The Big List: the visual arts in 2017

Gina Fairley

2017 was big: big empathy, big blockbusters, big harassment, big lobbying and big shifts in the visual arts ecology as a note of resilience kicked in.
The Big List: the visual arts in 2017

Richard Bell, Judgement Day (Bell's Theorem), 2007 (detail); collection QAGOMA, courtesy the artist. This work was included in a rehang of QAGOMAs Australian art collection.

In 2016, the visual art sector was still reeling in the wake of government funding cuts, with a small to medium sector shattered and looming art school closures – it was a year that seemed to be more of a “big bleak” than big steps forward.

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Read: The Big List: what made an impact in the visual arts in 2016

However, in 2017 the sector seems to have recalibrated and got back on track; a level of optimism was palpable. We were no longer just throwing out those buzzwords – innovation, future proofing, sustainability and silo busting – this year. Rather, they became realities.

What also emerged in 2017 was a more empathetic sector, mindful of mental health, anxiety in the workplace, sexual harassment, and gender re-balance in programming. They can only be seen as big wins. We have also been building better recognition for our regional and remote visual arts sector, one we hope to continue to report on it 2018.

It was also the year that we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum and the 20th anniversary of recognising the Stolen Generations, and, understandably, across our nation, came a spate of considered exhibitions, including the Tarnanthi Festival in Adelaide and Defying Empire, the 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), among others.

It was also a year for the repatriation of Indigenous remains and objects, copyright wins, and new legislation against fake art.

Who captured the limelight in 2017? Who championed new frontiers? And what were the trends and scandals? We take a look at the past year.

Biggest correction

One of the best “feel good” stories of the year had been a long one coming. It was the return of copyright to the family of Australia’s first celebrated Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira.  

This battle started eight years ago when the arts organisation Big hART joined with the Namatjira Family, The Namatjira Legacy Trust and pro-bono work by law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler to fight for the return of the Namatjira’s copyright entitlement.

Legend Press had acquired the copyright to Namatjira’s works from the NT government in 1983. The catalyst to getting the deal through was the involvement of entrepreneur and philanthropist Dick Smith, with a $250,000 donation to the Namatjira Legacy Trust.

Scott Rankin, CEO, Big hART told ArtsHub: ‘It is like body surfing. There’s nothing out there and then a wave comes and suddenly you’re on it.’

Read: The $1 Namatjira Copyright deal – how it happened

Biggest belly punch

It was a tough year for journalists, and one that the arts sector was not immune to. In May, Fairfax staffers went on strike as successive roll-outs of journalist redundancies came into play. Producer David Williams said that in addition to those cuts, the government had shuffled $30 million from the ABC to fund the coverage of women’s sport on Foxtel, an indication of a value shift away from the arts.

These compounded blows against the profession of art journalism are hitting hard, and we are all suffering the outcome as a dearth of cultural commentary started to eat its way into mainstream media in 2017.

Read: Fighting the slaughter of arts journalism

Biggest rug-pull

The Venice Biennale has always been the goliath of the sector – big money, big donors, big profile and a big junket for some. However, that all changed this year in the wake of Tracey Moffatt’s representation at the iconic global event.

First, conversation around the selection process was ignited. Then, the Australia Council announced that it was changing how it would manage Australia’s representation at the Venice Biennale, including a more democratic selection process. Next, the wild fires descended, and two of Australia’s most prominent visual arts patrons – Simon Mordant and Neil Balnaves – pulled their support of the event in a very public spat.

Read: Art Titans wield power over Venice Biennale selection

Read: The trigger to rethinking Australia’s Venice Biennale management

Biggest chair to fill

First it was Brand, then Winikoff, and then Vaughan. That is a pretty top-heavy list of empty chairs at peak arts organisations. In May, Executive Director of NAVA (National Association for Visual Arts), Tamara Winikoff OAM resigned after 22 years of lobbying for artists. In September Esther Anatolis was appointed to the position.

Read: NAVA and Artspeak lose Winikoff

Read: Artshub speaks with the new Executive Director of NAVA

In April, the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) Board delayed the renewal of Director Michael Brand’s five-year contract for its full term, only extending it for 12-months taking him through to June 2018. The final decision on Brand's contract will be made then.

‘Reading anything into it other than we are diligently focused on the next stage of the gallery’s history is wrong,’ said President of the Board, David Gonski, adding that it was pivotal for Brand to stay on while funding was signed off on the Sydney Modern Project.

