The Big List: what made an impact in the visual arts

Gina Fairley

2016 was big: big politics, big protests, big blockbusters and big shifts in the visual arts ecology.
The Big List: what made an impact in the visual arts

Detail of Sarah Lucas’s huge digital image 'Untitled', 2012, hung from ceiling to floor in Artspace’s exhibition ‘The Public Body’ - what could be describes as the "ballsiest" exhibition of 2016; courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London.

While some may feel we have come up empty this year - a year of big knocks in terms of funding and political lobbying - the visual arts has again shown that it can pull out big results when under pressure.


Who championed new frontiers? Who captured the limelight? And who was resilient in the face of change? We take a look at the year past and find a little optimism and humour in the “big bleak” that overshadowed much of the calendar year.

Biggest belly-punch

From shock to anger to acceptance, the arts sector moved through the various stages of mourning in 2016, as the fallout from last year’s decimation of the Australia Council landed. A third of funded organisations lost their multi-year operational funding on the day tagged as “Black Friday”.

Read: 65 arts organisations lose funding from Australia Council

Read: Australia Council giveth and taketh away

Biggest losers

Feeder organisations, which support multiple smaller organisations, were most affected by rolling cuts to the visual arts sector.

The national exhibition touring network (NETS)  trevealed that more than 100 exhibitions to regional audiences would be compromised by the cuts as four of its component organisations lost organisational funding.

Read: More than 100 touring exhibitions threatened by cuts

40% of contemporary art spaces lost their four-year organisation funding. Half of the 14 strong member network - Contemporary Art Organisations Australia (CAO) were all struck off the list of four-year organisation funding:  Contemporary Art Centre South Australia (CACSA), Australian Experimental Art Foundation (AEAF), Canberra Contemporary Artspace, Northern Centre for Contemporary Art previously known as 24HR Art, Melbourne's Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), Australian Centre of Photography (ACP) Sydney, the Australian Design Centre,

Read: Enough! is the message from 38 visual art signatories

The push-back message from the visual arts sector was “Don’t Kill the Feeders” but by the end of 2016 the ecosystem had been all but destroyed.

Biggest phoenix

If the buzzword in the visual arts was “disruptor” in 2015, this past year it was clearly “resilience”. A prime example was the merger of the South Australian organisations Australian Experimental Art Foundation (AEAF) and Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia (CACSA). This month they held interviews for a Director of the new organisation to be formed in 2017.

Read: SA organisations to merge in wake of funding cuts

Biggest mistake

In June the University of Sydney and the University of NSW announced that the Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) would merge with the University of NSW Art & Design school (UNSWAD) to form a new 'school of excellence'

Read: Fact Check – are our art schools closing?

The plan lasted little more than a month.  After protests from graduates, academics and students the merger was quickly called off. But protests continued as SCA announced it would close the Rozelle campus and that several studio practice courses will no longer be offered.

The National Art School was pulled into the turmoil under the headline of creating a new centre for excellence. NAS upheld is own fight during the year to maintain its independence, despite losing its Director Michael Snelling at a critical moment.

Read: Students occupy SCA; protest at NAS


Excellence is already achieved at our art schools. National Art School; Photo Ella Dreyfus

Biggest objection

The plan to move the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta was heavily criticised. 66 submissions were received by the NSW Inquiry into Museums and Galleries and hearings held in September, many charging the Government with a developer deal that ignored public culture. 

The Inquiry was charged with investigating funding, structure and collections for NSW museums and galleries, including the impact of the efficiency dividend, which has effectively cut museums and gallery budgets over the past 10 years.

Read: NSW government faces hammering over Powerhouse move

Biggest accolade

Internationally, Australia hit top scores in attendances. In The Art Newspaper’s annual industry Visitor Figures report for art galleries and museums globally, Australia was ranked Number 1 globally with the most attended contemporary art exhibition in 2015.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) exhibition David Shrigley: Life and Life Drawing, with 5,602 visitors daily, trumped Robert Gober at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Jeff Koons’ Retrospective at both Guggenheim Bilbao and Centre Pompidou – where it was the most visited exhibition in Paris for the year.

Was it an anomaly? We will be keenly scrutinising the numbers from 2016 to see.

