Right Here Now

January 15, 2016
Jessie Pangas, 'House of Congress', 2015, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 91.5×91.5 cm. Courtesy the artist
Jessie Pangas, 'House of Congress', 2015, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 91.5×91.5 cm. Courtesy the artist

Regional galleries: the crisis that never ends. A few weeks ago I was invited to Canberra by the Museum of Democracy at Old Parliament House to view a show called Right Here Now: A Powerful Regional Voice in our Democracy. This event, which has been put together by freelance curators, Holly Williams, Ivan Muñiz Reed and Glenn Barkley, is conceived as a celebration of the vitality of the visual arts in “regional, rural and remote areas” of Australia.

The exhibition includes work from all six states and the Northern Territory, and features older, established artists acting as mentors for emerging practitioners. It’s a lively mix of indigenous and non-indigenous talent.

At this point cue a big sigh, because while regional arts are being celebrated in the nation’s capital they are being undermined by narrow-minded local councils in other parts of the country.

It probably started with Port Macquarie building a massive new arts centre, then deciding to save money by abolishing the position of gallery director. The catastrophe was advanced in Newcastle, during the reign of Mayor Jeff McCloy, a local property developer, who removed a very successful and popular gallery director in Ron Ramsey. The Mayor would meet his own Waterloo, following ICAC revelations that he had been handing money to NSW Members of Parliament, but the damage has yet to be repaired.

Now the blight has settled on Coffs Harbour where Leigh Summers has made the local gallery one of the most active venues in the state. She has attracted substantial private sponsorship around the Eutick Memorial Still Life Award (EMSLA), which I’ve been flying up to judge on an annual basis. She has also used EMSLA as the occasion for a festival that has featured musicians of the calibre of Elena Kats Chernin and Simon Tedeschi.

Summers’s reward has been to see her job taken away by a council that simply doesn’t understand what they are doing. The plan is to install a general manager of cultural services, sack gallery staff and give Summers the new role of “curator” – a title that will entail a substantial pay cut, in the unlikely event she decides to stay on for the next two years.

On Saturday more than 80 aggrieved locals attended a meeting where a Council representative with the rather wonderful name of Enzo Arcadia fended questions. I’ve read a partial transcript, which only confirms that none of the questions was adequately answered, and no plausible explanations advanced. It wasn’t Mr. Arcadia’s fault – he was merely the messenger.

The real problem is the astonishing ignorance of local councils to appreciate the benefits of a well-run regional gallery, which works not only as a tourist attraction but a powerful source of community-building and social cohesion. The gallery provides a reason for a substantial number of people to visit Coffs Harbour, stay at local hotels and eat at local restaurants. It gives local artists a venue to show their work, and to see work by artists from all over Australia. In Coffs Harbour it has fostered a large volunteer group, who are staunchly behind the current director.

The new plan is to put a “team leader” in charge of the gallery, library and museum, while Summers is expected to do all the things she’s been doing, as an underling. She would also have to pick up the tasks of the education officer and assistant, whose positions have been abolished.

The reasons for this radical manoeuvre are “financial and staff re-structuring” – which are not reasons at all but the typical smokescreen used for short-sighted policies the world over. It is another example of rampant managerialism which destroys proven success in the name of imaginary efficiencies. The usual outcome is that such processes cost more than they save, and kill off a valuable asset. Typically there was no community consultation before these momentous decisions were made.

Newcastle was cited by Mr. Arcadia as an example of such restructuring in action. But by dumping Ron Ramsey, and installing a general manager to take care of the art gallery, museum and theatre, Newcastle has disappeared off the cultural map. The greatest regional collection in the state now resides in a gallery that is a shadow of its former self – and this is the fate that awaits Coffs Harbour.

Nobody questions that a company needs a CEO, and a community needs a mayor, but for some reason the role of a gallery director seems superfluous to councillors who imagine their own lack of interest in art is shared by the voters. They should not be so complacent. It is the great virtue of a democracy that officers who fail their constituents may be turfed out at the next election.

Rather than write a dissertation on the role of regional galleries and the work of directors, I’ll make one simple suggestion to any community faced with such destructive and insensitive policies: take political action against the perpetrators. Organise and campaign, remove the wreckers from town hall. Show them how important it is that the community be consulted when facilities are being “re-structured” in ways that can only end in disaster.

