Know My Name

Ahead of the opening of Part Two of Know My Name, at the National Gallery of Australia, we revisit Judith Pugh's commentary on the initial exhibition, published in Artist Profile Issue 54.

They say as you get older the policemen get younger – for some of us it’s Directors of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), where the charming Nick Mitzevich is now in charge. In his office last September, we remembered James Mollison, its first occupant, from whom Mitzevich, when appointed, took advice. Mollison had a dream ride: in the 1960–80s the gallery project and the national collection were bi-partisan Commonwealth priorities. Artists worked directly with Prime Ministers then, and the Commonwealth of Australia became the biggest spender in the international art world. Mollison had been mentored by great artist administrators; his job description assumed intense engagement with the contemporary art world; he made constant visits to studios, galleries and collections across Australia. Subsequent directors have not been as widely and deeply connected.

Since Mollison’s 1989 retirement from the brut NGA, wonderful inviting galleries have been built; the institution is no longer central to the nation’s visual arts. ‘Investors’ populate the art world and skew the market; Fine Art degrees and amalgamations have infected art schools, favouring text over object. Corporate figures inhabit gallery boards, internet imagery subverts the understanding of scale, history, place, situation. All this, while relentless neo-liberal arts defunding and ‘efficiency dividends’ undermine resources. Covid, disrupting visitation, borrowing, and therefore the exhibition program, adds unpredictability to the issues Mitzevich confronts.

We met after I’d spent time with Deborah Hart and Elspeth Pitt for a laptop preview of ‘Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now’, the exhibition they developed and pitched together. Interesting: a history of the Australian art world without male images or objects. Mitzevich is keen to share the collection – online, through touring – Covid prompted creative strategies. How did Mitzevich’s plans incorporate the Hart/Pitt proposal? He explained there was a moment – one slide of self-portraits, all the women looking out at the viewer – and he thought, ‘This will be an important show for us’. He thinks the gallery should contribute to the cultural life of Australia, through many different lenses. To advance gender as an issue offers a way to connect on the social, as well as the creative sphere, to address the things people are talking about. The need to advance the representation of women in the collection, in publishing, had already been identified. This should not just be one exhibition, but a long-term strategy.

The Project was born: The Exhibition, a billboard campaign to bring art into the public consciousness (especially art by women), The Conference, The Book, listing female artists on Wikipedia, ongoing elements … Mitzevich has impressive energy and enthusiasm. In his office, The Project seemed fitting. Even urgent.

But … the inept title ‘Know My Name’ misleads. Chanel Miller was compulsorily anonymous during the trial of her rapist – Know My Name, her brilliant award-winning account of the consequences, announces her identity. That’s a title at perfect pitch, but is an inaccurate clamorous description of the situation, even the historical situation, of Australian women artists. They have always been included in exhibitions, bought by collectors, acquired by galleries, represented by dealers. The phrase ‘Know My Name’ elevates identity, and is especially inappropriate for the NGA. Making work, not the A-list, is the aim of an artist.

The Book outlines The Guiding Principles of The Project. Claiming a ‘defining moment in the history of the Gallery,’ these assert a ‘new mission to lead a progressive and inclusive cultural agenda’, ‘intergenerational,’ celebrating ‘the significant contributions of Australian and international women artists.’ Unsophisticated banal jargon; corporate speak, from an institution employing the most expert, scholarly, erudite art historians and curators in Australia. It reeks of meetings, workshopping, looking for a hook, an angle: Googling. It announces public relations and marketing as the NGA’s priority and that the PR team is ignorant of its own institution. It has encouraged vapid erroneous girlie articles, Christopher Allen’s response a scholarly exception.

Has the NGA Council adopted this agenda? Will apparently male members reveal they are trans or non-binary, or will we see the replacement of one male Council and seven male Foundation members with females/other? And the Directorate? Surely this group drives the organisational culture and programming and acquisitions? Thirty are apparently female, ten male. Seventy-five percent are female. The equity issue here is not discrimination against women. To achieve gender equity, ten female Directorate staff must resign. The selection criteria for their replacements must preclude women.

The Fact Sheet notes, ‘The institution’s mandate is to acquire works that will write the art history books.’ Not manifest the gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnicity of the maker of these works. Acquisition by the NGA should reflect the distinction of the work, not the identity of the maker. Mitzevich knows this: he asked Mollison what should bring a work into the National Collection. It should be ‘a moment of absolute resolution in the artist’s practice, a breakthrough moment, or an innovation in the way the art industry responded to it’. The spin declares: ‘Only 25% of works in the National Gallery’s Australian Art collection for example, are by women artists – and we want to change that’. Acquisition is opportunity. Multiple gifts by Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker; legacies. In this context, gender-derived percentage is meaningless.

Working as an artist is, effectively, launching oneself as a small business: workspace, materials, time, are crucial. Before the 1980s, the possibilities for women were culturally limited. Fewer women than men worked as artists, thus fewer opportunities for important work to be made: innovative, brilliant work offering insight, a contribution to the culture, work of a standard to be celebrated by the National Gallery.

