 8-13.

The article Very, Very Interesting is a transcript of a conversation between curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and artist Stuart Ringholt at the IMA, Brisbane, 2014. The speakers are playing strip tease. Anytime someone makes an interesting comment, Carolyn and Stuart strip off a layer of clothing. It’s a new way of keeping speech weary audiences focused. The conversation includes the 2014 Biennale of Sydney corporate sponsorship fracas. Stuart Ringholt asks artist/NITV presenter Richard Bell, who is in the audience, for his thoughts. Richard begins by questioning the politics of programming at ACCA under Artistic Director and Professorial Fellow at MADA (Monash Art Design and Architecture), Juliana Engberg:

Stuart Ringholt: Richie?

Richard Bell: What?

Stuart: You had some ideas about Sydney.

Richard: Oh, the Biennale of Sydney. I boycotted it because the curator had been in charge of ACCA (Australian Centre for Contemporary Art) for fifteen years and had not shown one Aboriginal artwork, so I just thought “Oh well, her judgment’s pretty shit, so I won’t bother going.”

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev: Okay, so that’s a switch to another subject.

Stuart: Is it a switch to another subject? It’s not really, is it Richard?

Richard: No, it’s the same thing. Transfield has contracts with the federal government to build properties for Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. There’s this thing called the intervention. Right?

Carolyn: Yes

Richard: Nobody boycotted Transfield for participating in this racist project up in the Northern Territory.

Carolyn: Okay, that is super interesting.

Stuart: Come on, clothes off.

Carolyn: I think I personally found that very interesting because this means the hierarchy of subalternity, the subaltern. So, you are saying that the illegal immigrants that are in the detention centres from outside of Australia are higher on the scale than the Indigenous people who are from this place and therefore, there was no boycott prior to this engagement, of Transfield.

I have researched the ACCA website, and conclude that the ACCA program since Juliana Engberg’s appointment as Artistic Director in 2002 has been very inclusive of female artists. Destiny Deacon was curated into New ’05, by guest curator Max Delaney. Destiny comes from the Torres Strait Islands. High profile Aboriginal artist, Tracey Moffat was also included in a group show, Cinema Paradiso (2007). The art of Australia’s prolific indigenous artists has been almost entirely overlooked within this period (2002-2015).

‘The ACCA (building) provides us with a cultural and architectural mirror which others can view. It is architecture that suggests here is a society of aggressive enlightenment, inventive, challenging, curious and resistant to conservative temptations of safety and provisional attitudes.’
  Norman Day, The Age, 16 September 2002.

 The ACCA building gets a big wrap, but we need to address the politics of inclusion and exclusion within Australian culture, and at ACCA, a key organisation with ‘Australian in its title.

One of the many roles of an artist is to stimulate thought and action. Which is why Richard Bell is among the most significant activist/arts practitioners working in Australia today.

 There’s much for us to think of and act upon here. Arts funding issues are just part of the politics presently playing out within government arts institutions around Australia.

Franco Belgiorno-Nettis

Franco Belgiorno-Nettis

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and friends

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and friends

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis business card

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis business card

Guido Belgiorno-Nettis and friend

Guido Belgiorno-Nettis and friend

NSW Minister for the Arts, George Souris

NSW Minister for the Arts, George Souris

I imagine things being different to this

I imagine things being different to this

Tamas Kaszas (Hungary), Shanty Tower, 2013-2014

Tamas Kaszas (Hungary) Shanty Tower, 2013-2014

Unattributed artwork at AGNSW

Unattributed artwork at AGNSW

Kay Campbell Executive Director ACCA and partner Juliana Engberg former Artistic Director ACCA  with Gerda Steiner and Jorg Lenzlinger (19th Biennale Sydney)

Kay Campbell (Executive Director ACCA) and partner Juliana Engberg (former Artistic Director ACCA) with Gerda Steiner and Jorg Lenzlinger (19th Biennale Sydney 2014)

Richard Bell and Shane Murray

Richard Bell and Shane Murray

Richard Bell with some young friends

Richard Bell with some young friends