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Dear Melbourne artists, please stop paying rental fees to exhibit in publicly funded galleries


Jess Johnson, 'Bite the Hand that Feeds' (2014), pen, fibre tipped markers, and gouache on paper, 76 x 56 cm. Courtesy the artist.

It occurs to me that the bookended timeline proposed between issues 13.1 and 13.2 of un Magazine – from the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001 (the historic location around which issue 13.1 was built), to the introduction of the ‘Melbourne Model’ in 2008 (the focus for 13.2) and beyond to our current conditions – have coincided more or less with my own professional (and unprofessional) life in art. I began my first art job in 2000 and was at a video screening night at The Physics Room on 11 September 2001. If the magazine could be said to take these events as theoretical antagonisms, I’d like to interject the timeline with a few lived occasions, to give some (subjective, remembered, lumpy) shape to arguments about how the economic imperatives of institutions might impact art and its people.

I studied Art History just prior to the new millennium at the University of Otago. At this time the Department was small and new, and seemed to oscillate between the old world of the Classics Department and the cooler postmodern Film Studies Department. My degree could draw on both these subject fields to make up the requirements of the major, as there weren’t quite enough subjects offered in Art History. We approached all of these as components of visual culture.

Around the time I was studying there, The Honeymoon Suite took hold as the first artist-run space in Dunedin.1 In a program of curated and solo shows, some by artists of national repute, I most vividly remember a show made up of friends’ loungerooms moved into the gallery on Moray Place. In place of art, collections of kitsch and boyish nostalgia filled the space – furniture, records and video games, like trophies from the wilds of South Island op-shopping. Sitting the show might be a safari-suit clad musician cohabiting the space with all his personal effects on display. You could argue Gilbert & George were a precedent here, having presented themselves as living sculpture, but this time we were seeing a continuance of the merging of art and life beginning to transform into the art of lifestyle. As a young student I laughed along as if I got the joke.

If the stakes weren’t too high at The Honeymoon Suite, a much bigger, further-reaching undercutting of the autonomous art object and specialised space for art was taking place at a new institution, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Te Papa opened in 1998 and was an amalgamation of the national museum and national gallery, bringing these two collections together for the first time. It was a merger met with much debate and scepticism within the art community and became a key subject of my art history honours paper the following year.

Te Papa was established at a time when museums were increasingly required to operate within the leisure and tourism industry, as ‘high density sites’ of culture.2 The art collection was initially integrated with other collections within the museum, notably through the collection display Parade which established a chronology of art and culture in New Zealand, bringing together design objects, popular culture and technological innovations alongside works of art. The subtitle ‘is it art?’ and phrases such as ‘new ideas change our world’ and ‘is it treasure or junk? ... decide for yourself’ on the walls of the exhibition were supplemented by large plastic thumbs-up and thumbs-down symbols. Naturally, this refusal to validate any object with traditional museum authority or scholarship was met with criticism and concern that the status of art had suffered most through this amalgamation of the national collections. Arguably, the museum has been working to carve out space for art and recover an art world trust and audience ever since.

The same background of visual culture debates that had influenced my art history studies had reshaped the national institution and its relationship to art. In another merger, that little Art History Department was later to become part of the larger History Department and, today, after years of reducing teaching staff, Art History is in the process of being phased out by 2020.3 In this case, departmental amalgamations and gradual reductions in course offerings have eventually led to complete closure. In a small university city with a separate art school, and famous for its statue of a poet in the central city square (which is actually an octagon), there will be no more art history.

In my research interviews with various art museum staff for that honours paper, I was advised that I should have studied marketing if I wanted to work in galleries or museums. When I worked at The Physics Room in the early 2000s, I was certainly sent on a lot of professional development workshops focused on business and marketing strategies. Major funding was applied for and acquitted annually from Creative New Zealand and audience development was a significant component of quarterly and annual funding reports. We had no money for advertising, but I took to these marketing imperatives like a school prefect with a shiny new badge. We tried to create partnerships and cross-promotion, invited local colleges to free education programs and organised buses to drive people around galleries giving out wine at every stop. For all of that effort, there was little notable change beyond the span of each event. It’s also possible that I doubled or tripled the attendance numbers for reporting purposes. It was just too embarrassing not to, and all my predecessors had done the same so I couldn’t be the one to suddenly start reporting honest statistics.

In hindsight, expecting audience growth, while also underfunding a small organisation with a mandate to present experimental and emerging art practices, seems incongruous and unrealistic on the part of funding bodies. It takes some maturity, or perhaps a level of privilege, to refuse to follow funding policy directives. Blair French, speaking in 2013 in his role then as Executive Director of Sydney’s Artspace, reported that the organisation had ‘made a strong decision to stop programming via funding opportunities. It can be an issue when the policy imperatives of funding agencies start to weigh heavily on artistic thinking.’4 It’s easier to succumb to expectations, however misguided. The public around The Physics Room, and many similar organisations, was small but highly engaged and committed. Such was the sense of ownership among its community, that a minor alteration such as putting up a new noticeboard at the gallery entrance would be hotly debated and contested by regular visitors. Behind their irritation, these people clearly self-identified with and found meaning in the organisation. This invested public is the one such a space primarily exists for and should put its meagre resources towards.

Must public funding always demand courting a detached and undefined ‘general’ public over special interest or engaged communities?