Read: Australian galleries rank well international visitors

Read: Visitor numbers don’t give full picture


Amaravati region, Andhra Pradesh, India - Scene from the life of Buddha Shakyamuni, 3rd century CE, limestone; supplied

Biggest turn-around

Our reputation was also cemented by leading the provenance debate, rising from a sketchy record just three years ago. Late in 2013, the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) was the centre of a media storm over an 11th century bronze sculpture statue from a temple in Tamil Nadu that had falsified provenance.

This year the NGA published an independent review of the Asian Art Provenance Research Project conducted by the former High Court Justice, Susan Crennan and deaccessioned two works valued at $1.1 million due to their suspect provenance. These works will be returned to India, as part of the high provenance standards now being implemented at the NGA..

Read: NGA returns two sculptures to India

Biggest scandal

The Whiteley fakes saga resulted in a successful prosecution after several years in court. Conservator Mohame Aman Siddique and art dealer Peter Stanley Gant were convicted by the Victorian Supreme Court in November over the sale of two forgeries, Blue Lavender, Orange Lavender Bay and Through the Window, Lavender Bay -. The judge sentenced Gant to five years’ imprisonment, with a non-parole period of 2.5 years, and Siddique to three years’ imprisonment, with an order for ten months to be served and 26 months suspended.

Read: Theft and forgery from Whiteley to Warhol

Biggest cock-up

The Melbourne Art Foundation's (MAF) decision to dump its Sydney-based managers Art Fairs Australia (AFA) in 2015 was followed by a shock announcement in March that the 2016 Melbourne Art Fair, scheduled for August, was to be cancelled. AFA, which has been seamlessly managing Sydney Contemporary, drew a peak audience of 20,000 to the 2014 fair but MAF said the two organisations had 'different philosophies'. The fair was called off after several major galleries withdrew. Two satellite fairs - Spring 1883 and NotFair - went ahead August.

Read: Melbourne Art Foundation dumps management

Read: Melbourne Art Fair cancelled in shock announcement


Jess Johnson, Darren Knight Gallery, Discoveries, Art Basel Hong Kong 2016

Biggest fair presence

In the wash up of the lost Melbourne Art Fair and the demise of local offerings, Australian artists and galleries turned to international art fairs to reach new audiences.

More than 70,000 visitors queued for an hour or more to stream through the doors of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre during the 2016 fair in late March - the appeal for those seeking visibility is a no-brainer.

Twelve galleries took the stab at the Asian market, and Indigenous artist Brook Andrew landed the prime position at Art Basel Hong Kong in curator Alexie Glass-Kantor second edition of Encounters.

Read: Australian galleries seduce viewers at Art Basel Hong Kong

Biggest move

The Sydney dealers, Ursula Sullivan and Joanna Strumpf, opened the first Australian gallery in Asia in June within the Singapore art enclave, Gillman Barracks. Sullivan + Strumpf are the first gallery to take the multi-venue model into Asia.

Read: First Australian gallery to open in Asia

Read: Where does Australia fit in Singapore's regional art hub?

Biggest surprise

While some galleries and museums have closed in 2016, a significant private museum in Adelaide opened. In June the David Roche Foundation House Museum opened its doors to the public. What sets this museum apart is that it is steps beyond the National Trust concept of a house-as-museum, and rather presents Roche’s home as a living collection – presented in the opulent manner in which Roche spent his days  – and complemented by an annexed contemporary wing in a neo-Classical style to the price tag of $5 million.

Read: Adelaide gets a new private museum

Biggest partnership

It is hard to trump the recent announced by the Art Gallery of South Australia’s partnership with BHP Billiton to present Tarnanthi – its festival of Indigenous art – to the tune of $17.5 million. The five-year partnership with BHP Billiton will ensure the biennial festival is delivered up to 2021.

Read: Big boost for Indigenous arts

But equally impressive in a different ways was the  acquisition-based partnership between the MCA and TATE, funded by Qantas, which involves a lesser quantum but a creative approach. The partnership will enable the acquisition of two large video installations, two paintings and an artist book of etchings to be jointly owned and displayed on rotation by the MCA in Sydney and the Tate in London.

