Faint heart never won Fair deal

Date: 20th November 1998

If one believed all the proud statements by bureaucrats and the glowing reports in the media, it would seem the rest of the world is clamouring for Australian culture. Every time an art exhibition, a dance troupe or an orchestra is sent on an international tour, it is portrayed as a triumph. This has happened with exhibitions that were at best a non-event, at worst a debacle. By the time the news reaches Australia, the show has become "highly acclaimed", and any dissenting voice is condemned for being negative or destructive, as though the most important thing is to save face at home.

Australia has turned wishful thinking into an art form, if not an institution.

One show that did not fit the mould was Aratjara - the Art of the First Australians, a large survey of Aboriginal art seen in DuEsseldorf, London and Humlebaek, Denmark, in 1993-94. It drew attendances in excess of all expectations and the catalogue quickly sold out. It confirmed a growing realisation that Aboriginal art was our most significant and original cultural export. It is utterly different from the art being made in Europe or America, and has exerted a powerful attraction on the public imagination.

It was quickly assumed that Aboriginal art had established itself on the world stage and could only go from strength to strength, smoothing a path for other cultural initiatives. But the dangerous complacency of this idea was demonstrated in 1994 when the selection committee of the Cologne Art Fair rejected an application by Gabrielle Pizzi, a Melbourne dealer in Aboriginal art, on the grounds that she was showing "folk art". An enormous outcry ensued in Germany and Australia, and Pizzi was readmitted. The reason for the backdown was almost certainly the many accusations of "racism" that the committee attracted.

Four years later, the scenario has been repeated, and this time the committee succeeded in its aims. After taking part in the previous five fairs, Pizzi was given an extraordinary ultimatum this year: she would be allowed to participate only if she dropped plans to show work by three urban artists - Harry Wedge, Destiny Deacon and Leah King-Smith - and three Arnhem Land artists - John Mawurndjul, James Iyuna and England Bangala. Only a solo show by Wedge was deemed acceptable, although no reasons for this decision were given.

Pizzi's protests brought the concession that she could include the three urban artists, but under no circumstances would the Arnhem Land work be admitted. She refused to accept these conditions and was omitted from the fair, although she appears in the official catalogue with the names of her six original choices.

Naturally there had been a stir when the first letters arrived from the selection committee in August. Pizzi flew to Sydney for discussions with Fay Nelson and Philip Rolfe from the Australia Council and curators from the Museum of Contemporary Art, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Museum of Australia and the Art Gallery of NSW.

The Swiss artist Bernhard LuEthi, who was one of the curators of Aratjara, arrived with an undertaking from WDR-TV in Germany that it would host a forum on Aboriginal art. It had done the same thing in 1994, with the resulting media coverage playing a part in reversing the committee's decision.

To make this possible, WDR-TV required a financial contribution from the Australian side. The station would host the forum, but could not pay for the air fares and accommodation costs of the participants, which would run to about $20,000. Those who had been proposed for the forum included Wally Caruana, the curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the NGA; Djon Mundine, of the National Museum of Australia; Jean-Hubert Martin, director of the Musee des Arts Africains et Oceaniens in Paris; and a leading Italian curator, Achille Bonita Oliva. I was also invited, as a critic who had written extensively on Aboriginal art.

After protracted consideration, the money was not forthcoming from the Australia Council or the Federal Ministry for the Arts, and the forum was not held.

The official response to the Cologne selection committee was a letter of protest from the Australia Council chairperson, Margaret Seares. In a perverse twist, this letter would later be used by the committee chairman, Cologne gallerist Karsten Greve, to justify Pizzi's omission.

If $20,000 seems like a lot of money to spend in supporting one art dealer's interests, consider the fact that Pizzi's participation in Art Cologne has been subsidised for the past five years by the Visual Arts Export Group - an Australia Council initiative administered by the Australian Commercial Galleries Association. She has received annual funding of $13,000 and would have been due for a similar contribution this year.

In previous years, galleries such as Roslyn Oxley9 and Tolarno received the same kind of assistance, although neither applied to Cologne this year. This funding is the result of an earlier policy decision that recognised the visual arts as a viable export, and has sponsored participation in art fairs such as Cologne and Chicago. Since Australian work is inexpensive in global terms, and the dollar has sunk so low, this kind of assistance is usually the difference between breaking even and taking a loss. Continuity is the key to success, and Pizzi has gradually established a group of clients, who have bought works year after year.

The Australia Council has already spent a great deal of money supporting gallerists who are trying to introduce Australian art into an international market. Yet when a crisis threatens to eliminate any Australian presence in one of the world's leading art fairs - undermining the ground that has been so painfully gained - there has been a failure of nerve and of policy.

One suspects it was partly a question of timing. With the Coalition installed for another term, the Australia Council may have been reluctant to be seen spending money in any unorthodox way. Fay Nelson, the director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board, admits it was unwilling to do anything "that might jeopardise our funding, or make us look like we are acting irresponsibly".

Nelson believed there was not enough time to organise a forum and there was "no guarantee of a positive outcome." Instead of supporting the forum proposal, she says the board wants to develop "long-term strategies", although the nature of those strategies remains unclear. "I'm happy to be over-cautious," Nelson said. "If necessary we can do something next year."

