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How hierarchies happen in contemporary Australian art

What mechanisms separate the art pantheon of Australia from the also-rans? AAP Image/Sergio Dionisio

There are about 30,000 professional practicing visual artists in Australia today (see note). By professional, I mean exhibiting regularly in recognised commercial or public galleries and represented in state collections. There are many thousands more who paint, pot, print, sculpt, work in textiles, are engaged in public art or street art and who may exhibit at various rotary club shows, show with art societies and at numerous community venues.

In such an enormous field of cultural production, as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called it, what are the mechanisms through which some artists are elevated into the canon, and, at least for a short period of time, are recognised as part of the art pantheon of the country?

A few years ago I embarked on a mammoth project which involved writing an account of Australian art from ancient rock art through to the present. Its success or failure is for others to judge, but in the process of researching the book in the contemporary area I encountered the predictable problem of whom to include and discuss and just exactly how many enemies did I want to make out of a field of 30,000 possible candidates.

A selection of artworks featured in the annual Sculpture by the Sea on the ocean walk between Bondi Beach and Tamarama Beach in Sydney, Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins) adfasdfas

As a rather naïve strategy, I drew up endless lists of artist collaborators and eventually I selected 80 artists (from all states and territories, about equal gender and with a broad range in age) and begged them to supply me with a list of 50 living Australian artists working in any area of the visual arts, whom they would include as essential to any discourse on contemporary Australian art practice.

Shrubby Dillenia Leap and Wasp Nest by Fiona Hall, 2008. AAP Image/Botanic Gardens Trust

I swore to confidentiality, so that neither the identity of the nominator nor the contents of their lists could ever be identified. Fortunately, 68 artists agreed to participate – actually 69, but one tripped over his own ego, and the eagerly sought lists came flooding onto my desk.

Early in the process someone suggested I could also invite from my informants lists of names of artists whom they would omit from any such discussion, as over-promoted hacks, as industry insiders, or commercially driven show ponies.

I offered this option to my artist collaborators and most obliged and found it simpler to list those whom they would exclude, rather than those whom they would include.

From my lists I compiled two simple Excel spread sheets listing artists in order of the number of “votes” they received as central or irrelevant to a construct of contemporary art practice in this country.

What surprised me was the degree of consistency in the artists’ voice, so that one artist, Bill Henson, was nominated by 54 of the 68 participating artists. Fiona Hall and Pat Brassington also had very high endorsement rates from their peers.

Photographer Bill Henson in 2010. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Visual literacy and integrity generally prevailed over personal egos and private vendettas. I also invited, in a separate exercise, a number of key curators, gallery directors and leading figures in the art world, to provide additional lists of names of artists who they thought key players in the Australian visual arts.

In the end, all of these sources fed into my process of selection of artists whom I discussed in the final sections of the book, although I must stress that the book was not written by a committee, but by a single author and that the final decision rested on his shoulders and his alone.

But the guidance by the artists’ voice was a crucial ingredient in my methodology. This exercise brought in sharp focus the whole question of how artists are constructed as successful or major artists in Australian art.

Also questions of what Bourdieu termed “cultural capital” and “economic capital” arose – in other words, artists who may attain great success in the market place, for example David Bromley, but who attract relatively little respect from the art establishment, or others, like Peter Tyndall, who have a high profile in major curated exhibitions, public collections and publications, but who are a long way from becoming an “art market darling”.

Making sense of the contemporary scene

This question of hierarchies in contemporary Australian art practice is starting to occupy centre stage in my current major research project which will culminate in a very large book with the working title Australian art: The contemporary scene.

The late artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye in 1994. AAP Image/Greg Weight

The book will not be a collection of artists’ biographies with illustrations of their work, but an extensive narrative, roughly 250,000 words and profusely illustrated, devoted to the Australian visual arts across most mediums, but essentially restricted to the 21st century.

A primary approach will remain seeing as much art in the flesh as possible, resuming my visits to remote Indigenous communities, going to artists’ studios, commercial and public art galleries as well as to as many exhibitions as is humanly possible.

Likewise I will continue to consult broadly with artists; but the structural aspect of such a book throws up numerous interesting challenges. In contemporary art practice any categorisation by medium makes little sense, as very many artists work happily across many mediums, so to examine painters, printmakers or new media artists, as discrete categories, is somewhat meaningless. Geographic pigeonholing is even less useful, except perhaps in the case of certain Indigenous communities.

David Bromley in 2010. AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

In the same breath I will endeavour to see as much art from Western Australia, Northern Queensland and Tasmania as possible, as my approach is national, rather than restricted to the Melbourne and Sydney art worlds.

A craft versus fine art divide made little sense half a century ago and makes even less sense today - great studio glass and high quality studio ceramics belong firmly in the art category, while hack painters and sculptors who work by rote are clearly involved in some form of lowly craft production.

The task of writing a “history” for a period which clearly has no history nor as yet a developed perspective, appears impossible and hence it is worth trying. It is always better to attempt a huge challenge and in the end slightly fall short, than to focus on a tiny academic cul-de-sac and overachieve.

Who are the gatekeepers?

At the moment the most fruitful avenue of exploration appears to be a focus on the gatekeepers of the art world as a path to understanding the mechanics of the art world.

Key gatekeepers include mechanisms for determining who in the first place becomes an artist, in other words our art schools and other art training facilities. How is a potential artist selected for admission? How is an artist trained? What, if any, skill base is provided, what conceptual framework and what expectations?

How many artists bypass institutions altogether and explore alternative methods of training or are self-taught? Who can we term as “outsider artists”?

How is an artist exposed to an audience? The traditional structure of a commercial art gallery picking up fresh talent and through the auspices of a newspaper art critic promoting it to an art buying audience belongs to the mid-19th century and such dealers as Ernest Gambart in London and Paul Durand-Ruel in Paris.

In the 21st century the system is seriously breaking down and the number of commercial art galleries in Australia has roughly halved over the past decade. Very few shows are reviewed by art critics in the shrinking print media.

Art fairs and alternative art spaces are playing an increasing role, while the cyber art market is a rapidly developing phenomenon. Popularity of street art and its recent commodification is also an important development.

Australian graffiti artist David ‘Meggs’ Hoooke works on a wall in the Wynwood district during Art Basel in Miami, Florida, USA, December 4. EPA/Rhona Wise

These different gate keepers also include art consultants, art auctions and art advisors as important ingredients in the emergence of an artist in the Australian art scene.

How is an artist institutionalised? What is the role of curators and senior art bureaucrats in selecting artists for collections for regional, state and national art galleries? What is the process for the selection and inclusion of artists in curated institutional exhibitions?

The role of arts funding organisations, including the Australia Council, as well as organisations responsible for the inclusion of artists in various biennales and triennials are also key ingredients in the local, national and international standing of an Australian artist.

A final set of gatekeepers to be considered is the academic art establishment in its numerous manifestations. How are artists written about? To what extent are artists employed to illustrate theoretic concepts and to what extent do artists consciously make art which illustrates such academic theories? Who are the Australian academic artists? What is the role of art journals?

Possibly if we understand a little better the operation of gatekeepers in Australian art we may develop a better understanding of the appearance and the workings of the contemporary Australian art scene.

Note: The figure of 30,000 visual arts practitioners includes all Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists who regularly make art that is exhibited in a recognised commercial or public art gallery and whose work is included in a public collection. It was arrived at following consultations with NAVA, ATO and the ABS.

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