ON BEING A CURATOR
Australian Art Collector
What factors can make a curator exceptionally influential?
A curator’s role is in one sense to be the wise interpreter but also to work closely with artists, to understand and convey their intentionality. The former American Museum Director William Rubin once said something to the effect that the curator should not be walking in front of the artist, but several steps behind. Not predetermining the course of art but interpreting it intelligibly.
Artists can sometimes be hard to understand, they are very complex people. Art comes from a lot of places. We’re not dealing with simple ideas but with complexity and art needs to be contextualised appropriately.
One of the great pleasures of my curatorial life was co-curating the British Show with Tony Bond in the mid 80s, which toured all Australia and the National Gallery in New Zealand. We were fortunate to have begun our show three months before the English curators got to do theirs in Britain and as a consequence we had a better exhibition than the one in Britain, more replete with key works. It’s a great pleasure working with someone like Tony has extraordinary insight and is such an advanced thinker.
Nick Waterlow is one of the great curators. He organised four exceptional, highly influential Biennales and his co-curated (with Ross Mellick) Spirit and Place at the MCA was a wonderful exhibition. Sally Couacaud. curated a great feminist show at Pier 4-5 in 1991 called Dissonance: Aspects of Feminism. Brenda Croft of the National Gallery is an important artist and writer and was curator of a splendid pivotal exhibition of contemporary indigenous artist’s work Beyond the Pale at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Of course there are many others of great merit one could mention. Unfortunately no longer alive, Paul Taylor was an outstanding young curator and writer: his 1982 exhibition Popism was one of the real watersheds of curatorial work in this country. Frances Lindsay at the NGV is an excellent collections curator and Julie Ewington who is doing a most brilliant job at the QAG, currently putting together a collection of the work Australian women artists, which is so overdue. One of the most important is of course Bernice Murphy, who, as the first Curator of Contemporary Art at the AGNSW conceived of and organised the first two Australian Perspectas, in 1981 and 1983. Of the current batch of younger curators we are all casting an eagerly ‘cold eye’ towards the work of Rachel Kent, Wayne Tunnicliffe, Trevor Smith and Jason Smith. It’s a good field.
In what other ways can public gallery curators be influential?
Bill Wright Beyond exhibitions and collections development, through their other proper roles, which is to communicate and to lecture. They’re the village explainers. It’s an important interpretive function. The role is to go out into diverse areas and interpret art. I strongly believe that the best curators are always those who have some personal creative experience, some depth of visual art background. So long as it’s not just theory, so long as it’s a sense of tangible visual reality.
Some of the best curators are closet artists (like Tony Bond who is a talented if non-exhibiting artist). Barry Pearce, the Senior Curator of Australian Art at the AGNSW is also a good draughtsman. Doug Hall, Director of the QAG started out as an artist and his judgement is enriched as a result.
One of the most important things for curators is actually just going out, to artists studios and galleries, to communicate with artists. There is a lot of time-consuming pressure involved in working as a curator and consequently some cannot go out often enough, but you do need to be out in the world, going to galleries and studios. If curators are not doing this they’re losing touch with their base of knowledge, and some really have lost touch. I would always remind curators of that, in order to experience their subject as deeply and as closely as possible. How else can they claim to be informed?
Can you think of any anecdotes that illustrate a curator specifically exercising influence or being held to be influential?
Bill Wright All of the Sydney Biennale directors have had enormous influence by sheer dint of the nature of the exhibition and its influence, particularly the early ones- they should all get a purple heart. It’s one of the most gruelling experiences I’ve ever had and I know it's been the same for all the others. You work under unbelievable pressure within a very limited time frame: when I did it I had three staff and one volunteer, 230 artists from 17 countries, a budget of under half a million and under eighteen months to do it. Anyone who can survive that, with or without the obligatory nervous breakdown is by definition a capable curator.
