This year will be remembered as the year in which the runaway globalisation of art hit the wall. In a world in which artists, dealers, collectors, curators – and even critics – had become accustomed to flitting from one international event to another, flitting was suddenly out of the question. It was hard enough to get to Canberra, let alone New York, Beijing or Paris. As museums went into lockdown major shows were cancelled or postponed and staff were laid off. International loans became impossible to negotiate while private and corporate patronage dried up.
The non-stop procession of art fairs that had fuelled a contemporary market awash with new wealth went into survival mode. As fairs went virtual the public relations departments told us everything was going brilliantly, but no-one believed it. Take away the flash hotels, the fine dining, the socialising and the schmoozing, and an art fair loses its lifestyle attractions and becomes an expensive form of online shopping. Many fairs took the option of going into hibernation and awaiting better times.
The biennale circuit was also badly hit, with many events cancelled or postponed. Some, including the Bangkok Biennale, chose to push on regardless of the coronavirus or political demonstrations, but most cities played safe.
The tremors that shook the international art world had a surprisingly up-beat effect on the Australian market as local dealers got reacquainted with collectors who had begun buying off-shore until COVID-19 forced a change in their habits. Galleries that had anticipated a year of misery found sales were unusually brisk. Those forced to close during lockdown found there was still business to be done online. There were a lot of good solo shows at the commercial galleries but I’m not going to compile a list.
The market proved just as healthy for the auction houses, with a succession of record prices being set, culminating in Menzies’ November sale of Brett Whiteley’s 1974 painting, Henri’s Armchair, for $6.13 million. Such results made it clear that despite all predictions of an economic downturn there were still plenty of buyers prepared to invest heavily in a status symbol.
The 22nd Sydney Biennale launched at the beginning of March when the virus was just starting to spread and quarantine restrictions had not been applied. Brook Andrew’s Nirin was the first Indigenous-themed Biennale, bringing together 98 artists or groups of artists from 47 countries, including Haiti, Mozambique, Nepal, Afghanistan and the Samí region of Sweden. Many of them were in Sydney for the opening but within a week they had taken the last plane home while the exhibition went into lockdown.
It looked like a depressing end for a bright, ground-breaking show due to wind up on June 8, but when the Art Gallery of NSW re-opened on June 1, the Biennale display was extended until the end of September. This was good for the exhibition but it also testified to a lack of initiative that has become a feature of an AGNSW that finds it hard to focus on the present while it waits for the colossal white elephant called Sydney Modern to take shape. This was brought home to me last week when I attended the re-opening of the National Gallery of Victoria which was celebrated with a monumental second instalment of the NGV Triennial. The lesson was: Open with a bang, don’t fall back on the familiar.
When the AGNSW re-opened there was a real thrill at being there on the first day but that surge in visitation quickly died down. Three months later we were into the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes, which will linger until January 10. The Archibald may be an Australian institution but it has become an interminable gap-filler and fund-raiser for the gallery when one might hope for a more imaginative exhibition schedule, even allowing for the difficulties imposed by COVID-19.
This year’s Archibald will be chiefly notable for recording the first-ever win by an Indigenous artist, as Vincent Namatjira took out a prize he probably should have won two years ago. It was a big year all round for Indigenous art, which began to make inroads into the international market, with shows at top commercial galleries in the United States and Hong Kong.
The AGNSW ended the year on a better note with a comprehensive Arthur Streeton retrospective. If one can forgive curator Wayne Tunnicliffe’s eccentric taste in wall colours there’s much to admire in this show, which allows us an excellent view of the artist’s strengths and weaknesses.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art things were just as slow, if not slower, but the survey, Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dew Drop, provided an impressive end to the year. I’m sure I wasn’t the only visitor who was surprised by the coherent nature of Lee’s work, or the steady progress she showed from her early photocopied images to large-scale public sculpture.
The 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s voyage along the east coast was eclipsed by the Black Lives Matter movements as much as by COVID-19. Most institutions chose to mark Cook's voyage in a very minor way but the National Museum of Australia put together an innovative, ground-breaking show called Endeavour Voyage (until April 26, 2021) that combines memorabilia from the journey with oral history accounts drawn from descendants of those Indigenous people who met the explorers. The NMA showed it was possible to deal with history’s competing claims without falling into ideological postures.
The National Gallery of Australia decided to respond to a slump in attendances caused by the bushfires at the start of the year, then the COVID crisis, by hosting a monumental show of Australian women artists. Know My Name could have devolved into a tub-thumping exercise in feminist politics, but the curators put together a varied and lively display in which the works – all 600-plus of them – were allowed to do the talking.
As for other venues, the Australian War Memorial spent much of the year fending off charges that it was spending an obscene amount of money on its proposed renovation while its peers struggled for funds. In Sydney, the Australian Museum benefited from a million dollar bequest from Brian Sherman, which came along at exactly the right time.
The most ambitious cultural building work was done privately, by Judith Neilson, whose White Rabbit Gallery of contemporary Chinese art has now been joined by the visual and performing arts centre, Phoenix Central Park, and the truly astonishing warehouse and venue – Dangrove, Alexandria. We have yet to see the full scope of these buildings which will come into their own in a post-pandemic world.
We’ll also remember 2020 as the year Sydney University finally opened its long-awaited museum, named the Chau Chak Wing, after the Chinese-Australian philanthropist who stumped up the cash when the university’s wealthy alumni looked the other way. It adds a valuable new dimension to a city that should be much better served by its art and cultural institutions.
This brings me, finally, to the story that remains the cultural flashpoint of the year: the Berejiklian government’s heavy-handed attempts to destroy the unique Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo and impose an unwanted, badly-planned commercial development, masquerading as a museum, on the people of Parramatta - at a cost somewhere between $1-2 billion. A concerted campaign by friends and supporters of the PHM brought about an apparent backdown by the government at the end of June. Yet even amid the celebrations it looked like a smoke and mirrors trick, and with each passing month it becomes clearer that destructive intentions remain intact. It’s dismal to think that in 2021 we may escape from a deadly pandemic only to find ourselves fighting the same old battles with a secretive, duplicitous government prepared to advance the interests of their mates over the state’s cultural heritage.