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June Issue 2005

A View from Down Under
on Cultural Heritage

by Judith McGrath

For a long time now I've been wondering about the why and how of State Galleries. Somewhere along the line I was taught, or perhaps I only assumed, their function was to; A) record the cultural heritage of the state and locate it in the broader national/international spectrum, B) educate members of the public by introducing them to a variety of art related experiences, and C) acquire art works that will prove to be an asset for the common good. Please feel free to add what you will, I'm still learning.

I found myself pondering the above anew last week after viewing two very interesting art events. The first was the opening of Sculpture by the Sea where local and interstate artists created a variety of monumental, site specific art works for display on the white sands and terraced lawns of a public beach. It was amazing to view the work in the bright sunlight with the Indian Ocean as a backdrop, and even more fantastic to watch beach goers interacting with and enjoying the art. The other event also involved larger then life statues. It was a "welcome" for the State Gallery's latest acquisitions for a yet to be constructed sculpture garden. Four excellent bronze works by a South African artist (prominent in his country) stood in a windowless and otherwise empty side gallery while a curator gave an informative talk on who the artist is, what the works are about, and why the gallery commissioned them. We were told the acquisition would bring much prestige to the state's collection and though it wasn't said, we knew enough not to touch.

My pondering about the state of the State Gallery grew to worry as I felt B) and C) of my assumed functions were being reasonably acquitted while A) seemed to have been forgotten. So, in an effort to allay my anxiety I set out to learn the aims and objectives of my public gallery. I found their "aims" in a Vision Statement that reads; To be a centre of excellence in the visual arts that contributes regionally and internationally to a living culture in this state. This seems OK although "centre of excellence" is an exaggeration and a different arm of the government's art ministry regulates regional art experiences. And quite frankly I'm not sure how contributing internationally keeps culture alive at home. Unless they mean, "purchase art from overseas and bring it here to breathe life into the culture of this town". Aside from the insult, the only other thing I see in this vision is that the words sound great but the sentence makes no sense.

On to the Mission statement, which lists the gallery's objectives. It reads: To increase the knowledge and appreciation of the art of the world for the enjoyment and cultural enrichment of the people of this state, and to develop and present the best public art collection in the state and the pre-eminent collection of this state's art. Sounds impressive enough. It's good to increase knowledge and appreciation of art from around the world, and to enrich the public's cultural experiences but if the last phrase relates to function A) I'm really worried. The word "pre-eminent" used in conjunction with "collection of this state's art" doesn't fit. My dictionary tells me pre-eminent equates to 'supreme or having paramount importance" while my experience of the gallery's collection of work by this state's artists tells me they have completely missed the mark.

For too many years, the directors of our State Gallery have been brought in from beyond our borders. Intelligent and well schooled in the Fine Arts, they bring fresh ideas and new schemes to the institution. Unfortunately their good intentions are dropped as they trip over the low budget threshold on arrival. It's a hard job for these well-meaning folk who live in hope that their dreams will be realized, and I applaud their efforts. My problem is that their dreams may not coincide with those of the inhabitants of this town and that they do not weigh the local talent with the same scale used for art created elsewhere. Now that's the real insult.

I'm sure we'd all agree that an art expert, in tandem with the obligatory accountant, should oversee acquisitions for a public collection. Curators with specialist knowledge of specific styles or eras should decide acquisitions for areas such as Fifteenth Century Italian Painting or Japanese Edo Period Wood Block Prints or Tiwi Island Funereal Poles, right? Then why aren't those who select acquisitions for the Contemporary Art Collection experts in the art produced in their own time and place? Each new director or curator comes in, checks out the local art scene, makes contacts with all the right people in this town then enhances the Contemporary Art Collection by acquiring works produced by artists from somewhere else.

I worry that artists, like the proverbial prophet, are overlooked in their own land. Parochialism aside, I firmly believe the priority of any state's Contemporary Art collection should be to record their state's cultural heritage by acquiring works produced by the best local practitioners. Yes it's important to have representation from other cultures in a contemporary collection but not at the expense of the local talent. When acquisition budgets are tight, why send tens of thousands of public funds out of the state to secure artwork that has no connection with the people whose taxes paid for it? Would the State Gallery of North or South Carolina bypass one of their own fine artists to acquire a work by an Australian sculptor unknown to a large part of the population because the art experts and obligatory accountants say it's a good investment? For that matter, are they talking about financial or cultural enrichment?

But for the rest of this week, I won't worry about my town's cultural heritage because I know where to find it. The art that reflects our here and now is at the beach not in the Gallery. If the experts and accountants would vacate their air-conditioned offices in the city's "cultural centre" come to the edge of the continent, kick off their shoes and join their contemporaries actively enjoying sculpture on the sand in the sun, they'd understand just what cultural enrichment is all about. It will be a learning curve and if they don't have the funds to acquire one of our own artist's works for posterity, I hope they take a picture, for the record.

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia, 25 minutes east of Perth. She received a BA in Fine Art and History from the University of Western Australia. McGrath lectured in Art History and Visual Literacy at various colleges around the Perth area, and was an art reviewer for The Sunday Times and The Western Review both published in the Perth area. McGrath is currently a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. She also co-ordinates the web site Art Seen in Western Australia found at (www.artseeninwa.com).

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