Nick Waterlow is the most deserving of all. He’s done four of them. But it’s such an important event the Biennale. It only started in 1973: it was the first time Australian artists really got to see themselves in context with good international artists and the first time Australians got to see the best contemporary art from the rest of the world en bloc.
An art critic exercises influence through writing about artists and the visual arts. Can you think of any (historical or contemporary)Australian arts critics?
Bill Wright I think they exercise influence in different ways. They can either be very useful and constructive, irrelevant or, at worst, destructive. It’s a pity nowadays that there’s less coverage of contemporary art in the journals. Good newspaper reviewers have an important public communication role and are often but not always scholarly. They have the important role of explaining. Terence Maloon, one of our best ever critics, came to Australia in the early eighties. He wrote intelligently about contemporary art in England for publications including The Times and Time Out before coming here . He was very influential as an art writer both in England and here, until he moved to the Art Gallery of NSW. As the Curator of special projects there he has done a number of very important historic exhibitions.
Elwyn Lynn was also a very important critic. He always supported developing artists. He rarely had anything negative to say and was always very generous towards artists, particularly emerging artists, pointedly bringing them into the public eye. He was continuously instrumental in getting greater public acceptance for contemporary art. There are others who are more theoretical in their approach: Rex Butler and Ted Colless are amongst our most intelligent theoretical writers and critics.
What factors make an art critic influential?
Bill Wright They obviously have to be very informed, attentive and very focused on what it is they’re looking at. If the story they are telling corresponds with reality, then they’re influential. It doesn’t work when there’s a lot of overshadowing rhetoric and generalisation. They should have a good theoretical and art history background but they need to be very closely involved in contemporary art practice as understood by the real practitioners, the artists.
Can you think of any anecdotes that illustrate an art critic specifically exercising influence or being held to be influential?
Bill Wright The first thing anyone said to me, an excellent curator called Judy Annear, not so long after I got off the plane on my return to Australia in 1981, was that the art world here is a very small village. The message was, keep your powder dry! I soon learned that if someone burps in Sydney it turns into a thunderstorm in Melbourne. At the time I had come back to Australia from New York to direct the 1982 Biennale and it was very good advice. Always let the exhibition do the talking.
Australia Council 2002 Emeritus Medal
SMART CHAT - WILLIAM WRIGHT
Interviewed by Alison Harper
On the 6th March 2003,William (Bill) Wright was awarded the prestigious 2002 Visual Arts Emeritus Medal by the Australia Council honouring his lifelong contribution to visual arts in Australia. Wright is respected and well known both in Australia and overseas as an artist, curator, writer, teacher and arts administrator. In 1982 Wright directed the highly successful Biennale of Sydney, Vision in Disbelief, the largest of all Biennales with over 220 artists exhibiting their works in eight venues. The event remains one of the three most highly attended contemporary art exhibitions in Australia’s history. Since 1992 Bill Wright has been Curatorial Director of Sherman Galleries in Sydney
A.H. Bill, you have been a key figure in the Visual Arts in Australia for over 40 years. Is there a moment in that time that you can pinpoint as a turning point for the contemporary arts in Australia?
B.W. Without a doubt – the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was during the Whitlam Government of the early 1970’s that The Australia Council was formed. The key figure was Leon Paroissien, the Founding Director of the Visual Arts Board. He had a vision to create a national and international infrastructure for artists. He was largely responsible for the initiatives set in place to assist artists including the creation of artist in residence positions overseas. Parossian also actively supported the establishment of the Sydney Biennale, which began in 1973. This was the first time; the beginning of the flow of major foreign artists coming to Australia and the first time Australian artists had the opportunity to exhibit beside them. Contacts were forged internationally with curators and slowly Australian artists were invited to participate overseas. Prior to this period there had been an endemic parochialism and 90% of my own generation as artists had to leave to work and study abroad, mostly in Europe. In the 1970s and 80’s you saw many artists returning to work in Australia and the emergence of a new generation of outstanding local artists. The 1970s and 80’s saw a growth in the number of art schools and independent art spaces and with increased activity the number of commercial galleries grew and has continued to grow. It was a watershed: Australia had at last come to a stage where it had a sustaining national and international infrastructure and an intellectually self-sufficient artistic community.
