Opening Australian Art: Looking Outwards from the Mainstream

Roundtable Discussion, Buxton Contemporary November 2019

In November 2019, the project hosted the roundtable event ‘Opening Australian Art’ at the Buxton Contemporary gallery in Melbourne. The roundtable brought together nineteen artists, art professionals, and academics who shared information and insights into contemporary Australian art practice, management and funding practices, and provided provocations for how individuals and institutions could challenge existing narratives and histories of modern and contemporary Australian art. 

Below is a summary of the discussion from the day. Six months on from the roundtable, we asked several of the participants to provide a response to the event. Written in the midst of the international coronavirus crisis, their responses nevertheless express hope for the future of the Australian arts industry. Links to their reflections are scattered throughout the text. 

Lisa Reid, Peter Fay, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 177 x 151.5 cm. Image courtesy of Arts Project Australia.

Session 1: Institutional Paradigms

The day began with introductions and a general discussion regarding the inherent paradigms of institutions such as the gallery and the academy. These paradigms construct ‘outsiders’ as the problem while maintaining the status quo. Many speakers offered examples of times when they or an artist they were working with was unable to navigate the authorised discourses and systems of art institutions or funding bodies. This could either be because the artist was deemed disruptive (by virtue of their politics, gender, or ethnicity) or because, due to a mental health issue or disability, they did not have the capacity. The group also noted that non-normative artists who did not threaten these paradigms were often fetishised or romanticised by mainstream discourses of art.

Discussion then turned to arts organisations such as Arts Projects Australia and Studio A which seek to empower disabled, marginalised and disadvantaged artists as professional artists. While the group acknowledged the work of these organisations as a positive influence in this area, it was felt that the work of these organisations ultimately fell to assisting individual artists navigate existing systems. The more important project of forcing systematic change within institutions was still to be achieved

The session concluded with a reflection on the importance of relationships in bridging the divides between the multiple sites of the art world. 

Session 2: Inside Out and Outside In

The second session of the day centred on consideration of who is ‘inside’, who is ‘outside’, and what those terms mean relationally and politically. Nur Shkembi, independent curator, raised the notion of ‘future history’ and prompted the group to think about what they wanted the future history of this moment to look like. This included reflecting on what culture looks like now, and on what is currently being collected in our institutions: are these collections broadly representative of this culture and will they leave the legacy we want to see in the future? This opening provocation led to discussions regarding categories of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ in both culture and art. 

There was discussion about perceptions of disability and art; how these have changed over time and what it might take for the work of a disabled artist to be considered the work of a professional artist. Changing practices of museology were also considered in relation to Shkembi’s point and to the legacy in Australia of Terry Smith’s 1972 essay about centres and peripheries. Do institutions such as the gallery have an obligation to collect work that is representative of the diverse cultural milieu in which they operate? And, if so, does that mean periodically deaccessioning the collection (“selling the Rothkos”) in order to reflect the community more relevantly? And how does this relate to the project of democratising – or at least challenging – accepted histories of Australian and international art. 

The session concluded with a consideration of the importance of community and access to safe spaces for the production of art. 

Session 3: Multiple Realities

After lunch, discussion turned to the historiographical practice of making art. The group analysed the existing structures that enable particular institutions to make claims for good or successful art – and to define the boundaries within which such art can be produced and received. Those who had worked extensively in curatorial practice lamented the homogenisation of art history and art collection strategies created by the globalisation of cultural institutions and art historical discourse. 

This turned the discussion towards the issue of contextualisation, and specifically contextualisation in regard to specific works. How do we contextualise the work without submitting it to existing hierarchies? To exhibit a work without an artist’s context may remove the possibility of their being pigeon-holed, but it also perpetuates the myth that the production, exhibition, and reception of art is a level playing field. To be exhibited without context is really the privilege of the (invariably) white male ‘geniuses’ who characterise the art historical canon. The framing of a work can also create a flattening of the experience of being both an ‘insider’ and an ‘outsider’ when, in reality, there are differing experiences of both. 

Session 4: Renovating the Canon

In the final session of the day, the guests were invited to share what they thought the project should take away from the day’s discussions. These take-aways would become a basis for an attempt at renovating the canon

Responses included the directive to keep searching for artists you’ve never heard of; to bring the diasporic communities of art closer together with less hierarchies, less distinctions, and more intersections, and; to accept the multiplicity of reality. It was noted that, in architecture, the term ‘decentring’ means pulling out the load bearing support structures, and it was wondered if the same could be done for art historiography. 

The day concluded with an acknowledgement that everyone’s context is important, and that an understanding of that context enriches our art, our institutions, and our cultures.

Responses Included on This Page

‘Sharing the Stage’ by Linda Judge, Artist and Independent Curator.

‘Can’t it just be about the art?’ by Sue Roff, Executive Director, Arts Project Australia.

‘Taking the Discussion Outside the Converted’ by Sim Luttin, Artist annd Curator & Gallery Manager, Arts Project Australia.

‘Outsider Art – Renovating the Canon: Toolkits, Tokenism and the Tyranny of Words’ by Nur Shkembi, Independent Curator.

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