Read: Director of AGNSW in contract hiatus

In Canberra, decisions were more definitive. NGA Director Gerard Vaughan announced that he will be concluding his tenure in October 2018, after three short years in the role.

An international search for a new Director will soon commence, to be managed by global executive search firm, Korn Ferry.

Read: Gerard Vaughan announces retirement

Image via Shutterstock

Biggest trending topic

Mental health and wellbeing in the arts have gained significant traction as topics for discussion in the past year. The arts sector has a relatively poor record to date in this area, willing to shrug it off as “just the way it is”. That is changing with the formation of initiatives such as the Arts Wellbeing Collective, a new Foundation, and a new festival that tackles mental health and wellbeing in the arts head on.

The Big Anxiety festival was staged in September, hosted by UNSW in association with the Black Dog Institute and more than 25 partners in the cultural, education and health sectors.

Read: Good mental health in the arts needs more than talk

Read: Art and science join forces at the inaugural Big Anxiety Festival

Read: A toolkit for a healthier arts sector

Biggest rethink

Queensland Art Gallery’s (QAGOMA) new hang of Australian art offered the next chapter in the history wars, getting the story finally right from a big institution’s perspective. Director Chris Saines called it a ‘reconfiguration’ of Australian art – ‘an exciting rethinking of the way in which we interweave and interlock the stories of Indigenous Australian art history and non-Indigenous or post colonialisation history in a way that, I will claim, has not been told in any state or national institution in Australia.’

Read: This is not a rehang; it’s a rewriting of Australian art

The Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) has also been planning its rehang this year, to be unveiled in 2018. Clearly, the old colonialist line no longer holds clout or respect when it comes to speaking about our nation’s cultural heritage. The message: mix it up and destroy the silos.

Biggest axe to grind

Agree with her or not, Judith White has been polishing her carving set this year, taking the knives to the AGNSW on several occasions. The former employee turned author and blogger published Culture Heist: Art versus Money in June – a book that tracked the emergence of the Sydney Modern Project, through a very complex timeline of the past five or more years, starting prior to Director Michael Brand’s appointment when the Gallery was still under Edmond Capon's control, and leading up to April 2017. A hint – have the antacid ready.

Read: Culture Heist: an exposé on the rise of Sydney Modern

Supplied: Arts Law Centre of Australia

Biggest legislation

One of the greatest campaigns launched this year was the Fake Art Harms Culture campaign spearheaded by The Arts Law Centre of Australia, the Indigenous Art Code, and Copyright Agency | Viscopy, and supported by Queensland Member for Kennedy, Bob Katter.

It was introduced in August last year at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, but really escalated in February this year when a Private Members Bill was presented to Parliament by Kater – the Competition and Consumer Amendment (Exploitation of Indigenous Culture) Bill 2017. Findings on the Inquiry are yet to be released (submissions closed November).

Its aim was to send the message that commercial ‘Aboriginal style’ objects and artworks will no longer be tolerated, and that the sale of fake foreign imports in Australia would be against the law.

Read: You can impact legislation on fake Indigenous art

Arts Law also released a position paper in August on recognising artists in prison, reviewing the current law and policy in Australia.

Biggest blindside

On the other edge of copyright, the peak copyright agency was forced to take the NSW Government to the Copyright Tribunal in November, after its refusal to pay for fair use of material. The action is a result of five years of negotiations with the Government, which have broken down without conclusion.

Copyright Agency CEO Adam Suckling said, ‘Thousands of NSW executives and public servants have copied up to 200 million pages of copyright material without the appropriate approval or recompense for Australian creators.’  The suit states that the NSW Government owes the Agency $7.5 million in unpaid fees.

Read: Copyright Agency pushed to last resort

Teenage Metamorphosis 2017; Silicone, fibreglass, human hair, found objects; Courtesy the artist, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne; Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney; and Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco.

Biggest accolade

It was a Melbourne artist who surprised the world this year, named the top contemporary artist by The Art Newspaper’s annual visitor survey. Patricia Piccinini beat exhibitions by legendary artists Renoir, Picasso and Frida Kahlo, and was also named the second most visited art show the world in 2016. Her free exhibition Consciousness at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB) in Rio de Janeiro, drew 8,340 visitors a day, a total of 444,425 over the exhibition period.

Read: The Australian who beat Renoir

It is good news for QAGOMA, who announced during the year that it will be presented the largest survey exhibition of Piccinin’s work in 2018.

Read: GOMAs largest solo by an Australian artist.