A.H. The 1970’s and 1980’s were obviously an exciting period for Australian artists. Do you feel it has continued to develop positively?
B.W. During the 70’s and 80’s there was immense energy with a greater focus by the institutions on showing the work of living artists working in Australia (Australian and non-Australian). Whilst Assistant Director at the Art Gallery of New South Wales I initiated a programme of independently curated mid-career (retrospective) surveys, the purpose being to create increased public awareness of the excellent work being realized here in Australia. It is ironic that in some sectors I was criticised for commercializing contemporary art by placing living artists in the public eye.
Since the 1990’s the institutional curators have focused more and more on young emergent artists and less on the careers of all other contemporary living artists. We now seem not to have enough provision for the public to see the depth of work of living Australian artists. The Queensland Art Gallery is an exemplary exception and Melbourne has very recently improved its act, but Sydney in particular is lagging, for want of support, behind the other major cities. The MCA with its recently instituted Meridian exhibition and Level 4 projects and the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ with its small projects are attempting to address the problem but it is simply too large an issue for them to fully encompass amongst the range of their many other spheres of commitment.
There are far too many highly developed artists who receive no public exposure: we need city galleries similar to the European Kunstvereins and galleries such as the Whitney and the New Museum in New York, the Whitechapel and Serpentine Galleries in London that show contemporary art; their living art to their communities.
Overseas visitors invariably comment that when they visit the major national and state exhibiting galleries here they see the same transatlantic array (of European and American art) as everywhere else. They come with the expectation of seeing Australian art of the living culture, of the present, but their hopes are less than adequately matched.
“The responsibility of promoting mid-career artists in the public eye has for some time fallen to the commercial galleries. They are now bearing the brunt of the responsibility of public awareness. Sadly they can never draw the crowds that a public institution attracts. In comparison to the public galleries only a fractional number of people frequent the commercial gallery scene. The solution is obvious to all but it needs informed initiative and concerted cultural and financial support at State and City levels in order that our infrastructure may expand in ways commensurate to need.”
A.H. You joined the commercial Sherman Galleries in 1991 a move from an academic/curatorial background must have surprised a number of people?
B.W. Yes it did surprise some people but I actually had wanted to do it for some time. Gene Sherman and I each came from culturally and educationally focused non-commercial backgrounds - we understood each other well and agree on most things. As a curator in an institution I did have contact with the artists on one level but there was always a code of conduct that you dealt with them through their agents/ dealers. I like working directly with artists – we talk the same language. I enjoy their company and like being able to encourage and find ways for artists to fulfill their potential. I would add that not all the shows I have curated for Sherman Galleries over the years have been commercial. We have taken a number of non-commercial “museum” shows, representing Sherman Gallery as well as many other artists to Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.
A.H. How did your artist stable at the Sherman Galleries evolve?
B. W. Artists knew me well as a curator and soon started to contact us. At the time I believe it was seen by some as poaching but the combination of my relations with them as a curator/organiser, Gene Sherman’s skills as an experienced and innovative director and the much talked about wonderful new gallery space in Paddington designed by architect Andrew Andersons quickly drew artists to us. The idea of ‘poaching ‘ artists never occurred to us; we never needed to approach anybody. They approached us. While we have in the past two years increased the Sherman Galleries artist group, taking on artists like Robert Owen, Clinton Nain, Lauren Berkowitz, Shaun Gladwell and Dani Marti, the core majority have been with us and, it seems, happy to be with us, for many years now. We seem to enjoy a high degree of mutual regard. Beyond Gene and myself we have an amazingly able and committed staff, who provide excellent wide ranging support for the artists.
A.H. How do you find the current state of the market?
