Scandals from the Art Gallery of New South Wales

While holidaying at the beach recently, I began daydreaming. Without too much thought (and no research what so ever), a list of exposés and scandals were pieced together in my minds eye, regarding one state funded Australian art gallery. The Art Gallery of New South Wales. Scandals so salacious, you feel like you’ve been watching another Four Corners episode on the Queensland Police Force.

Whilst there is clearly strong community identity and pride built up round this key arts organisation, there are dark and undeniable issues lurking round the galleries too. Work relations, gender equity, proposed expansion, the role of volunteers within arts organizations, looted Indian treasures, the relationship between arts philanthropy and power and an annual art prize that garners strong media interest, but has been the basis for the ascent of some of our more questionable art heroes.

  1. Volunteer Gate:

It’s a big mistake for a recently appointed Gallery Director to get said Gallery’s free labor force offside. Volunteers (or ‘people willing to work for free’) are dangerous, because you can’t leverage their need of a pay cheque against them. Volunteers run much of the art sector because, despite all the money sloshing around everywhere you look, arts organisations claim to have none. Volunteers have often been at an art organisation longer than those in charge, so they can identify the difference between what is said to be going on, and what’s really going on. And (perhaps most troubling) what has gone on. Sometimes volunteers could run an arts organisation more efficiently than the highly trained professionals employed to run the place, and they’ll tell you that too if you stand at the counter long enough.

It’s a tightrope relationship, the relationship between paid and unpaid labor forces, I can tell you. Especially when the unpaid laborers are posh, well connected, proud, and willing to ring the media if they feel they aren’t being treated in a suitable manner for an unpaid labor force. They also fundraise lucratively for the gallery and it’s common sense that you treat people giving you money with respect. Common sense doesn’t seem high on the list of core goals at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the conflict is spilling out into the public domain:

Relations between the Art Gallery of NSW and its volunteers and supporters have deteriorated, with gallery management accused of undermining the Art Gallery Society. The society’s outgoing executive director Judith White said the society’s independence was under threat as cultural institutions “face a tidal wave of corporatisation and commercialisation”.  In her farewell speech delivered on Monday to an audience that included former NSW governor Marie Bashir and the ICAC inspector David Levine, White said she was also horrified to discover there were plans to start charging schools for tours that gallery volunteers had provided free for more than 40 years.

“That is the antithesis of what the gallery has been about since Premier Neville Wran abolished the turnstiles,” she said.

  1. Megaplex Gate AKA Sydney Modern:

Michael Brand wants to put an extension on the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He’s named the extension Sydney Modern. Everyone still wants to be modern; postmodern never even rates a mention. In Sydney, they love property development more than they love art so that’s a good start. I think it’s all the jobs building sites generate. For Gallery Directors, having a major building project under your belt is the optimum way to flesh out the old CV before heading out, onwards and upwards, to the next exciting place one’s career might take one. As Michael has arrived for work each day at the AGNSW, he’s noted the huge expanse of vacant land available for extending his building. It’s a public park, but hey, his Gallery is still public too, so there shouldn’t be any problems. Except, not everyone is simpatico with Michael and his reno idea. It’s a career-limiting move to get on the wrong side of popular former Prime Ministers. There is no former Prime Minister more popular than Paul Keating (not even Kevin Rudd, who is probably funnier in a Dada kind of way).

Remember when Paul Keating called Australia a “banana republic”, that was tropical, I mean topical. 4 mins, Listening to politicians talk about art is one of life’s more perverse pleasures, it’s so terrifically revealing. Here Paul talks about art and music and getting the imagination moving onto the bigger plane, before heading into the office.

Mr Keating said of the extension idea: “the revenue-generating private functions pavilions, was about “money, not art”. Decoded, Brand is telling us he proposes to build a large entertainment and special events complex masquerading as an art gallery.”

“Brand has spent most of his term in office constructing a gigantic spoof against the civic core of Sydney’s most public and important open space” Mr Keating writes.

 Brand thinks if he can push the system hard enough and with a bit of luck, sucker the government into the funding, his mega-dream can become a reality. Sydneysiders need to be vigilant in defending their open space from this completely unreasonable assault.”