‘The Principles’ refer to the workplace. The Australian art world is a small world. If the NGA were a toxic workplace we’d know. Moreover, The National Gallery of Australia Enterprise Agreement 2018–2021 includes clauses ensuring equity, anti-discrimination and workplace diversity, work-hour flexibility, access to training, free counselling, subsidised financial planning for retirement, and multiple forms of leave. Seeing reports about ‘implementation of supply chain practices that empower women’ will be interesting. While ‘prioritising marketing practices to empower women’, the marketing team might familiarise itself with the appropriate vocabulary for NGA publications and media releases, considering the implications of a major scholarly institution spruiking inconsistent, unsophisticated vapid inaccuracies.

Designed like a corporate presentation, The Book of The Project lacks only four legs to become a coffee table. A glamorously packaged 2.5 kilogram publication, with texts by women (The Book states 115; the Fact Sheet 113), together with images of the work of 150 female artists or co-operatives (some of which include men), some of whom are in The Exhibition, some perhaps in its Act II; some of whom should be in neither. What a clever strategy to divert scrutiny. That’s 113 (or 115) writers and any number of artists unlikely to question a ‘project’ focussed on celebrity, not discernment.

‘The Book’ omits, among other major artists, sculptors Daphne Mayo and Norma Redpath, but includes the fabric designer Florence Broadhurst. It shows a chair, by Marion Mahoney, the architect who married and made wonderful rendered drawings for Walter Burley Griffin. The chair, for all its pompous accompanying essay, is merely a variation on the Mackintosh/Lloyd Wright style. The NGA website (which refers to Marion Griffin, there’s a sexist appellation waiting to be corrected) reveals a number of examples of Mahoney’s work, but no images – a copyright question. Why
not a drawing in The Exhibition?

Mollison’s are principles whatever the gender of the maker. They explicitly reject the idea of commissioning. Something unseen, yet to be made, can’t be a moment of resolution or a breakthrough. Which renders commissioning a second balloon from anyone, even the celebrity Patricia Piccinini, extravagant and questionable.

I walked the installed show with artist/writer Peter Hill. The layout was mystifying: the wall labels unsatisfactory. Then Deborah Hart kindly took us through again. Her scholarship shines, and she addressed the inclusion of each piece. The Rosalie Gascoigne and Emily Kame Kngwarreye works confirm that significant work by women is acknowledged by major galleries. Authoritative, confident, technically brilliant, expressing an original vision. A group of posters, including by
Ann Newmarch and Marie McMahon, not necessarily great art, very effectively notes the multiplicity of women artists’ engagement with issues across time. However, various elements remain worrying: the faces on the commissioned Tjanpi desert weavers’ Seven Sisters have a cartoonish quality that undermines the work. Julie Brown Rrap’s nude self-portraits haven’t stayed the course.

Even a temporary exhibition at the NGA should demonstrate distinction, encouraging the viewer to explore other images by any included artist. Mirka Mora’s work does not deserve such attention. The good thing about the portrait salon hang is that Mora’s self-portrait is virtually out of sight. That hang frustrates: glazed images reflect the lighting, many are too high to scrutinise, some appear to need a clean.

The overall design of the show frequently works against effective display, and the ‘themes’ subvert historical understanding. In our pre-show meeting, Hart and Pitt explained that they’d each imagined a show of women artists, and agreed to pitch together; but other contributors are acknowledged, it seems to have got out of hand, messy is the overall impression. A section suggesting women used colour as an ‘agent of change’ includes the great Clarice Beckett – many examples of whose work virtually without colour feature on the NGA website. Beckett’s genius is powerful imagery with hardly any colour. Her included works do use colour, but why suggest she, Dorrit Black, Grace Crowley, and Grace Cossington Smith, had some political motive? Black’s and Crowley’s work plays with cubism, Cossington Smith’s with light. Their wall left no room for the work to breathe. A few pieces of fashion, a video performance on screen in a space too public to allow it to mesmerise, added to the overall disappointment.

Racism, endemic poverty, the plight of refugees, are pressing international issues. People are talking about child abuse, a disastrous Aged Care system, corruption. Why hype up an issue that is simply not urgent, especially at the NGA? Has Mitzevich, perhaps intuitively, found an ‘issue’ to please his political and corporate masters; an acceptable way to appear engaged? The overwhelmingly corporate members of Mitzevich’s Council will be familiar with the concept. The Order of Australia Council has just elevated the award of a female tennis player to match that given to a male player of comparable standing. Gender equity is conventional.

Environmental pollution and climate change are the urgent global concerns that resonate in Australia: but not with the Liberal/National government. As the NGA Exhibition opened, Australian artist Lisa Roet’s sculpture Golden Monkey was installed on Edinburgh’s Inverleith House Gallery. Roet’s work made front pages across the world: rendering The Project parochial, irrelevant, and passé. The Project fails the Mollison test.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 54, 2021.

Know My Name: Part Two
12 June 2021 – 26 January 2022
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

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