When I pointed out that the vital moment had passed, the chain of participation had been broken, and it was possible that no Australian gallery would be admitted next year, Nelson said: "If they don't want us, that's their bad luck." And later, "If they don't want us we'll go elsewhere."

But it is not so easy simply to go elsewhere. Competition is fierce for places in the leading art fairs, and Australian galleries are already at a geographical disadvantage. Neither will German television be offering air time whenever the Australia Council feels like it. There is more at stake than Gabrielle Pizzi's private interests, or the cost of a few air fares. The central issue is the way Aboriginal art is perceived internationally - by the market, the museums and the public.

In seeking to act "responsibly", the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board has demonstrated its sensitivity to the Government's attacks on Aboriginal organisations. Ironically, this cautious attitude robbed the Govern- ment of an opportunity to prove its commitment to reconciliation. When such a positive initiative is not supported, one can only feel sceptical about the Government's readiness to tackle the more difficult legal and moral issues.

Without assistance from any government agency, I visited the Cologne Art Fair, which ran from November 8 to 15. The air fare was raised by Gabrielle Pizzi, who felt it was important that someone from the Australian media should see at first-hand the conditions in Cologne. If this seems to compromise my views, I hope the facts will speak for themselves, and those facts could only have been gathered on the spot.

The ineluctable conclusion to be drawn from a week in Cologne is that Australians have underestimated the entrenched resistance facing Aboriginal art in Ger- many. The depth of ignorance, wilful misunderstanding and ethnocentric prejudice is profound, especially among leading gallerists, who have no desire to recognise Aboriginal work as a legitimate form of contemporary art.

If this seems to be at odds with the interest shown by the public in exhibitions such as Aratjara, one should not mistake the public attitude for the institutional one. The German art market is a tightly knit affair, with close links between private galleries and public museums. Nowhere is the narrowness of attitudes more marked than in the Cologne selection committee, which consists of four gallerists from Cologne and two from Berlin, under the chairmanship of Karsten Greve. The decisions made by the committee this year were the main talking point of the fair.

It was not just Pizzi who was subjected to bizarre restrictions. Indeed, it often seemed that the committee was treating the fair as a curated exhibition rather than a venue for free trade. Some leading German galleries had been rejected for no apparent reason; others had been told they could show photographs but not drawings. One dealer ushered me into a closet to show me the most innocuous line drawings, as though they were a kind of rare pornography.

Another gallerist, Gudrun Weiss, of the Kaess-Weiss Gallery in Stuttgart, took the Art Fair to court over her omission and won. She was outspoken in her denunciation of the committee and the timidity of her fellow gallerists. "There are probably 200 galleries with some complaint against the selection committee," she said, "but only three who have done something about it."

Weiss had employed a local lawyer, Gerd Rumscheid, who happily describes himself as "the man the Cologne Art Fair hates most". Rumscheid is establishing a tidy practice in challenging selection committee decisions which are indefensible to the point of absurdity. The most basic accusation is that the committee's members have abused their power by rejecting galleries which they perceive as being in competition with their own interests. What seems, from a distance, to be some ethnocentric conspiracy against Aboriginal art begins to look like a small clique of dealers protecting their own turf. The whole business is more narrow, sordid and, ultimately, provincial than one would ever imagine. It makes a mockery of Cologne's claims to be a truly "international" event.

In an interview in the KoElner Stadt-Anzeiger, and later at the official press conference, Greve explained the rejection of the Arnhem Land artists and also of leading dealers in African art, such as Simonis of DuEsseldorf, by saying the committee had decided to draw the line at "ethnological" art. When it was pointed out that Aboriginal art is the work of living, identifiable individuals, not anonymous tribal artisans, Greve invoked the Margaret Seares letter which made a case for "contemporary traditional art". He suggested that when even the Australian authorities are unsure about the status of this work, the selection committee cannot be criticised.

While "contemporary traditional art" is an awkward way of describing the paintings and sculptures being made by Arnhem Land artists, Greve's interpretation was still highly fanciful. Everything seemed to hang on the word "traditional", used to characterise a work as folk art or anthropological artefact. It would require little debate to establish that every item shown at the Cologne Art Fair could be placed within some form of tradition, but debate was non-existent. Despite a few critical comments in the Cologne and Frankfurt press and the Italian Giornale dell'Arte, the media were largely docile. They did not feel the issue deserved much attention, and did not question Greve's claims. A televised forum would have done much to reverse this state of dull compliance.

There is even reason to believe that a section of the media was in complete agreement. A free newspaper called Kunstzeitung is a widely read source of art news and gossip. In an article on the Art Fair there was a throwaway mention of the rejection of "so-called Aboriginal art", which "experts" saw as nothing more than "tourist trinkets". One never learnt the identity of these "experts", but it is shocking to think that they saw no distinction between the tourist art sold at gift shops, and works by John Mawurndjul, who must be counted as one of Australia's greatest living artists. Where such attitudes are displayed so casually, there may be no time for developing "long-term strategies".