Sydneysiders love fighting over public land, and property developments, especially if there are views of water involved. In April last year Keating told ABC Radio 702 listeners that Brand is “just another property tart” over the Sydney Modern project.

But Keating has been instrumental in facilitating a gift of public land at Barangaroo to James Packer for another Casino. Casinos stretch the idea of the ‘common good’ or the ‘public interest’ to breaking point (with or without pokies) so maybe we shouldn’t be listening too hard to Paul Keating after all. He does give excitingly honest ‘off the cuff interviews’. It’s a plus when any politician ventures off-script, even a former one.

In October, Mr Brand told The Australian Financial Review: “The function room has to be in a nice position, so you have views over Woolloomooloo perhaps, and it needs to be separate from the galleries so that when it’s being set up, it doesn’t disturb visitors. But it also needs to feel like it is part of an art gallery, so it can’t be too remote”.

Excerpt from AGNSW Annual Report, 2014-2015


Sydney Modern Project Architectural Competition:

In May 2015, the Gallery was delighted to announce that, after a major design competition, award-winning Tokyo- based architectural practice, SANAA, led by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, was unanimously selected by a jury to work with the Gallery to design the Sydney Modern Project – an extraordinary opportunity to expand and transform one of the State’s leading cultural institutions.

Feasibility planning and the international architecture competition have been enabled by $10.8 million provided in the NSW State Government 2014/15 Budget. The Government has also provided an additional $4 million in its 2015/16 Budget to the Gallery for the Initial Engagement Phase of the project (May 2015 to June 2016) and I wish to thank the Government for this crucial support at such an important stage of the Gallery’s history.

Philanthropy and Corporate Partnerships:

John Richardson joined the Executive team as the Director of Development with oversight of philanthropy, business development and the Art Gallery of New South Wales Foundation. He has established a Sydney Modern Capital Campaign Committee and a Capital Campaign Team to support our Sydney Modern Vision. Under John’s leadership, a more holistic approach to philanthropy and corporate partnership management has been developed. Additionally, the Gallery invested in a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system to support our relationships with stakeholders and to assist with the expansion of our stakeholder base.

I am delighted to foreshadow that we are finalising two major bequests to the Art Gallery of New South Wales Foundation. They will be the largest and second largest bequests in the history of the Foundation and will make the Foundation one of the largest art acquisition funds in the country.

We have also improved the Gallery’s overall financial position since last year by curtailing discretionary costs and increasing non-Government revenue.

 The AGNSW’s ‘Looking at Overseas Art Building Extensions’ Itinery:

“From the 7-11/08/2014, Michael Brand visited USA for Sydney Modern: Spend one day of significant intensive meetings with Kathryn Gustafson, a crucial international jury member for the Sydney Modern Project design competition. Attend a meeting with Kim Rorschach, Director of the Seattle Art Museum, and view exhibitions and the architecture at the EMP Museum in Seattle.

“From 3-15/03/2015, Michael Brand visited Thailand, Japan, France, Netherlands and Hong Kong to view selected completed buildings of the five shortlisted architectural practices for the Sydney Modern Project.

“From 25/03/2015-16/04/2015 John Wicks, Director of Finance and Commercial Operations at AGNSW, visited Singapore, UK and USA to attend the US Museum Corporate Directors Conference at the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona. Visit galleries which have recently built extensions in Singapore, UK and the USA to facilitate the development of the Sydney Modern business case and structuring the future commercial model for the Gallery”.

You cannot make this stuff up.

  1. Loot Gate:

Over a ten year period, from ‘94-’04, the AGNSW was duped into buying 4 sculptures and 2 paintings from Subhash Kapoor. Five of these works of art had no provenance whatsoever. Anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Fake or Fortune knows what provenance means. Provenance means everything. Unfortunately, gallery staff must have been out to business dinner when the program about provenance was on. The expensive and embarrassing mistake of accidently buying looted treasures from another country for the state collection, points to some well paid public servants being asleep at the wheel. Museums have an obligation to due diligence, and luckily, current Director Michael Brand has introduced a more rigorous acquisition policy for the gallery, more in keeping with World’s Best Practice, and it’s not a moment too soon. Four Corners pointed out that former Director Edmund Capon and Jackie Menzies, then Head of Asian Art, were shafted by the same man, in the same way as Robyn Maxwell and Ron Radford over at the Australian National Gallery (the looted Dancing Shiva cost taxpayer’s $5.6 million, and has now been returned). 46 minutes