It’s a cliché to say small organisations are spread thin. There can often be a drive to extend reach without any correlating increase in resources. This over-reaching can be seen to have effected many artist-run initiatives in Melbourne in recent years. Organisations that rely heavily on volunteer labour are taking on new levels of archiving, advocacy, publishing, education programs, research and mentorships, on top of exhibition programming. As curator Simon Maidment put it in 2013, ‘organisations are doing more and more but doing it less well. It’s become a game. People have been rewarded for that mentality but it is bad for the sector.’5 When artists began establishing their own spaces in Melbourne, in earnest in the early 1990s, there was, for many involved, an awareness of the sector ‘professionalising’ and an intentional taking up of different roles – artists expanding into curating and writing, organising exchanges, running galleries and publications. Unlike earlier precedents which had been relatively short-term in the 1970s (such as Inhibodress in Sydney, 1970-72, or Pinacotheca in Melbourne, 1970-73), organisations such as West Space emerged in the 1990s with a new view to longevity and sustainability.

However, when we talk about professionalisation and sustainability, we need to acknowledge that for a long time such organisations have actually been sustained by artists paying rental fees to exhibit, staff accepting low wages, volunteers, and the pro-bono work and expertise of committee members. Standards and behaviour might be professional, but remuneration is not. Moving to Melbourne in the mid-2000s, the standard practice of artists paying fees to exhibit in artist-run or small publicly funded spaces was one of a few ‘culture shocks’ I experienced. I remember having a silly argument around that time with an artist who thought it was inappropriate for artists to list texts (on their work) in their CV bibliography if they had paid the authors to write them, such as a commissioned catalogue essay or exhibition text. It is pretty funny when you put it like that. But my late-night counter argument was that, by that logic, artists shouldn’t list exhibitions on their CV if they’ve paid a fee to a gallery to host it. What exactly is being exchanged in this transaction? Is the artist buying a potential audience via an opening and social media posts? Why not cut out the middle ‘man’ and use the money to just pay people to come to your studio?! In some ways it feels like another example of professionalism as a pretence in the sector. It is a great relief to see many organisations now finally moving away from this inherited model of exhibition fees, and with this, some are deciding to reduce their programming to focus more resources on fewer exhibitions.

Artists involved in setting up their own galleries often cite the value in creating a sense of community, peer support and context for their practice. Every art school tells their students that sticking together and making their own spaces will be the key to sustaining practice. Most recently I heard a version of this at a conference on gatekeeping in the art world (run by art world gatekeepers): an established artist spoke of the seminal space she’d been involved in running during the 1990s while on the dole. Perhaps this advice is starting to sound a little like your parents telling you to get into the property market.

I was recently showing some work to art students, examples of social practices engaging with museums and audiences through the 1980s and 1990s. I was surprised to find a few students assume that these works must have been made in irony. But perhaps it’s a good thing; they couldn’t imagine feeling there was no audience for contemporary art and needing to directly seek one out for exchange. Because the audience for contemporary art has grown: the Australia Council reports that it grew nationally by twenty-five per cent between 2002 and 2014.6 Perhaps we’re at a point where organisations no longer feel the need to exaggerate attendance numbers as I did.

This increased access to public art institutions has developed in parallel with an increased uptake of tertiary education, both ostensibly driven by an ideological desire for democratisation which we can also see has implied a turn against specialisation. In her definitive essay 'Turning', Irit Rogoff takes a passing swipe at the populism of the Tate Modern as an ‘entertainment machine’ and goes on to argue:

I want to think about education not through the endless demands that are foisted on both culture and education to be accessible, to provide a simple entry point to complex ideas. ... Instead, I want to think of education in terms of the places to which we have access. I understand this access as the ability to formulate one’s own questions, as opposed to simply answering those that are posed to you in the name of an open and participatory democratic process. After all, it is very clear that those who formulate the questions produce the playing field.7

I set out wanting to answer the questions posed by the editors’ in their call-out: How will the economic imperatives of art institutions effect art practice and how future art history will be told? Rather than trying to predict the future, we can look back and see how his has already unfolded. Over this past couple of decades of my working life, amalgamations of university Art History Departments have given way to closures. The much-touted professionalisation of the arts sector has delivered nothing more than a precarious workforce overly reliant on volunteerism. The flooding of postgraduate qualified artists has seen the academic workforce become even more brutally competitive and enable mass casualisation. A sincere desire on the part of many artists to open their work to a closer connection with audiences has been co- opted by museum marketing and outreach strategies. Still, I want to answer the editors’ questions. But all I can do is reiterate one that seems most urgent and that we should always ask: beyond the trends and pressures of funding and institutional demands, are we working to our own (collective) benefit?

Rosemary Forde is a curator and academic with a focus on contemporary art history and a particular commitment to localised practice and discourse in Australia and Aotearoa. She is a former editor of un Magazine and former chair of the un Projects board. She is the 2019 Ursula Hoff Fellow.

1. Founded by Emma Bugden, Jonathan Nicol and Warren Olds, The Honeymoon Suite operated in 1997-1998. Remarkably, its website is archived here.
2. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums and Heritage, University of California Press, California, 1998, p. 132
3. Elena McPhee, ‘Art history’s proposed demise “sad but predictable”’, Otago Daily Times, 27 August 2018.
4. Blair French, cited in Phip Murray, Talking Points, A Snapshot of Contemporary Visual Arts 2013- 2014, Australia Council for the Arts, 2014, p. 19.
5. Simon Maidment, cited in Phip Murray, op. cit., p. 17.
6. Tony Grybowski, ‘Foreword’ in Phip Murray, op. cit., p.3.
7. Irit Rogoff, ‘Turning’, e-flux journal #0, November 2008.

Filed under Article Rosemary Forde