I’m sorry to have hijacked the discussion of Right Here Now, but “democracy” is one of the underlying themes in the Canberra exhibition. Indeed, in a catalogue statement, our genial new Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield, is enthusiastic about giving regional artists a chance “to demonstrate their particular view of our democratic system.”

Artists are usually viewed as leaning to the left, although I can think of a few dedicated right-wingers. There is a tendency for younger artists to feel passionate about issues such as racism, the environment, and the treatment of refugees, but this hardly makes them different from the rest of the younger population.

Chayni Henry, Uneven Ground, Acrylic on Board,2015

Chayni Henry, ‘Uneven Ground’, Acrylic on Board,2015

In this show political statements are made in response to the actual conditions of life in regional centres. Chayni Henry from Darwin, gives us a comic strip view of good and bad behaviour as witnessed in the streets and shops. Her mentee, David Collins, has spray painted a huge cockatoo on a government sign previously posted outside an Aboriginal community. The basic point is about double standards.

David Collins, 'White Cockies' (detail)

David Collins, ‘White Cockies’ (detail)

It’s a theme embraced by Sandra Hill, from Ballingup, W.A., who has made a multi-faceted flag-like work called Skin Deep, in colours of white, yellow and brown. Although Hill’s catalogue statement expresses her anger and frustration at racial politics in Australia, the work is all about embracing diversity.

Hill has acted as mentor for Donna Fortescue, who has made a Eureka flag out of barks, leaves, gumnuts and other natural materials. She is expressing the hope that we might stand up and fight for the environment with the same passion that we defend our political liberties.

Donna Fortescue, Beneath the Southern Cross we stand, 2015 (detail), Eucalyptus marginata (jarrah), Corymbia calophylla (red gum) gum nuts and sticks, Xanthorrhoea (balga) resin and fronds, Banksia leaves, hessian, braid, charcoal, rabbit skin glue, aluminium and cotton thread, 130×202×10 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Donna Fortescue, ‘Beneath the Southern Cross we stand’, 2015 (detail), Eucalyptus marginata (jarrah), Corymbia calophylla (red gum) gum nuts and sticks, Xanthorrhoea (balga) resin and fronds, Banksia leaves, hessian, braid, charcoal, rabbit skin glue, aluminium and cotton thread, 130×202×10 cm. Courtesy the artist.

There is also an environmental theme in works by artists such as Jimmy Thaiday from the Torres Strait (mentored by rising star, Brian Robinson) and Chris de Rosa of Port Elliot, S.A. (who acts as mentor to Ebony Heidenreich) but any sense of protest is subsumed by the artful transformation of materials. This fits in with the general atmosphere of the exhibition, which is up-beat, full of the pleasures of creative activity.

Linda Botham and Bonnie Weidenbach, from Shepparton, VIC. found common ground in recent experiences of death and childbirth. Rick Ball, whose paintings might be described as a form of elemental abstraction, has mentored five young indigenous artists from Menindee, NSW, who work in completely different styles. By contrast, Ray Arnold has collaborated with younger painter, Jessie Pangas, to create images of the same house in Queenstown, TAS, from inside and outside, respectively. Arnold is the senior artist in this show, and one of the most underrated figures in Australian art.

Raymond Arnold, 'Off the Grid-Constructing Settlement / Constructing Memory', 2015, synthetic polymer paint on linen, diptych, 82×123 cm. Courtesy the artist

Raymond Arnold, ‘Off the Grid-Constructing Settlement/ Constructing Memory’, 2015, synthetic polymer paint on linen, diptych, 82×123 cm. Courtesy the artist

Right Here Now succeeds in making a positive impression about the role of art in regional Australia. One only wishes the artless politicians that sit on so many councils would awaken to those possibilities. No one would boast about their racism or sexism, and neither should anyone feel proud to be a philistine – a thoroughly pernicious state. The arts are no less necessary than another sporting oval or shopping centre, and they touch hearts and minds in a more profound and lasting way.

Right Here Now:
A Powerful Regional Voice in Our Democracy
Museum of Democracy at Old Parliament House,
Canberra, until 7 February

John McDonald flew to Canberra courtesy of the Musuem of Democracy

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 16th January, 2016