This and the other two short pieces (linked above) all revolve around the same theme – the unique problem of visual art and its audience in Western Australia, in particular the peculiar delayed reception of modernity, and of art as a whole here. It bears repeating that around the early 20th century the twin pillars of painting, and art in general, the Perth Technical College and the fledgling State Gallery were dominated by a robust, Ruskinian practical moral utility and the damnable cult of the ‘gentleman’ whose amateurism allowed the very few patrons in the western suburbs to forgive him for being an artist.
In Perth, to this day, even the bohemians turn out to be gentlemen (or ladies), with a nice house in Trigg, Fremantle, Cottesloe or at least Claremont. Way back then Linton Head of the Tech declared that it would only teach useful skills, and Woodward, the first Director of the Gallery, a fervent disciple of Ruskin, believed that art was first and foremost about self-improvement not delight. This was a perfect recipe for many decades of ignorant, indeed bigoted outdoor watercolourists and their supporters, who had never seen a Turner or Sandby. For all ‘artists’ who tried to live here there was the usual free offer of genteel but professional poverty.
Some readers may remember the late Ian Wroth, a highly sympathetic teacher, who encouraged several generations of tech students to innovate as much as possible. Ian was a highly talented watercolourist in the nineteenth century romantic tradition of Boudin and Bonington. I visited him at home in the hills to select work for the centenary exhibition of the Tech art department. To my surprise there were piles of highly accomplished abstract watercolours in every room. I asked why he had never shown them.
He answered with raised eyebrows and a sigh, “If I had shown these they would have sacked me.”
Ian was talking about the 1970s.
To his great credit the current director of AGWA has set about giving West Australians a chance to become familiar (not just acquainted) with some of the best work in the world, by presenting it over several months. The MOMA series was a magnificent success
There is more to the temporary postponement of his efforts than bums on seats statistics and a bogus sense of failure.
Goodbye To All That
I am going to miss the MOMA series, cut off halfway through by a slightly inadequate turn out and insurance costs.
I was there for the closing minutes of the exhibition, mainly saying farewell to the two Cézannes and the impeccable Bonnard. Suddenly Dr Carboni himself appeared, walking through the show, enjoying it and the audience. As a former gallery director, I know that feeling. Good art really matters, regardless, and he knew it.
I am going to miss Cézanne, most of all because I think I will never see another one in Perth. I have engaged with a lot of Cézanne’s work, from the Barnes Foundation to the Quai d’Orsay and at least two blockbusters, but my best experience was in London in the Courtauld Institute when it was still in Portman Square. The galleries with their art collection were free, open to the public and usually empty. There were good sofas. I spent happy afternoons there alone, with Cézanne and friends. The Bridgestone in Tokyo still offers a similar experience, but not the Courtauld collection which is now badly installed in Somerset House and crowded with school kids and their i-phones.
When one engages in depth with any art work, good or bad, the most significant part of the experience is patterning, the laying down of memories, the capacity to re-run the various moments of discovery and revelation that the work offers. The art experience is not a spectator sport, it requires active participation, the more moves and memories you know the more you can enjoy it.
This matters a great deal if you want to enjoy art, not just look at it. A visit to a major exhibition is not like a stroll round David Jones despite all the marketing that comes with both. When the Australian National Gallery, was first opened, the management estimated that the average tourist visitor would take only 25 minutes to view the entire collection. This argued that most visitors were ‘just looking’, not interested in engaging the works.
Before the current exhibitions, my last chance to see a Cézanne in Perth was in 1996 when the William S. Paley collection, also from MOMA, was on tour, curated by the remarkable William Rubin himself. This was 17 years ago; before that eight years earlier there was the Philips collection. Before that a few reproductions were shown at UWA in the 1930s. This is a long time between Cézannes. Unless you are privileged, like me, it is unlikely that you will learn to enjoy Cézanne, except as a vague memory, a long forgotten one-night stand. If you are young, you will have no context, no sense of delight to come, no education, so you are unlikely to visit the show. If you are an artist, you will find it hard to convince yourself that what people say about Cézanne is true.
There is a final barrier to the discovery and recovery of great art in Perth. It is the ghastly, semi-autonomous collusion between curatorial ambition, delusion and disingenuous corporate patronage. The finest recent example of this is “String Theory” at PICA, This exhibition was the latest in a series of duds at our Institute of Contemporary Art, curatorial overreach at its peak, applauded only by dubious corporate gatekeepers and those attempting to stake their claim in the newly emerging pecking order of WA art.
Its portentous title was matched by highly risible claims that a few variations on Wandjina Dolls and knotted shopping bags add up to a major event in Australian Contemporary Art no less, backed up, of course, by an unspoken prohibition against questioning the absolute value of anything labelled indigenous. Like others I know, I left the opening angry and wondering why.
The politics of ‘String Theory’ are beyond this article. My point is that this highly prevalent wilful, self-serving misrepresentation unhooks the contemporary experience of art and shuts down the open apparatus of delight, memory and reception essential if one is to enjoy the MOMA exhibitions.
In all these circumstances, Art and the object and experience of Art disappear behind a network of social clichés, status and the bogus promises of consumer rhetoric.
A mysterious, totally invisible object is no reason to spend a day visiting a strange unpromising building, miles away from home, when you could stay indoors and watch a DVD or listen to Bach.
The successful museums of the world did not succeed by worrying about bums on seats or ‘place making’. They triumphed by persistence. They became comfortable familiar and habit forming, at times when this was possible. From the beginning AGWA has never persisted. It has very little in the way of a permanent collection, compared say to Hiroshima, which picked up a great European collection in the 40s and 50s, despite the recent atomic bomb event. Perth never even tried.
What is to be done?
First, Government should rethink its attitude to Art in Perth in the long term and work out a strategy that will enable the Gallery to persist until a genuine habitual audience and its social footprint grow to the point where they become self-sustaining and able to provide the benefits that other major museums deliver to the community
This must involve indemnities for exhibitions like the MOMA shows, especially for insurance which (normally) will never be called on.
The Gallery should not be afraid of public artistic elitism. Sport, the most successful cultural force in Australia is absolutely elitist.
As for bums on seats, it’s nice to have parties in the gallery whether for the young people or your friends from the western suburbs. But this is Perth not New York; parties are unlikely to have any permanent effect on the gallery audience. There is also the risk of alienating large section of the community, not least the art community. It might be cheaper to throw the art away and just have parties.