2014: The Year in Art

January 10, 2015
Roy Lichtenstein, 'In the Car', 1963.
Roy Lichtenstein, 'In the Car', 1963.

2014 has brought mixed fortunes for Sydney’s art institutions. The Art Gallery of NSW began with a weak show of American art, and ended with the long-awaited Pop to Popism (until 1 March) – a distinct improvement, but possibly not the hit the Gallery so badly needs. In the meantime there has been a dearth of exhibitions and a surfeit of internal unrest. The annual report showed attendances, revenues and benefactions in decline. Looming over everything is the shadow of Sydney Modern, the AGNSW’s proposed extension that – for a mere $450 million – will deliver twice as much exhibition space at twice the cost. For 2015 the only way is up.

Happily the Gallery can always rely on the Archibald Prize, as a reliable drawcard. Fiona Lowry’s portrait of Penelope Seidler was a predictable winner for everyone but the betting agencies, who blunder into this contest like mug punters. The only controversy this time was that the standard of work seemed marginally better. If this trend continues the Archibald’s reputation will be ruined.

By contrast with the AGNSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art had a very good year. It began with a slightly daffy survey by the seriously daffy Yoko One, and ended with an excellent show by Chuck Close (until 15 March). Along the way there have been strong exhibitions by Japanese animator, Tabaimo, and French artist, Annette Messager.

Without doubt the disappointment of the year was the Sydney Biennale – by almost universal agreement a dull, complacent selection that only generated a little heat when Luca Beligiorno-Nettis of Transfield was forced off the board by grandstanding artists. The entire affair should be a black mark on the record of director, Juliana Engberg, but I expect it will be written up as a triumph on her C.V.

The unsung success of 2014 was the photographic festival, Head On, which saw over 100 exhibitions held in Sydney from May–June. This event has been a sleeping monster that is growing every year.

One entity that never disappoints is White Rabbit, the Neilson family’s privately owned museum of Chinese contemporary art, which hosted two exhibitions: Reformation, and Commune (until 1 Feb.). All the WR shows are drawn from the gallery’s permanent holdings, but that collection is expanding so rapidly there is always something new and startling to be seen. It should be an obligatory stop for visitors to Sydney.

The best survey of contemporary Australian art wasn’t held in Sydney, but in Adelaide. Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Nick Mitzevich, took over the curatorial duties for Dark Heart: the 2014 Adelaide Biennial. The display was so well designed it flattered every participant, with a particular highlight being a room featuring a large, multi-panelled painting of an island by Ben Quilty, and a set of marble life-jackets by Alex Seton.

Alex Seton, 'Someone died trying to have a life like mine', installation view. AGSA

Alex Seton, ‘Someone died trying to have a life like mine’, (installation view). AGSA

For international exhibitions a special mention goes to the Bendigo Art Gallery, which hosted two unique shows: Genius and Ambition: The Royal Academy of Arts, and The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece. Either of these would have been a blockbuster at the AGNSW. Instead they showed what may be achieved by a regional gallery with a little initiative and a supportive council.

Bendigo has roughly a quarter of the population of Newcastle, which should be a flagship for all regional galleries. It was fulfilling this role nicely under the capable directorship of Ron Ramsey, until Mayor, Jeff McCloy, decided the gallery didn’t need an extension or a director. As Mr. McCloy has now resigned from office, following a memorable appearance before the ICAC, one hopes that Newcastle can get back on track.

The other art institution that needs to be reinvented is the National Gallery of Australia, which has seen the retirement of director, Ron Radford, whose final year was marred by the ongoing scandal about the gallery’s dealings with discredited Indian art dealer, Subash Kapoor, that resulted in the very public return of a multi-million dollar sculpture of the dancing Shiva. Incoming director, Gerard Vaughan, should be a stabilising influence.

2014 saw the loss of many important artists, including Richard Larter, Robert Jacks, Robert Hunter, and very recently, Philip Martin. Now begins the important work of organising retrospectives. In the case of Robert Jacks, the National Gallery of Victoria has already achieved this feat (until 15 Feb.) although it is scandalous that the show will not be travelling to NSW, where Jacks spent a significant part of his career. This lack of co-operation between public galleries is an ongoing blight that never seems to get any better, even as directors and trustees keep changing.

Finally, as the commercial gallery scene struggles through another difficult year, Sydney’s oldest continuing dealership, Watters Gallery, has celebrated its 50th anniversary, with co-founders Frank Watters, Geoffrey and Alex Legge still at the helm. In an art scene that has been undergoing seismic shifts, partly caused by unsympathetic policies of successive governments, Watters has been a monument of stability.

Art and Politics:

Artists who protested about Transfield’s involvement in managing refugee detention centres and threatened to withdraw from the Sydney Biennale, took a stand ‘on principle’ that sent a clear message to potential sponsors: ‘If we don’t like what you do we reserve the right to humiliate you.’ To be consistent the artists should have demanded the refusal of Australia Council funds, as this provides the Biennale’s direct link with the Federal government. When the philanthropic dollar is already so hard to secure the protest was a cavalier gesture.

My way:

Going it alone seems to be an increasingly popular model for wealthy art collectors, with David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, and Judith Neilson’s White Rabbit leading the way. Then there is the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, the Besen family’s TarraWarra Museum of Art, and various smaller establishments. Is the rise of the private museum an implicit indictment of the public institutions?

Middle of the journey:

Mid-career is a make or break time for artists, so it was pleasing that regional galleries are devoting space to artists who are no longer ‘emerging’, but not yet iconic. Mosman Art Gallery led the way with a brilliant survey of Lucy Culliton’s work, while Manly Art Gallery and Museum did the honours for Joshua Yeldham. Older artists to get surveys included Bill Brown and George Gittoes.

Fair trade:

For better or worse, art fairs are changing the global landscape of the art market. Commercial galleries report declining attendances as collectors save their money for a trip to Basel, or Miami or Hong Kong, where they can take a holiday and buy art from anywhere in the world. The Melbourne Art Fair is a more modest enterprise but reported encouraging results in its new, rebranded state.

Fashion Shows:

At the end of 2014, three of the nation’s major public galleries are holding fashion shows: Fashion Icons at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Future Beauty at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, and Jean-Paul Gaultier at the National Gallery of Victoria. Is it a passing trend, or is fashion here to stay as a vital component of gallery programming? Attendances may decide.