In explanation of how the Art Gallery of New South Wales could have been tricked into buying art looted from Hindu Temples, Michael Brand says Subhash Kapoor ‘was a plausible dealer who had a street presence in New York. He comes across as quite a normal person, apart from  one half of one ear being missing. (the ear was bitten off by his kidnapper, when he was a child, long story, but Subash’s dad stole and traded in stolen antiquities too. It seems he inherited the family business).

Jackie Menzies was appointed by Edmund Capon in 1980, but had her position as head of Asian Art was ‘deleted’ in 2013 by Michael Brand.

Jackie is now a Tour Guide Leader for Renaissance Tours. From 1979 to 2012 (as Head of Asian Art at AGNSW), she curated many exhibitions, and contributed to scholarly catalogues on Asian Art. She is responsible for several significant Asian exhibitions at AGNSW, including ‘INDIA: Dancing to the Flute’ (1997), ‘BUDDHA: Radiant Awakening (2001)’ and ‘GODDESS: Divine Energy (2006)’. Jackie has written and lectured extensively on Asian art and culture. She was President of the Asian Arts Society from 1980 to 1990, and Founding Director of VisAsia, the Australian Institute of Asian Art and Culture. She has led several tours to different Asian countries, including India, a country she loves.

  1. Undeniably Systemic Sexism Gate:

If you were to describe the Art Gallery of New South Wales as a ‘Boy’s Club’, you couldn’t be sued. The truth is a valid defense. Your description of this state funded institution as an outdated mode of ‘Boy’s Club’ would be based more in Realism than Surrealism. Since opening in 1892, the gallery has never had a female Director. I don’t know what they have against the idea of a woman being in charge, but they can’t cop it. Or they haven’t so far. The Board of Trustees are the dudes who appoint all the male Directors. Nobody on the Board of Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales must have read the document below about advancing women in senior management positions within the public sector:—diversity/equity—diversity/advancing-women.

Advancing Women: Increasing the participation of women in senior roles in the NSW public sector (PDF 1.4MB)

There are women on the Board of Trustees; a smattering of carefully selected women. You can tell that to be a woman sitting on the Board of Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales would be lonely. There would be no one to talk to about women’s issues. Like maybe exhibiting some female art in their public facility.

Everyone who works in public art galleries is a public servant and it is the job of all public servants, to serve all of the public, and not just the male public. Even art curators and art gallery directors of public galleries are public servants. Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for us, there are strict rules covering the public service.—diversity/equity-diversity

 Gee the Art Gallery of New South Wales owns and exhibits a lot of art made by men. Perhaps this is hardly surprising given it’s always been men who run the place. It’s like the Art Gallery of New South Wales is saying to society men are better artists than women. They’re saying Men run Art Galleries better than women do. You’d think this would be against their charter of Governance or something, but it’s rarely mentioned in mainstream media. The list below is from Wikipedia, and I know, Wikipedia slants history toward men too, but here is what women artists in Australia are up against. A whole lot of public money is being used to maintain the reputations of a whole lot of male artists (for example 28 men highlighted below, against 2 women). And some of these male legends aren’t even that good!

Australian Art – The collection dates from the early 1800s, and includes many iconic paintings and sculpture from the annals of Australian art history. 19th-century Australian artists represented include: John Glover, Arthur Streeton, Eugene von Guerard, John Russell, Tom Roberts, David Davies, Charles Conder, William Piguenit, E. Phillips Fox (including Nasturtiums), Frederick McCubbin, Sydney Long and George W. Lambert.

20th-century Australian artists represented include: Arthur Boyd, Rupert Bunny, Grace Cossington Smith, H. H. Calvert, William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, James Gleeson, Sidney Nolan, John Olsen, Margaret Preston, Hugh Ramsay, Lloyd Rees, Imants Tillers, J. W. Tristram, Roland Wakelin, Brett Whiteley, Fred Williams and Blamire Young.

