Junk Modern Mish Mash Horror

Art Life , Op-ed Mar 15, 2004 No Comments

Is it “junk”, “modern mish-mash” and “the product of a sick mind” or an astutely curated collection that snared many works by the now famous artists Patricia Piccinini, Tracey Moffatt, Howard Arkley and Bill Henson?

So began Lauren Martin’s story on the “revolt” by Federal MPs over the Parliament House art collection. It was the ‘feel good’ story of the week – if only because it made you feel vindicated in your prejudices that conservative MPs were hankering for the days of Hans Heysen and that gallerist Darren Knight is a good bloke.

As Martin continued:

Either way, the future of the $85 million Parliament House art collection has been cast into doubt, with MPs considering proposals to curb purchases of works by emerging artists, stop temporary exhibitions, cut staff and hire a part-time corporate art curator. After Government backbenchers’ complaints that there were not enough “traditional” landscapes on offer to decorate their offices, the former National Gallery of Australia director Betty Churcher was engaged to review the collection last year.

Her report went to MPs just before Christmas, with a covering note from the Speaker of the House, Neil Andrew, and President of the Senate, Paul Calvert, highlighting the idea for a program to commission artists “to celebrate important events in Australia’s history. Mrs. Churcher also suggested compiling an “alternative” collection of reproductions of works from the Australian War Memorial and National Library. The review would ditch the policy of collecting living artists, preferably on “first sale” so that funds contribute to artists’ livelihoods.

The presiding officers say scrapping this rule would allow the acquisition of “appropriate historic Australian works. Proceeds from the Parliament House shop – about $100,000 a year – fund the acquisitions. A Sydney gallery owner, Darren Knight, said: “That is certainly in keeping with the mindset of this Government –it’s really backward-looking.”

Ah, it makes the heart feel glad.

The SMH had found a “glass artist” from Canberra who had experienced the unfamiliar tingle of cash after a vase had been purchased for the collection from her Canberra School of Art graduating show, while Tolarno Galleries Jan Minchin pointed out that Patricia Piccinini’s Psychogeography had “appreciated about 1000 per cent since [the purchase]”.

“I love colonial paintings but they were purchased when those were the significant artists of their time,” Ms. Minchin said.

“Mrs. Churcher surveyed more than 100 MPs or their staff, who were divided between enthusiasts for the collection – which ranges from portraits of explorers to Wedgewood china to cutting edge photography – and those who “passionately opposed” the way that it represented Australia.”

We are truly living in an era of wild claims. First you have conservative MPs claiming that the Parliament Collection “represents” something, then we’ve got Jan Minchin claiming that Piccinini’s work is worth 1000 per cent more than when it was bought (that can’t be right, can it?) and that paintings by colonial masters were purchased when they were “significant”! If that last claim were true, then Heysen and all the rest would have been significant in the late 1980s… So much for Juan Davila eh?

Andrew Frost

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