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January Issue 2004
A View From Down
Under on Five of the Best
by Judith McGrath
Last month I was contacted by a prestigious art magazine and asked to put forward the names of five artists from the West to be considered for a list designating Australia's best practitioners. Normally I contribute only exhibition previews, essays on local artists and the occasional interview, not major feature articles or academic treatises, so I was surprised to be approached in this matter. The publication is aimed at the serious art buyer, the private and corporate collectors, curators of public institutions and investors, so an annual list is compiled to help readers determine which artists are worth watching and whose work makes a good investment.
My first reaction was "Wow, what an honour to be asked to participate" but within a nanosecond, the warm feeling of being Very Important was replaced by the cold sweat of confusion. This was an enormous ask, there are so many to choose from, how can I pick only five! I began to name then negate a number of possible candidates. Confusion morphed into fear as nepotism tiptoed into my head. To be on The List was a boost to any artist's reputation and I actually considered nominating artist friends and/or those whose works are in my own collection. Scary thought! For years I have condemned favouritism and the "who you know" approach that opens the door to opportunity for the select few, yet here I was gleefully courting temptation. Shame! It would be nice to say that I saw the error of my way but truth be told it wasn't virtue that turned me against playing the power game, it was knowing I couldn't win. Allow me to explain.
Western Australia covers roughly one third of the total landmass of this sunburnt country yet hosts only two million people, half of whom live in and around Perth, the most isolated capital city in the world. Comparatively speaking, the five major cities on the East Coast are like neighbours, and as such each knows the other's business. Perth artists are known as far away as the outer suburbs while Sydney artists are known all the way to Melbourne and beyond. The combined population of just these two cities is over seven million. It's a numbers game and the East Coast has more people, more dollars and more influence in the national art scene. The List is compiled by a Sydney based publication that reflects East Coast art preferences so anyone I nominate from the West most likely won't get pass the final cull. It's not a complaint; it's a fact.
As a freelance writer, I often feel like the short kid jumping up and down in the back of the pack shouting "pick me, pick me" when they're choosing players for the game. Well I'd been picked and now it was up to me to do my best. I thought if I knew the rules of the East Coast art game it might help me select artists who would make it through the final cull. I needed to know if a high recognition factor referred to an artist's style, or name? If the art has to communicate something about its place and time, or if the artist has to be in the right place at the right time? If playing the art game is more important then making the art? So much to learn, so little time.
Needing help, I called a friend who just returned from t'other side and asked for her observations on the East Coast art scene. She flew east to attend a function that honoured a highly acclaimed painter who recently died. Of all the notable artists and art VIPs present only two represented the West. My friend related how the older painters of proven stature and reputation were humble and genuine in their respect for each other's work, and spoke knowingly about Australian art, past and present. She worried that when the last of them is gone it will leave a gap in this nation's visual art scene, as there are none to replace their vast reserve of knowledge and talent. She also worried about members of the art business community who played the "mine's bigger then yours" game as they valued the artists in their stable according to prices the works could fetch.
As she spoke I recalled how, some years back, a businessman in this town put on public display an original VanGogh he had purchased for well over a million dollars. People stood in line to get a glimpse of the work, they were indeed impressed, they ooohed and ahhhed and agreed it was truly a great work of art. But they missed the point of the whole exercise; they couldn't see the beauty of painting in front of their eyes because all they saw was the price tag in the back of their minds. It would seem the general public has finally influenced the art establishment, although the latter will never admit it. They too are blind to the value of art as they discuss how much it costs.
I thanked my friend, she did help me. I went back to the guidelines that were intended to direct my choice and high lighted the one phrase I could relate to; " or you can nominate someone for your own reasons". With nepotism locked behind closed doors, thoughts of regional preferences thrown out the window and the game plan dismissed, I fell back on my own gut responses. Within minutes the names of five artists, and my reasons for their nomination, were typed into an e-mail. I pressed "send" and sighed. It really wasn't that hard after all.
It doesn't matter if any of my nominees make the final list or not; they're in the game. My selection includes Perth artists who give their best and will continue to produce excellent works that come from the heart; works that display solid skills and are timeless not trendy. These are attributes I believe make a good artist and give their art a value that appreciates with time. These are artists who think like the doyenne who recently passed away. I can't guarantee they will provide a good financial return on your investment but "frankly my dear; I don't give a damn".
Judith McGrath lives
in Kalamunda, Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and
reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. You can see more
of her writing on her website at (www.artseeninwa.com).
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