National Gallery of Victoria 28 May - 30 June 1999
On the eve of closing before rebuilding, the National Gallery of Victoria organised the Red Events, a mini festival focussing on contemporary art. The combined forces of the Gallery Society, Educational Services and Public Programs sought to redefine the Gallery's relationship to its public and set possible new directions for audience programs into the new century. Together with the exhibition Exploratory Behaviour, a cross-departmental showing of contemporary art and design acquisitions over the period 1997-99, the Red Events marked theGallery's final gesture towards contemporary art before the Australian collection reopens in the new 'campus' at Federation Square (sounds like a place where Luke Skywalker might be found!).
As National Gallery purchases, Kathy Termin's Duck Rabbit Problem in fake fur, Lucy Gardiner's Gold Card Dress and David McDiarmid's hologram mosaic male nude, with winking anal eye, will one day be the official vision of the 1980s and 1990s, the stuff of high school art textbooks, just as McCubbin's Pioneers shapes the popular image of a 'past' that never was. The traditional image of the Gallery's audience was well represented by the members' club room, where a mini-forum on contemporary art took place on June 17th 1999. This sumptuous room looked ever so much like someone else's home away from home, with lamps with crystal bases on marble topped tables, eighteenth century cabinets and fine porcelain, Australian and French landscapes of the early and mid-twentieth century and a discreet little fragment of monumental marble from Mussolini's Italy. (I did not know the Gallery owned that!)
The speakers were poised, confident professionals, curator Jason Smith, artist Jill Orr, critic Robyn McKenzie, with Richard Holt of Platform representing artist-run initiatives. If everything was under a little too much control, one would not expect the National Gallery of Victoria to ever wing or chance anything. The panel represented a coherent blend of communication skills and credible reputation. Jill Orr was not too frightening or alienating for conservative audience members, yet raised useful issues about the potential breadth of audience for and response to contemporary art. Jason Smith spoke effectively to the exhibition and engaged with the recent volatile newspaper debate about conformity and (lack of) skills in contemporary art curating at state galleries, defending his fellow curators as informed and responsible. Robyn Mackenzie likewise emphasised the difficulties of tracking an evolving present and the importance of mediation by informed minds - critics or curators. She engaged with the practical anomalies of art writing, the sharply polarised, bifurcated press - pro or contra - directed to contemporary art in Australia. Film critics are luckier than art critics, in her opinion; they work with a medium which provokes less hostility and uncertainty from the public. Richard Holt detailed formats of art beyond the gallery: site-specific, impermanent, political or interventionist approaches. Contrary to stereotypes, in his opinion Melbourne enjoyed a high level of positive and informed interaction with contemporary art. Advertising agencies had more confidence in the public's skills in visual perception than many visual arts professionals. Conversely in this fluid arena of visual literacy, the contemporary public gallery was an oxymoron. It was impossible for an institution to effectively sample and document an elusive, mobile field. The most memorable quote was Robyn Mackenzie regarding billboards seen around Melbourne: "Jesus Saves, Speed Kills, Art Matters", but if these things are so, why proclaim them on billboards?