B.W. The contemporary art market is really very strong. There are many more collectors now than 20 year ago. There is a larger economic middle class, a lot of new wealth and shifting life-style patterns. Corporate people coming into Australia have a need to engage here culturally as part of their social/business consolidation process and there is also a great amount of increasingly informed discussion leading to peer pressure amongst collectors.
Art bought as superannuation has grown very recently, with many people disaffected with the stock exchange.
It is seen as a good investment and providing collectors make an informed choice they are quite likely to make a gain. Collectors are generally more informed now; some are now applying the same kind of intelligence as they would with buying stocks and shares.
The best advice I can offer is for collectors to visit the major public collecting institutions, the Art Museums, find out what they have in their collections and become familiar with the best. It is also important to know who to seek advice from; like any field, from the most informed.
Above all they need to approach art genuinely, not as a commodity but as reality; like good literature and music; a living expression.
The high profile art auctions have helped us; works by Imants Tillers, Michael Johnson, Tim Storrier, indeed most of our artists, have often sold for more at auction. Given this and our greater access to works this has the inevitable effect of encouraging collectors to contact us direct to buy, which is most often for less.
Auctions are not necessarily a true guide to quality; some works of art take on a perceived value according to current popularity, as opposed to integrity or quality. The auctions stimulate but are only there to sell, for as high a price as possible, so they can be a mixed blessing: especially when you see the most meretricious works of sheer bumpkin pretentiousness achieving six figure results while works of real value are passed in.
In my other ‘fringe’ role as a valuer I am also aware of the increased volume of gifting to approved museums and galleries as part of the tax incentives to the arts scheme. This is a stabilising factor, a spur to informed benefaction hence, indirectly, to sales of works of substance: thus an important component of the market ‘big picture’ and it helps the museums in a time of ever-contracting government provision. for the arts.
A.H. Dr Gene Sherman is particularly passionate about the Asian related activities of the Gallery. Your current exhibition Austral-Asia is an exhibition of works by Australian and international artists influenced or linked to Asia. How is the market here reacting to such works?
B.W. This was curated by Gene and it is an important and timely exhibition. Asian culture is having an impact on the whole of Australia, not dissimilar to when the large Italian migrant communities arrived here in the 1950s and 60’s. The impact then of Italian culture was phenomenal, leading to social and attitudinal changes (and of course food and increased travel to Italy). Now the same is happening with Asia. While we have yet as a nation to fully embrace Asia culturally (as we need to) we have a large Asian immigrant population and we are far more conscious of our proximity to Asia. Even our diet has changed, to the point that the English Chef Floyd when asked to describe it coined the term ‘Mediterrasian”. One overseas curator commented to me recently that there is something Asian about most of the art in Australia now, different to that of Europe: an inflection.. Look at how collectors have taken to artists like Guan Wei; from the time he arrived it has never been difficult to sell his works here and they are now included, after only a decade in Australia, in most of our major National and State gallery collections.
A.H. How do you feel about being awarded the Australia Council 2002 Emeritus Medal?
B.W. I particularly like the company of the other recipients, who include the likes of Sue Walker, Leon Parossian, Daniel Thomas, Bernice Murphy, Grace Cochrane and Elwyn Lynn. They are all “givers”. They have each intelligently read and added to the “big picture”. They have never been self-serving or self-aggrandizing in the process. I am honored to be included in the company of such genuine and able people who have spent their lives contributing so fundamentally in the service of art’s developmental needs. They have all added significantly to our infrastructure hence development provision and been responsible for major changes for the greater good.
It’s like being invited to join a very small club that only has members you like and admire. Having resisted clubs all my life I must say that this is one I find totally irresistible.
A.H. You began your career as an artist, studying and exhibiting both here and overseas. You are married to sculptor Hilarie Mais. Have you continued to paint throughout your curatorial/administrative career?
Yes, for the purpose of some or other semblance of connectedness to self and sanity, but it means I don’t have a lot of spare time. The answer to the inevitable next question is a categorical “no”.