Just when the feminist rewrite of art history is going to kick in is questionable, but we can hardly wait. The resistance to gender equality is alive and well in Australia and utilises many of the stalling tactics so effectively used by the tobacco industry, to resist common sense.    

When the entire Collections of art in State organisations (like the Art Gallery of New South Wales) are digitised online, it will enable us to finally count the gender bias within these art collections. That will form the basis of the class action mounted by female artists against gender discrimination. On behalf of women artists past and present. For loss of income, lack of opportunity, lack of preservation. Any government organisation with an equal opportunities policy can have that policy used to gain better outcomes for women within the organisation. Because everyone loses in a sexist society.

 In 2008, the AGNSW purchased Paul Cézanne’s painting Bords de la Marne c1888 for $16.2 million – the highest amount paid by the Gallery for a work of art. I like Cezanne, but this acquisition doesn’t make me happy. I think of all the incredible artworks by Australian based female artists that that money could have bought instead. Do we support another dead French Master, or local gender equity in the Arts? Correct a long neglected and overlooked area of injustice, or further the legend of another man from a long way away.

In 2008 the NSW Government announced a grant of $25.7 million to construct an offsite storage facility to house a whole lot of art made by men. The gift of the John Kaldor Family Collection to the Gallery was announced. Valued at over $35 million, it comprised some 260 works representing the history of international male contemporary art:

2 works by women artists, 194 works by male artists and 6 works by collaborators.

And so the injustice continues. They’re spending public money rolling out this tired, lame assed old man shit. You can’t tell me, if it’s public money being used to prop up a male ego art charade, that there’s not a legal challenge that can be mounted. Given state institutions are regulated by gender equity policies and regulations, that the state galleries aren’t breaking their own rules. Gender equity in art galleries is not only about who’s working in the office preserving and presenting art. It’s also about who’s hanging on the walls, whose contribution is being preserved in the collection, who is going down in history.

 What blockbuster exhibitions can we see at the Art Gallery of New South Wales now? Drum roll please, The Greats: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland continues the long and healthy tradition of doing what Art History does best. Delete Women. I have no respect for a discipline that continues to marginalize women artists. Here’s the illustrious list of Great artists (we love how easily men describe each other as Great!) we can see once we’ve paid the $22 entrance fee: Botticelli, Leonardo, Cezanne, El Greco, Gauguin, Monet, Poussin, Raphael, Rubens, Titian, Turner, Vermeer.

  1. Archibald Gate

Speaking of gender equity issues in Australian Art, of the 94 winners of the Archibald, just 10 wins have been claimed by a female artist. 84 Archibald prizes have been bestowed upon the firm male hand. An Archibald Prize win has been the basis for the ascent of more than a couple of questionable art careers. We’ll leave out the names, but we all know to whom I refer. Portraiture puts a smile on the public’s dial, everyone likes looking at the heads of our rich and famous and powerful. The Art Gallery of New South Wales loves the Archibald Prize almost as much as the press loves covering it. The Archibald Prize reassures everyone that the Art Gallery of New South Wales is popular and relevant to all the public, not just the old white male public.

William Dobell first won the Archibald in 1943. Two artists (whom he’d fairly and squarely beat) were so pissed off with his winning ‘caricature’ of fellow artist Joshua Smith, they became litigious. They unsuccessfully sued the Trustees of the AGNSW and Dobell himself proving, once again, that some artists have no sense of humour whatsoever.

This is a fun story apart from the fact that Dobell wasn’t like Warhol at all. Warhol rightly believed there’s no such thing as bad press, you shouldn’t even read reviews, just measure their column inches. The longer the better. Dobell got all messed up in the head from the ‘scandal’, even though he won the court case. He did a tree change to protect his wounded creative spirit, continued to paint and be a famous Art Star, but was never to marry. The best thing a painter can do before they rollover for the last time, is to get themselves an attractive, tenacious widow to leave their Estate to. A woman with a one-eyed belief in the product, I mean painting, and his brilliance. A woman to further public and institutional interest in the artist’s ghost, I mean work. Lyn Williams is held up as Industry Standard best practice here, so look and learn my sisters.