Biggest survey

2017 could be described as the year of the survey exhibition. For a long time there was a culture within the museum and gallery sector that put the emerging artist on the ‘hot thing’ pedestal at the expense of more established artists.

Adding to that “mid-career desert” – as that blind spot had come to be thought of – state institutions were faced with the increasing pressures of efficiency measures and the need to deliver ecstatic attendance figures to funding bodies and government tourism agencies. Simply, hi-vis, high-energy exhibitions were going to guarantee more people through the doors than a solo by a senior artist who was somewhat niche in appeal.

The survey exhibition, consequently, was pushed into the corner, to be dealt with later – and 2017 seems to have been that moment.

Read: A current surge of survey exhibitions begs the question why

ArtsHub has scanned 2017 programing and counted over 20 survey exhibitions, with 45% of those surveys looking at women artists. It was a hard call which was the top survey exhibitions in 2017 – we are calling it a draw between Between Nature and Sin: David Griggs presented by Campbelltown Art Centre, NGVs Brook Andrew survey The Right to Offend is Sacred and Gareth Sansom: Transformer, also at the NGV.

Others work noting were: Peter Powditch (SH Ervin), Elisabeth Cummings (Drill Hall, touring), Christian Thompson (MUMA), Kirstie Rea (CMAG), Dacchi Dang (4A), Louise Herman (MCA, touring), Patrick Pound (NGV), Brook Andrew (NGV), Kathryn Del Barton (NGV), Robert Boynes (Drill Hall Gallery), Jenny Watson (MCA), Hilarie Mais (MCA), Liz Coates (Drill Hall Gallery), Mazie Karen Turner (posthumous survey, Newcastle Art Gallery), Louise Paramour (NGV), Helen Maudsley (NGV) and a significant solo by Mikala Dwyer (AGNSW).

Biggest scandal

The biggest scandal, arguably, is one that happened early in the year when news broke that the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) was under attack over allegations of a wage scandal involving its sub-contracted security guards.

The gallery’s security contractor Building Risks International Pty Limited (BRI Security), which was then transferred to the sub-contractors Java Security, purportedly required staff to take illegal cash payments below award rates. NGV took the allegations ‘very seriously’, and the auditing firm KPMG was appointed by the Victorian Department of Treasury and Finance to investigate.  

Read: NGV accused of underpaying its guards

Only this week, Heide Museum of Modern Art has also been in hot water with The Australian reporting that a third of its staff, or 16 people, have left since the ­beginning of the year. They based their assessment on the personnel list in Heide’s 2016 annual report. 

Biggest boost

On the flipside to that negative news, the NGV reported that it had a record year in philanthropy in 2017. The NGV Foundation reached a new high with $39.7 million gifted to the gallery this past financial year. Of that, over $25 million was in monetary donations, bequests and philanthropic grants, and $14 million in donated cultural assets. Part of that support was the extraordinary gift of the $17.9 million Shaw Bequest from the estate of Professor Alan Shaw AO, and his wife Mrs Peggy Shaw.

Read: Record year of philanthropy for NGV

The Art Gallery of NSW also reported a significant gift of $20 million to Sydney Modern by the Susan and Isaac Wakil Foundation in June, providing a much need boost in confidence and support. It is a significant part of $70 million pledged to date in support of the Gallery’s expansion. The gallery added: ‘This is the largest monetary gift in the Gallery’s 146-year history.’

And in Feburary, philanthropist and White Rabbit Gallery founder Judith Neilson AM made her second major donation to UNSW with the announcement of The Judith Neilson Chair in Contemporary Art – a gift of some $6 million toward rigorous thinking and scholarly research.

It's in line with a new report released in July that found that private support for the arts has grown in Australia over the past six years, a trend that is escalating.

Read: Report shows private support for arts has grown

Artists sketch of proposed Powerhouse Museum on banks of Parramatta River

Biggest objection

While support for Sydney Modern turned around somewhat with the June announcement of the NSW Government’s $244 million commitment, giving the green light on the project, and designs well underway, largely it has been a tumultuous year for the proposed new gallery.

However, the AGNSW was not alone in high profile objections and it was another hot potato across town that takes the gong in this category. The proposed move of the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta continued to face scathing criticisms in 2017, since it was first announced by then-Premier Mike Baird in February 2015.

Read: NSW Government faces hammering over Powerhouse move

Only this week, a report was handing down by a seven-member parliamentary committee, which for the past year has examined the controversial decision, stating: ‘…spending up to $1.5 billion to destroy a cultural icon is an act of vandalism by this government.’ The verdict, however, is still out. The committee has called on the Government to release the full business case for public consultation before making its final decision about the move.

