Adios Amigo

Art Life , News Feb 13, 2004 No Comments

Quirky Irishman Dr. Brian Kennedy announced on Monday that he would not be seeking a renewal of his contract at the National Gallery of Australia. After seven years, he’s out and heading back to Europe or perhaps New York, depending on who gets back to him first.

Writing on the departure of the director in The Sydney Morning Herald, Joyce Morgan’s article Director Painted Into A Corner noted the following reactions to Kennedy’s announcement:

“Notable by its absence is any statement from the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Daryl Williams, who took over from Richard Alston last September.”

Morgan speculates that there was no political advantage for Williams to go into bat for Kennedy and persuade him to stay.

What role Williams played in Kennedy’s departure is unclear. What is clear is that with Alston no longer holding the arts portfolio, Kennedy’s prime support base had gone. Williams had no history with Kennedy. He didn’t appoint him or reappoint him in 2001 – Alston did. So why would he die in a ditch for him?”

That is overstating the case somewhat. Alston, the former Minister for The Arts and Communications, had little interest in the arts, stating plainly at the launch of the Ovation channel back in 1998 that he was more interested in cricket and while the audience had thought he was joking, he regaled the crowd with tales of great cricket games past. Maybe he was really serious?

Alston’s indifference to his portfolio was demonstrated further by the complete lack of an actual arts policy during his tenure. As late as 2001, the Liberal party platform was in fact a slightly restructured version of the Labor Party’s Creative Nation policy from the Keating years.

Alston’s only real involvement with Kennedy would have been the political management of that appointment. The director’s reappointment would have had little, if anything, to do with the way Kennedy had actually performed his job. Isn’t a heavy handed approach to your employees the Liberal way? When Kennedy was in strife with his staff over the NGA’s antiquated air conditioning system, wasn’t Peter Reith training commandos in Dubai to take over the wharves? Alston can hardly have been bothered with such piddling problems as a staff dispute that would have been the responsibility of a ministerial colleague anyway, say, the Honorable Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service?

As to the interest or lack of by the current minister for the arts, Daryl Williams (whose almost brain dead performances in parliament and in the media have earned him the nickname “Dazzling Daryl” from colleagues) is about par for the course for an arts minister in a Liberal government. Can you remember anything Williams has said about anything since he took over the post from Alston? And come to that – what was the last thing Alston said about the arts, rather than just screwing up digital media legislation?

The true mark of Kennedy’s tenure as the director of the NGA was his complete subservience to his political masters – no other director had ever sought permission from a minister for permission to stage a show. Given the prevailing climate of deep conservatism perhaps it was wise to give Alston a heads up on Sensation, the show that featured elephant shit, serial child killers faces constructed from kid’s hand prints and god knows what else. It might have been as bad as the Andreas Serano Piss Christ all over again.

The cancellation of Sensation is one of only two things Kennedy will be remembered for, not so much for the fact that it deprived Australians the chance to see a show that has gone on to be one of the most historically significant exhibitions of the last ten years, but the entirely spurious reasons for canning it. At the time, Kennedy claimed that the owner of the art in the show, one Charles Saatchi, would gain unfair commercial advantage when he came to resell the works, that exhibiting them at the National Gallery would “add value” to them. Thus, the NGA would drive the traders from the temple of art and rescue us from unclean commerce.

It was bullshit, obviously. Sponsorship is the name of the game staging exhibitions; corporations, hoping for a nice plus to their brands through association with classy art, museums defraying costs with cash from sponsors – everyone is happy. Although Saatchi did in fact own the work, so many exhibitions past ,present and future are all owned by somebody – be they loans from public institutions or private collections – that any value add is simply what happens when you stage an exhibition and promote it in the media. You don’t expect the value of the art to go down do you?

We may never know what Kennedy’s real reasons were for canceling the show, but there is one other legacy of his tenure – the purchase of David Hockney’s A Bigger Grand Canyon.

The press coverage of the time concentrated on the fact that the painting cost $1 million – eerily reminiscent of the purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles by the Whitlam Government. Kennedy argued that the Blue Poles purchase had been a good one and rightly pointed out that it was worth much more now and, besides, it was key work and was what he called a “destination piece” – the kind of painting that will be a draw card on its own. A Bigger Grand Canyon would that kind of painting he said.

While there is no real objection to paying $1 million for a work of art – a benchmark for serious art in the international market – Hockney is an artist way past his prime. The last time he produced anything of real interest was back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he gave up painting and concentrated on photography. His most significant body of work was in the late 1960s, a prime example of English Pop, and it was his A Bigger Splash from 1967 that became his iconic work. It may be that Hockney, a brilliant colourist, will have his more recent work reassessed by future historians who will come to consider it great. But gambling a million bucks on a future bet is hardly the way to spend the little money the NGA has on “destination works” that few agree were that great in the first place.

Aside from the dodgy renovation job on the NGA’s front door and appointing John McDonald, that is the sum of Kennedy’s seven years as director.

The Art Life

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