If you need proof that the Australian Art Pond is a very small pond indeed, then here it is. When William Dobell carked it, he left his estate, not to a pretty wife and kids as he should have, but to a foundation made up of businessman. One of whom was the former chair of AGNSW Board of Trustee’s, Guido Belgiorno-Nettis’ dad, Franco Belgiorno-Nettis. Franco loved art, set up the Sydney Biennale and had 3 boys (one of whom he fell out with, so if you were writing a saga biopic on the Belgiorno-Nettis’, then the eldest son that got paid out after the court case, Marco Belgiorno-Zegna, would be an early port of call).

The company Franco set up, Transfield, and its sponsorship relationship with the Sydney Biennial, and the huge profits reaped from the offshore detention of those seeking asylum in Australia has received such poor publicity, that Transfield Services has now rebranded to Broadspectrum. Their share price is volatile, due largely to the efforts of anti detention lobbyists No Business in Abuse, who are successfully lobbying institutional investors to divest from the company (HESTA, UniSuper and NGS Super have all sold their holdings). Maybe it is true that the market never gets it wrong!

Back to William Dobell. In his day, Dobell’s work commanded bigger prices than Nolan or Drysdale or Fred Williams. Today, interest and prices in Dobell’s work has flat-lined. Many people in art like to maintain the pretense that we’ve nothing in common with the retail sector, but this farce can come apart in a heartbeat. How the shop containing your art presents, and how it is managed, is of premium concern to an artist, even after they’re dead. You want for there to be the allure of exclusivity, rarity, and strong cultural significance. The remnants from Dobell’s studio, 100 paintings and hundreds of gouaches and sketches, were sold by his executors (one of whom was Transfield’s Franco Belgiorno-Nettis) in two big public auctions. One by Christie’s in 1971, and a larger second sale at the Sydney Opera House, run by Sotheby’s, their first sale in Australia, and third single-artist sale anywhere in the world. That’s how well regarded William Dobell once was.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that if it looks like a Stock Take Liquidation sale: Ladies and Gentlemen! Everything must go today! Maybe that’s not in the best interest of an artist’s legacy, but this is what Franco and his mates did to the estate of Dobell. Proving, fairly and squarely, that sometimes businessmen don’t understand art, or don’t know as much about art as they think they know. Great art is not just another commodity to be traded. Is it?

Source: Katrina Strickland Affairs of the Art: Love, Loss and Power in the Art World 2013  p132-138

Public space versus Megaplex gate

Public space versus Megaplex gate

Michael Brand with a winning model

Gallery Director Michael Brand with a modern Sydney Modern  model

Michael Brand laughs with architects from SANAA and... Ben Quilty?

Board member and former larrikin Ben Quilty, laughs about how much concrete will be required to cover the Gardens: “Me mate Gazzo from The Maggots’ is a concreter!”

Michael Brand under the streamers

Michael Brand under the streamers

Gallery facade and a dude on a horse, this is war

Gallery facade and a dude on a horse: This is war

Bianca Hester and a Franco Belgiorno-Nettis

Bianca Hester and a bronze ghost of Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, forever hovering over Sydney art

Painting of Marco Belgiorno Zegna

Filippa Buttitta Marco and the Ideal City 2013 (Marco Belgiorno-Zegna AM: the heir who took his family to court)

Franco's son Guido, Chair of the Board of Trustee's AGNSW

Franco Belgiorno-Nettis’ son Guido, former Chair of the Board of Trustee’s AGNSW

Guido Belgiorno-Nettis, Michael Brand pops up and friend

Guido Belgiorno-Nettis with a young friend, Michael Brand chaperones

Former Director Edmund Capon, smiling

Former Director Edmund Capon, smiling

Edmund Capon didn't want to talk about acquisition policies

Former Director Edmund Capon didn’t want to talk about acquisition policies

Home of the Archibald

Home of the Archibald Prize

Artist William Dobell

Artist William Dobell

William Dobell, Portrait of Joshua Smith 1943

William Dobell, Portrait of Joshua Smith 1943

William Dobell, Sir Robert Menzies 1960

William Dobell, Sir Robert Menzies 1960

New art, Old art: It's all by men

New art, Old art: It’s all by men

Raphael, Titian, Koons and Judd

Raphael, Titian, Koons and Judd

Views over the water

Views over the water