The committee held eight public hearings, and received 173 submissions and 34 supplementary submissions since it was established in June 2016. Premier Gladys Berejiklian said definitively in July that there would be no satellite museum proposal. ‘Let me be clear, there will be one Powerhouse Museum in NSW. It will be across the river here [in Parramatta].’

The move, however, is championed by many working towards building a cultural precinct in the West, and has been supported by Board of Trustees of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS).

Read: The other side - why the Powerhouse should move West

All eyes will be focused on the institution in 2018.

Biggest newbie

ACE Open is a great 2017 story of resilience and fresh thinking. Adelaide’s newest contemporary art organisation has risen from the ashes of the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia (CACSA) and the Australian Experimental Art Foundation (AEAF), organisations that merged due to government funding cuts last year.

Headed up by CEO / Director Liz Nowell, and a fantastic support team, there will be nothing holding this roaring phoenix back in 2018.

Read: A phoenix rises and another bird spreads its wings

Biggest gender re-balance

While women artists not only took the lion share of winners across awards and prizes in 2016 , they also trumped the lads, taking 57% of the prize earnings.

That trend of re-balancing continued in 2017. There were many solo and survey exhibitions dedicated to women artists presented this year by our top tier orgs and mid scale galleries. The pressing question we are left with at the end of the year, is can the spike be sustained or has the box just been ticked for now?

Read: Are we finally counting right?

Read: Time to stop calling ourselves women artists

However, it was an exhibition all about men that takes the gong in this category for 2017. The swansong of long term regional gallery director, Richard Perram, The Unflinching Gaze was all about unlocking how another person looks – that is a gay male gaze – and in doing so altered our perceptions of art. Presented by Bathurst Regional Art Gallery (BRAG).

Read: Regional gallery leads national debate on male gender politics

Image via Shutterstock

Biggest collaboration

After months of planning, October saw 27 Sydney-based cultural organsations come together in what they described as ‘a global first’ (perhaps just an Australian first) to share information with the aim of increasing visibility and accelerate innovative partnerships.

The Sydney Culture Network is driven by UNSW and will link Sydney’s artistic hubs – galleries, libraries and museums – to boost collaboration, research, programming and data sharing, and to grow public engagement. Their goal: to work together to make Sydney a global leader in valuing culture.

Read: A global first for Sydney cultural organisations

It sat in line with a trend ArtsHub observed during the year – that Collaboration appears to be the new curatorial model. Of note, in March-May the inaugural edition of The National: New Australian Art, a biennial style exhibition across three of Sydney’s major arts organisations (AGNSW, MCA and Carriagworks), steered by a jointly formed curatorium, and in August the Bayanihan Philippine Art Project was presented across five Sydney city and metropolitan venues.

Biggest Blockbusters

It was another big year of blockbusters. Leading the trail in Adelaide was Versus Rodin at AGSA. In Sydney we had Pipilotti Rist: Sip my Ocean at the MCA, Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age at the MCA and Learn & Play! teamLab Future Park at the Powerhouse Museum. In Canberra it was Versailles: Treasures from the Palace and Hyper Real at the NGA; in Melbourne it was Van Gogh and the Seasons at the NGV, and in Brisbane you could not go past the big names of Marvel,  Yayoi Kusama and Gerhard Richter, and MONA in Hobart had The Museum of Everything.

We saw them all, and we reviewed them all at ArtsHub, and have decided that, while Kusama was one of the more considered and exciting exhibitions for its engagement, it was probably the least publicised exhibition in the group that really stood out as an erudite and palpable viewing experience – that is the exhibition Versus Rodin curated by AGSA’s Leigh Robb.

Read: Versus Rodin challenges how we view art

Biggest Biennale

Slightly different in format but really same same, the three big biennales of 2017 were TARNANTHI: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Art, presented and manged by the Art Gallery of South Australia, Defying Empire: 3rd Indigenous Triennial staged by the NGA in Canberra and the inaugural edition of The National staged across three Sydney venues - MCA, AGNSW and Carriageworks. We are going to give the gong to Defying Empire.

Read: Do we need The National?

Biggest build

Building new museums seem to be a theme of 2017. Sydney Modern plans were unveiled early in the year. Tokyo architectural firm SANAA (Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa) was appointed in May this year on their concept of a series of pavilion-like units, with a price tag of $450 million.