Read: Political works unite TATE, MCA and QANTAS

Read: Manhattan or Screwdriver? Museums mix a new cocktail

Biggest faux pas

The world's most famous performance artist Marina Abramović came under the international spotlight again in August – but for all the wrong reasons. It was a racist slur against Indigenous Australians that went viral.

A leaked excerpt from her memoir Walk Thorough Walls hit social media platforms with the hashtag #theracistispresent. She purportedly wrote: ‘They look like dinosaurs. They are really strange and different, and they should be treated like living treasures. Yet they are not.’

Aboriginal artist Christian Thompson spoke out in her defence.

Read: Aborigines 'like dinosaurs', says Marina

Biggest freak

One of the best shows of 2016 was not your regular blockbuster or presented by one of the majors. The accolade was taken by an arts school – and yes one soon to be closed.

Who’d have thought a geologist with double degrees and a PhD would have been so cool to have been picked up by a rap-rave group and go viral on YouTube? We are taking about South African photographer Roger Ballen, and his exhibition at Sydney College of the Arts Gallery, housed in the former Rozelle Psychiatric Hospital.

The National Gallery of Australia also presented an exhibition of American photograph Diane Arbus this year, another artist who has been pigeon holed into the “freak box”.

Read: I think you’re freaky but I like it a lot.

Biggest emerging talent

At just 27, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran is perhaps the youngest artist to be commissioned for a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in is history.

This year the Sri Lankan born Sydney-based ceramicist was also included in 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, had his work featured in numerous art magazines, had a solo exhibition at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, and represented Australia at the 2016 Kuandu Biennale, Taipei and the 4th Jakarta Contemporary Ceramics Biennale.

Read: Dissident demi-gods rock the ceramic world


Biggest price tag

Under the auctioneers hammer a total of $105 Million was cleared in 2016. Sotheby’s Australia took the largest part of the pie, followed by Menzies.

20,605 artworks were offered at auction during this year. 13,455 of those sold, or 65% - a percentage that has become the norm now for the past few year, and if anything a smidge lower.

The artwork that lead the year’s sales was a painting by Sidney Nolan, River Ban (1964) which was auctioned by Sotheby’s in May. It sold for A$1,647,000, and exceeded its high estimate by $747,000. The painting was part of The Denis Savill Collection of Australian Art.

Biggest over-hype

We all love a name for a blockbuster, but Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera hardly cut it as an exhibition this year, trading off their names and delivering a second rate show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Largely photographs of the couple, and the odd painting, it was squeezed in the upstairs gallery without the weight such names command.

Biggest name

Many will argue that Andy Warhol and Ai Wei Wei should take the hat for this one, presented at the summer blockbuster 2015-2016 at the NGV. But it was an unsurprising crowd-pleaser.

Cindy Sherman presented at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art and curated by Ellie Buttrose was a more adventurous killer exhibition and the first Australian solo exhibition in more than 15 years by New York-based artist.

Read: VIDEO: Who is Cindy Sherman?

The other household name who received big gallery play was Marilyn Monroe. Both the Bendigo Art Gallery and the Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA)  presented exhibitions about the Hollywood queen, showing that regions do blockbusters just as well as the cities.

Biggest curatorial risk

Perhaps the most ballsy exhibition for decades was Artspace’s show The Public Body .01, which assembled 17 artists around a discussion of the sexualized and gendered body. It tested the boundaries of censorship, curatorial tolerance and public engagement (pictured top). It is the first in a suite of three shows that examines what the body might look like in the 21st century, from its overt sexualisation to the history of the political body and protest.

Read: Up close and personal: body ethics and risk

Biggest survey

Mike Parr at the NGA or John Olsen at NGV toss up for the biggest career survey exhibition.

Mike Parr spilled blood – literally – for art in an endurance performance at the opening of his NGA exhibition. Parr is arguably Australia’s most internationally-recognised performance artist, and this survey did his career justice.

Read: Blood on the floor (literally) as Parr takes on Pollock

Read: Mike Parr still disturbing to a new generation

The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia paid tribute John Olsen, now 88 in a vast show entitled You Beaut Country, including new work by the still active artist, now aged 88.

