Culture Heist

Judith White’s account of Michael Brand’s management of the Art Gallery of NSW, especially his focus on the Sydney Modern extension, offers an example of the effect of neo-liberalism on a well-run, scholarly institution that had been, for more than a century, at the heart of NSW’s civil society.

The ABC’s Offsiders TV panel on July 1 began its summary of the week’s sporting news with a discussion of Australian cricket’s pay dispute. The panellists, obviously across the detail of the issues, agreed that clubs around Australia do not necessarily believe that a redistribution of the golden rivers of income from television would flow (or even trickle) down to local teams. They, and apparently the players, suspect the money is funding management.

Then writer Gideon Haigh mused that perhaps these problems derived from the corporatisation of sport, and that now the focus on issues of governance and accountability meant that directors are sought for their expertise in management, accounting, law and not international cricket … and I thought BINGO! Maybe, if it is seen to affect sport, not just the arts, maybe things will change.

When neo-liberal attitudes infected western governments, arts administrators had to deal with governments abandoning responsibility for maintaining a civil society through providing institutions such as libraries, museums, galleries and universities where people learn or quietly contemplate; indeed even for responsibility for the infrastructure of a civil society, such as trains to bring people from the periphery, and access to such institutions as affordable education.

Everything becomes a revenue-producing, or at the least, revenue-neutral, cost centre. To this end, boards of autonomous organisations are appointed, as Haigh remarked of cricket, with skills and experience from the corporate world. They, naturally, appoint CEOs who speak their language and mirror their values and appoint others of the same ilk.

Judith White’s account of Michael Brand’s management of the Art Gallery of NSW, especially his focus on the Sydney Modern extension, offers an example of the effect of neo-liberalism on a well-run, scholarly institution that had been, for more than a century, at the heart of NSW’s civil society.

Culture Heist, written after White resigned as Executive Director of the Art Gallery Society of NSW, considers issues of governance, institutional relationships and the role of cultural institutions in the context of global change. She comes to ponder these grand themes through the changes made to the society subsequent to the arrival of Michael Brand as the gallery’s director in 2012.

Established in 1953, the Art Gallery Society contributed ticketing and reception services to the gallery valued at $2.5 million per year. As well as raising money for acquisitions, they also provided educational and guiding services, cultural tours, distributed drinks at openings, promoted the gallery to companies and individuals, and produced a scholarly monthly colour magazine. The gallery provided venues for society events, which brought lecturers and musicians to elucidate and perform, and the money raised was returned through the society to the gallery.

Good non-fiction informs the reader, supports its arguments with facts and, where the matter is contentious, makes the views of the writer clear, providing context for those views. White’s book meets all these criteria. Setting the local arts scene in a global context, it should be read by every policymaker and should be under consideration by all politicians. It should cause public alarm.

White’s agile and elegant prose clearly tells the story of the dismantling of the systems which underpinned the society/gallery relationship. One is left with the impression of a director unaware of the advantages inherent in the arrangements he inherited, uninterested in clarifying any concerns he had about the society’s role, indifferent to the contribution of the society’s volunteers, and unconcerned about the effect on the individuals involved, or on the gallery’s finances, of abruptly changing those systems.

A good review should summarise a book, and here this reviewer may fail, because White’s success in succinctly canvassing so many issues at play in Sydney, in Australia, and indeed, across the globe, makes such summary very challenging.

She weaves the story of changes in the society into the account of changes in the gallery: emphasising not only the wilful dismissal of expert curators and managers with skills, experience and corporate memory, but the expensive appointments of administrators without visual arts or museum experience and the astonishing expense of sundry consultants.

Replacement of volunteers with casual staff seems wildly extravagant. The cold dismissal of loyal employees and trashing arrangements that produced and built both income and an enthusiastic client base seems to avoid concern not only with customers but with the bottom line. Apparently, the source of funds ‘going forward’ is predominantly to be corporate sponsorship and hiring gallery venues for corporate functions. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

The illogic and double-speak accompanying the neo-liberal agenda is no more evident than when complaints are made about political correctness and elitism. In Australia John Howard whinged away until he somehow merged the two concepts. This renders it difficult to suggest that education and specific expertise are advantages in a public institution, that somehow it is not appropriate to expect eloquence and literacy. It also seems to deny that wanting to be quiet with a work of art is as legitimate as wanting to barrack at a football match.

White and David Levine, the ex-director of the society who wrote the foreword to Culture Heist, do not hesitate to confront these myths. White’s encounters with the self-described “creategist” to whom Brand gave responsibility for membership development would alone invite questions about inexperience and education in a gallery, while Levine is confident enough of the old ways to point out that what had always been “a reflective place for inspiring stimulation of what we call our souls” has “given way to a certain vulgarity”.

Funding for Brand’s vision for the Sydney Modern has been promised by the NSW State Government, but one notes that the actual design is ongoing. It will be an interesting story to follow.

@judithwhite3

Culture Heist: art versus money
By Judith White
Brandl & Schlesinger, $29.95