Having lived in Australia for only seven of Artlink’s 41 years, reading through the magazine’s archive is an encounter giving some insight into the changing character, and breadth of issues surrounding contemporary art practices in Australia. I have a personal stake in Artlink’s history as it began publishing as I began, with Ian Burn, Nigel Lendon and Ann Stephen, a collaborative revision of the history of Australian art in light of new contemporary demands, which was published in 1988 as The Necessity of Australian Art. We and Artlink were part of a generational shift, but as I left the country in 1984 taking my career in other directions, Artlink continued the cause within its Australian context. Reading its back issues is, for me, getting a glimpse of where I might have travelled had I stayed in Australia.
This generational shift is captured in the magazine as a series, in documenting the shifting nature of cultural politics in Australia from the early 1980s until now. This is reflected, in part, by the choice of subjects Artlink addressed, notably women’s rights and feminism, multiculturalism, Asian art and Indigenous art and culture. Each of these subjects or issues have been taken up by Artlink in different ways and to different degrees of success over the years, providing a trail of the changing directions in the Australian artworld. And, while the focus has been uneven, this is the basis of Artlink’s significant contribution: providing a nuanced appreciation of Australian art and culture as it has evolved over four decades.
Clearly, Artlink is not an archive of original documents, manuscripts, notes or edited drafts of an author. Nor is Artlink a comprehensive recording or documentation of every exhibition and publication about Australian art. Rather, it offers snapshots of some aspects of art in Australia, as it has happened and through its articles, providing something of a critical reception. The selection is, of course, necessarily partial, determined by its principal editor, its evolving editorial board and regular guest editors, reflecting their tastes, preferences and judgments, albeit by people who work in the field of Australian contemporary art. No doubt too, given the breadth of places—the magazine decided on an issue that focused around a particular location where work was being made in Australia. This has posed the challenge of access to an exhibition, or to an artist’s work, and finding a knowledgeable writer willing and able to write critically on the practice. These factors inform the choices and priorities made by the editors in an Adelaide-based magazine.
From 1989 Artlink called itself a themed magazine on contemporary art and ideas from Australia. Faced by the range of contemporary art in Australia, this appears to have been a safe bet. The magazine tracks its thematically arranged subjects, concerns and artists across time, some of whom gained a strong public presence with exhibitions, interviews and publications, while other new artists were challenging the status quo and offering fresh ways of seeing and thinking about art. Similarly, authors, whether they were art historians, critics, commentators and academics, curators, art coordinators or journalists, also appeared regularly, intermittently or once off. Some disappeared altogether.
To begin to respond from an outsider’s viewpoint, I’ll give a brief overview of the magazine’s history, addressing some of the issues it promised to explore and the changes and events that have shaped it.
Artlink was founded in 1981 by Stephanie Britton, who studied art history at Flinders University in Adelaide and was to remain Executive Editor for 33 years, when she was succeeded by Eve Sullivan (2014—2020) and Una Rey in 2021. From the early days the magazine became something of an Adelaide institution, with its office currently in the Adelaide Central School of Art. In the first issue of the magazine in March 1981 Britton writes, ‘Artlink has arisen from a need for SA (South Australian) artists to inform others about their work’. She notes that ‘Print is a vehicle of inter-idea commerce, a way of setting the record straight, of registering an objection, of simply saying what is happening, where.’
Originally produced as a bi-monthly, twenty page black and white newsletter by Art Link Incorporated, the magazine received seed funding early on from the South Australian Department for the Arts. Three artists’ organisations played an important role in the foundation of Artlink: the Contemporary Art Society of South Australia (CACSA), the Experimental Art Foundation (EAF) and the Women’s Art Movement. The magazine was run initially by a committee that included representatives of the SA School of Art Student Union, the Friends of the Art Gallery of South Australia as well as the three artists’ organisations. Predominantly, the artists and exhibitions discussed were in South Australia, but increasingly, the issues were nation-wide, such as an interview with James Mollison, the inaugural director of the Australian National Gallery (later NGA) or the critical role of the Artworkers Union in protecting artists rights.
We may also note regular contributors, critics and curators. In the early years in particular Alison Carroll, Julie Ewington, Joan Kerr, Jude Adams, Anne Marsh, John Neylon and Djon Mundine, all contributed with a degree of constancy. Some writers carved out a strong voice through the magazine, such as the indefatigable Donald Brook, who became a cornerstone contributor to Artlink with his regular articles about critical writing and curatorial practices across Australia. Whether one agreed or not with his views, Brook’s contributions always seemed alert to issues and debates in the reception of art and the role of cultural institutions.