Read: Rethinking the John Olsen legend


Sydney collaborators Justin Shoulder and Bhenji Ra perform at APT8, setting the tone; Photo ArtsHub

Biggest international exhibition

The Asia Pacific Triennial has long been an important exhibition connecting Australia and the region. While it opened in December 2015, its true run was this year – and it did not disappoint. Sexuality, gender and the environment are strong themes across APT8 making for an exhibition that pushes fresh boundaries in Asia Pacific dialogue.

Read: Highlights at APT8 witness to change


Lindy Lee, Birth & Death (2007) Courtesy the artist, Photo Rob Scott-Mitchell

Biggest re-think

When Australia's most prominent Asian art gallery, the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, started 20 years ago there was no such thing as Asian-Australians. The people existed but the term didn't.  On the occasion of its anniversary this year it unpacked how the term Asian-Australian has evolved - whether it acknowledges identity or builds a ghetto is still debated.

Read: Beyond the racist hyphen

Biggest gender buster

Women not only took the lion share of winners across awards and prizes in 2016 but trumped the lads, taking 57% of the prize earnings. Big prizes went to the ladies – Louise Hearman won the Archibald and Megan Seres the $150,000 Doug Moran Portrait Prize, among others.

Read Women are the winners

Women also had a strong curatorial presence in 2016. A number of exhibition of women, by women, made a significant impact within the visual arts sector, demonstrating that it is doing gender parity better than the performing arts sector.

Read: Do women make better curators?

Biggest biennale

The Biennale of Sydney survived the boycott of its previous edition to re-emerge this year but the 20th edition of the exhibition felt a little flat. Still it drew the crowds: more than 640,000 attended Stephanie Rosenthal’s exhibition – the second highest attendance on record.

Read: Biennale of Sydney: How a bird beats a boycott

To my mind, though, the real magic was reserved for the Adelaide Biennial. Magic Object, curated by Assistant Director AGSA Lisa Slade showcased an Antipodean take on the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. It broke from the kind of cookie-cutter biennale mould with somewhat analogue material evoking illusionism to question the state of making in Australian art now.

Read: Partnerships redefine the 2016 Adelaide Biennial

Read: Do you believe in magic?

Biggest catwalk art

200 Years of Australian Fashion was one of the NGV's hits this year. The gallery has grown a reputation for presenting fashion exhibition (and again will in 2017 with Dior), attracting a $1.4 million gift to its Fashion and Textile Department, an internationally renowned collection touted as one of ‘the world’s most sought-after’ including French haute couture and unique pieces by Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, Vionnet and Jeanne Lanvin, among others.

But the fashion trend is not exclusive to Victoria. The Powerhouse Museum / MAAS presented Collette Dinnigan and Isabella Blow.

Biggest initiative

Hazelhurst Regional Gallery presented the first Australian survey of art from the APY Lands (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands), with an outstanding attendance of 20,000 for the metropolitan gallery.

Curator Carie Kibble was keen to redress the lack of visibility of the region, which sits at the tri-state border of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The gallery commissioned new work and worked with seven art centres to deliver the show.

Read: Regional gallery trumps the majors

Biggest unsung show

A show that should have got more visibility as it did everything right was Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest show Gravity (and Wonder). It was developed with the assistance of the inaugural $40,000 Dobell Exhibition Grant to work in collaboration with the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS). Tick partnerships.

The exhibition explored the history and philosophy of this fundamental law of the universe – Gravity - through contemporary art and related object, and introduced audiences to new ways of thinking about the multi-dimensionality of matter, time and space through a range of loaned and newly commissioned sculptural and kinetic works. Tick science art collaborations.

And… just the biggest show

How new can painting be? So new and exhaustive that it has to be delivered in two chapters, is the answer that the Australian Centre Contemporary Art (ACCA) posits through an exhibition that corrals 75 living painters cheek-to-cheek in random configuration.

Co-curator Annika Kristensen told ArtsHub the exhibition was addressing an absence in the Australian art landscape over the past decade. Without doubt, it was the “biggest” painting show of 2016, but was as its impact as big as its scale? Views were really mixed on this exhibition as a footprint of painting in Australia, now.

Read: Painting’s not dead; It’s not even sleeping

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.