The Dance of Shiva

July 13, 2013
Shiva as Lord of the Dance [Nataraja], 11th-12th century, Tamil Nadu, India, Sculpture, bronze Technique: lost-wax casting, 128.5 h x 106.0 w x 40.0 d cm
Shiva as Lord of the Dance [Nataraja], 11th-12th century, Tamil Nadu, India, Sculpture, bronze Technique: lost-wax casting, 128.5 h x 106.0 w x 40.0 d cm

How truly ‘public’ are our public galleries? The recent scandal over the millions of dollars paid by the National Gallery of Australia to the crooked art dealer, Subash Kapoor, has demonstrated a complete lack of transparency in the way our flagship art institution spends the money it receives from taxpapers and wealthy donors.

When James Mollison bought Blue Poles for what was then a record sum of US$2 million (AUD $1.3 million) in 1973, Gough Whitlam chose to disclose the price, even though it went against his political advice. In the ensuing uproar the painting was held up as an example of the wilful extravagance of the Whitlam government. Forty years later, US$2 million seems like a bargain, especially as the work would undoubtedly fetch more than US$100 million if it went to auction today.

One can only admire Gough’s courage in comparison to the way the NGA have handled the current crisis. When the accusations first surfaced that a statue of Shiva Nataraj may have been looted, NGA Director Ron Radford announced that he would set up an investigating committee, including himself; curators Robyn Maxwell and Melanie Eastburn; lawyer Shane Simpson, and international members, but he refused to disclose the identities of the latter. By May 31, the NGA was also refusing to identify 20 other items acquired from Kapoor.

The Australian initially claimed that the NGA paid US$2 million for the dancing Shiva. By early June, it became clear that the purchase price was US$5.1 million, and that the $2 million had been only a downpayment. Meanwhile the Chasing Aphrodite website reported on 4 June that the NGA had “refused to respond” to a formal request for information from Indian officials. It also pointed out that “as a member of the International Council of Museums the NGA is bound by a code of ethics that requires it to be open about its collection.”

In the most recent installment in this ongoing train wreck, in The Australian, 6-7 July, Michaela Boland writes that Ron Radford has refused more than 15 requests for an interview.

So many refusals, so much stone-walling. What does it achieve? The Shiva and other artifacts are either looted or they are not. If the pieces have been removed from India illegally the NGA has no option but to return them. It would expedite matters if Radford and his team were to adopt an open approach because the longer this saga the continues the uglier it becomes.

The Shiva story continues a pattern set under Radford’s leadership of wishing to communicate only in press releases and announcements – such as the vainglorious boast that the NGA now has the “sixth finest” collection of Indian artifacts outside of the subcontinent – while avoiding awkward questions. There also seems to be zero tolerance for anybody who deviates from the gospel of the press release. Last year I found myself removed from the mailing list for three successive NGA exhibitions. Who needs a review anyhow? I was assured it was an oversight, but only began receiving invitations again after a quiet word with one of the trustees.

The stonewalling, and acts that may be interpreted as petty spite, demonstrate a contempt for the press and a lack of respect for the public. Such attitudes would be unacceptable in a privately-run corporation, but in a public gallery they are deadly.

The other peculiar part of the whole affair is the fervour the NGA has shown in the hunt for Indian art. I wouldn’t have thought the Australian public was desperate to see a massive collection of Indian artifacts in the ground floor galleries of the NGA. Even Indians do not come to Canberra to view Indian art. When they do, they are just as likely to feel indignant that these works have been removed from their rightful home.

The trade in artifacts and antiquities is a minefield for public galleries, being littered with fakes and phoney provenances such as the one supplied with the Shiva Nataraj. The NGA’s rapid acquisition of so many Indian pieces was a strange fad pursued with reckless abandon. Quite simply, these works are of dubious relevance to the permanent collection and the risks involved were not worth taking. This venture into subcontinental art shopping will end up costing the gallery millions of dollars while heaping embarrassment on the institution; the director; previous Head of Trustees, Rupert Myer; and wealthy patrons such as Ros Packer, who were convinced to donate funds for such purchases.

Should the Shiva and other works be proven to be looted, the only decent outcome is a full and frank mea culpa from the gallery and a commitment to greater transparency. It shouldn’t be that hard. Blue Poles may have helped bring down the Whitlam government, but the dancing Shiva can play a constructive role. The traditional symbolism of the work is that represents both the creation and destruction of the world. The statue might just be the catalyst that destroys the NGA’s insularity and creates a new relationship with the public.