Freda Robertshaw’s Little Grayscale Painting Composition (1947) appears modestly on the nearby wall as a historical counterpoint to abstraction, surrealism and mystery.
Was I witnessing didactic, numbed curation by stern arts bureaucrats? No. Here are vital, high-quality works, deserving of wide audiences and brought into conversation with each other, but historically overlooked due to systematic bias.
Likewise, Hilma af Klint’s successful exhibition last year at the Art Gallery of NSW enthralled audiences and showed that there really are gaps in our knowledge of what the history of art – and who made it.
This is where critics of such quotas go wrong: a hint of basic gender equality is not socially engineering a new kind of politically correct artistic dictatorship. It is an artistic opportunity – a modest and long-needed cultural shift, and an innovative invitation to find new ideas in the collections, archives, themes, forms and myths behind the grand authoritative facades of the great galleries.
But we can hardly embrace the NGA’s gender quota naively. All over the world, a crisis has opened up, accentuated by the heady calls of Black Lives Matter: what are even the great museums and galleries for? The answer is not as easy as it seems.
These organizations are hardly radical. They very often reinforce the prejudices and the elites of their time. They are the product of both Enlightenment thinking and social democracy. But their collections have always been repositories for the myths and works of white men charged with telling our origin stories.
When will the supposedly universal Enlightenment values be extended to women, gender-diverse people, people of color, Indigenous peoples, and queer people of various socio-economic status? If we have a legacy of cultural funding for the public good, why does it still seem that a brilliant artist must win the demographic lottery of capitalism to be represented in public collections?
The great galleries can no longer claim to be the neutral arbiters of art history, nor allow themselves to be agents of malaise at a time when art history is being rethought. Although raging overseas, this conversation – the identity crisis of galleries and museums – has not been heard as widely in Australia.
The NGA’s gender quota is an unspoken admission that it has never succeeded in reflecting the variety of those who make great art.
The NGA has been operating since 1967, within the framework of the government’s cultural policy. But all those taxpayer-funded decades have meant that the careers and stories of male artists have been bolstered relative to other demographics. Public art galleries are not just tourist stops or nonpartisan repositories of the past. They are non-profit democratic institutions serving society – do they fulfill this role effectively? Continuing to feed the male-dominated cannon to the shrinking Angelina Pwerles of the world is the truly dangerous form of social engineering. A little accountability in the form of a quota is the least we can do.
I hope the NGA’s decision creates tangible pressure on other institutions to follow suit and realize their very real obligations to the public. If you’re a mega-rich property baron with a passion for modern art and creating your own private museum, feel free to line your walls with a procession of Picassos and Pollocks. The bias of testosterone-driven greatness is your prerogative.
Also, if you are a collector and just want to buy Ben Quiltys and bushranger artwork for your home, be my guest. But running a public institution is no joke. Art is made by people of all genders, races, ethnicities, ideologies, worldviews, religions and personality disorders. But the collections and exhibitions of major art galleries are only beginning to tell this story.
Recognizing the wealth of those who make great art is neither a KPI-driven bureaucracy nor an activist stance on identity politics. To the dinosaurs trying to transport normal life into the culture wars: deal with it.
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