In July, the founder of Hobart’s MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) David Walsh unveiled unveiled designs for HOMO – his HOtel at MOna – an ambitious project that will take approximately three years to build and is expected to cost over $300 million. An artist's impression of the design by Fender Katsalidis Architects shows the hotel thrusting high above the Derwent River. It is slated to open in 2020.

And just this month, Adelaide Contemporary announced its shortlist of architectural teams vying for the design of its new museum. The announcement of the winning design is anticipated to be made in early to mid-June 2018. The price tag mooted for the project back in November 2016, when it was flagged, sat at $260 million.

National Art School Studios Photo: Peter Morgan

Biggest win … and loss

It was an art school that took the biggest win this year. The National Art School in Sydney was named over all Australian universities – including blue chip institutions – as the best place to study for its overall education experience.

Read: Art school rates above all Australian Universities

It was good news following 2016’s rug pull over art school mergers and closures involving SCA, UNSW and NAS. Early in the year the Sydney College of the Arts’ move from the historic Kirkbridge Campus at Rozelle was delayed until 2018, with their “Final Change Plan” released in June.

Read: Fact Check: SCA Final Change Plan

Biggest court case

What has been labeled Australia’s biggest art fraud case came to a sensational ending in April, as the Victorian Court of Appeal overturned the jury’s finding that a Melbourne conservator and art dealer – Peter Stanley Gant and Mohame Aman Siddique – were guilty of fraud over two fake Brett Whiteley paintings.

Just released, Whiteley on Trial by journalist Gabriella Coslovich, is available online from Melbourne University Press.

Read: Whiteley fraud case quashed at appeal

Image courtesy Sydney Contemporary

Biggest art fair

There appears to be nothing stopping Sydney Contemporary, which presented its third edition in 2017, launched with the announcement that it would become an annual event. The word from the top is that Sydney Contemporary is looking to adopt the Frieze and Miami model.

Sales at this year's Sydney Contemporary Art Fair reached $16 million. However, owner Tim Etchells admits that the fair is still working hard at growing both attendance of international collectors and top overseas galleries. The offshore participation has been sitting flatly at around 23% since the fair started six years ago.

Read: Softly softly builds an art fair with balls

It was also a year for boutique fairs: NotFair, The Other Art Fair, Spring 1883, 602, and FLAIR Melbourne.

And after a dramatic plug-pull in 2016, Melbourne Art Fair announced in June that it will be returning again in 2018, as part of Melbourne Art Week. The new look, new management fair will be housed in a temporary structure within the Southbank Arts Precinct and alongside the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). At its helm is Maree Di Pasquale.

Read: Biennial art fair finds new home in Southbank

Image via Pexels.com

Biggest trend

What appears to be one of the biggest trends that poked its head up in 2017, and appears to be tracking strong into the nest year, is the idea of becoming a data-informed organisation.

The Australia Council has invested heavily in research, releasing several reports during 2017 and creating a separate portal on its website. Data has become the topic of seminars and summits – a shining light that also offers new ways to monetise activities and open up to new partnerships. Watch this space.

Read: Lucrative opportunities in arts research collaboration

Read: Report shows government spends $245 per person on culture

Read: The long road to progress: Unpacking the Australia Council’s Annual Report

Biggest gallery closure

It is never great news to hear that a gallery has closed its doors. This year a local community fought to save Grafton Regional Gallery; another community stood up – and with the help of a private donation – saved the doors from closing on Castlemaine Art Museum. A loss during the year was independent Perth space, Moana Project Space in its current iteration.

However, it was the announcement in August this year that the legendary Watters Gallery will close its doors with the conclusion of 2018 that sent a ripple through the commercial gallery sector.

Read: Why are so many commercial galleries closing?

Biggest acquisition

The largest acquisition this year was a $1.4 million Whistler acquisition for NGA. The purchase of Harmony in blue and pearl: The Sands, Dieppe, 1885 has been described by the gallery as a ‘coup’. It was made possible through the support of a handful of generous private donors from Australia and the US, including Allan and Maria Myers, Andrew and Tracey Sisson, the Dr Lee MacCormick Edwards Charitable Foundation and the Neilson Foundation.

Also this month, the NGV announced its most ‘ambitious commission yet’ funded and gifted by the Aldred Felton Bequest. The piece by Ron Mueck, Mass (2017), was unveiled for the NGV Triennial, and is comprised of 100 large scale sculptures of the human skull.

Chairman of the Felton Bequest Committee, Sir Andrew Grimwade CBE, said: ‘It is the NGV’s Blue Poles moment as it is sure to confound, confront and exhilarate visitors in equal measure.’

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.