The advantage of being published in Adelaide was that Artlink avoided the longstanding Melbourne and Sydney dominance of galleries, art events, museum exhibitions and their reception. There was not much else being published in the early to mid-1980s devoted to the visual arts in Australia. The exceptions were the nation’s oldest magazine Art & Australia based in Sydney, and Broadsheet in Adelaide, founded in 1954 and part of the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia. Broadsheet had begun as a stapled Roneoed review but, over time changed format, increasing quality and size and gaining nationwide readership. It supported itself through advertisements and was therefore not reliant on the dictates and biases of government arts funding. There was Art Nexus in Sydney, Eyeline in Brisbane and Art and Text in Melbourne which began in the same year as Artlink. By 1987, an Australasian issue of the London-based Art Monthly began as Art Monthly Australia, (now Art Monthly Australasia), affiliated with the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra and promoting itself as ‘Australasia’s only visual arts magazine placing visual arts in a contemporary, historical and regional context.’
In the early years, Artlink raised issues pertaining to the rights of women artists and issues raised by the Feminist movement, but this theme only appeared intermittently and increasingly less so over the years. Multiculturalism and contemporary visual arts in South East Asia were barely covered in the beginning, the first dedicated issue appearing in 1993. In fact, multiculturalism disappears as a subject of discussion, perhaps because multiculturalism simply characterises much art in Australia. Nevertheless, the valid question remained unaddressed, as to whether artists of non-Western or Anglo backgrounds experienced discrimination or prejudice. Foremost among them would always be Indigenous Australians.
In mid 1984, Artlink’s Adelaide Festival/Fringe issue included summaries numerous industry panels with leading players, from art writing to the status of painting. In a piece by Barry Craig “Non-violent Land Rights Claims from the Centre” and his review of Painters of the Western Desert, exhibited during the Festival, Craig, an ethnographer, in querying who the intended audience was, suggested an answer is tacitly given in Djon Mundine’s talk [at the Festival, reported by Artlink]. Mundine proposed that Aboriginal work should be seen as equivalent to ‘land title documents,’ Craig concluding, ‘It is to be hoped that the prestigious art institution of Australia by purchasing these works (Aboriginal art), are indicating general acceptance of the justice of these claims and our preparedness to meet them with the dignity and honour they deserve.’
From 1986, Artlink assumed a national profile with the appointment of regional editors, attracting writers such as Meghan Morris and George Alexander, both of whom were based in Sydney. In the June/July issue of 1986, Artlink subtitled its publication “The South Australian visual arts magazine”, and received support from the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council and the South Australian Department for the Arts and Cultural Heritage. The issue was a bumper edition, including articles by Morris and Alexander, Donald Brook, Ken Bolton, Bernice Murphy, Philip Adams, Jude Adams, Julie Ewington, Helen Grace, Ian North and Catriona Moore, all significant writers of the period. However, their ongoing contributions to the magazine were variously short-lived, as other projects took hold. This perhaps exemplifies the role Artlink has played as a publishing platform and a testing ground for emerging writers nationwide.
By 1988, Artlink had broadened its orientation, ‘covering contemporary art and issues in Australia and overseas: criticism, review, theory, politics, information.’ The sphere of ‘overseas’ had become part of its mandate as it transitioned to a quarterly magazine. The result was the magazine lost the sense of immediacy a monthly publication better reflects. It appears in my reading that there was an apparent absence of new critical writing. Significant new talents in regard to critical writing such as Rex Butler, Ted Colless and Ingrid Perez were absent, perhaps because of the magazine’s Adelaide focus, but more likely a reflection of Artlink’s trending preference for certain writing styles, and the orientation of the magazine itself, whose regular contributors and editorial advisors formed a strong coterie dedicated to regional voices. From the late 1980s, the themed issues effectively limited the presence of theoretical or conceptual frameworks in its discussion of current issues, or historicising the present that some art historians were engaged with.
In retrospect, the 1990s seems to have been a boom time for art in Australia with greater government support including visual art degrees in regional universities and investment in public galleries, and the flow-on was seen in Artlink. In 1990, a special double issue on ‘Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art’ was published. Its opening article is an interview by Howard Morphy (then curator at the Pitt-Rivers Museum Oxford University) with Djon Mundine (then art coordinator at Ramingining Arts, NT). Morphy would subsequently be appointed inaugural director of the Center for Cross-Cultural Research at the ANU, and Mundine has developed a career as a curator and spokesman and has continued to be one of the most consistent writers for Artlink.
Asialink was also established in 1990 and soon became a centre at the University of Melbourne, supported by the Visual Arts Board (VAB). The following year, Artlink introduced ‘multiculturalism’ as a critical theme, Anne Dunn, (then Deputy Chair, Australia Council), writing in the foreword to Arts in Multicultural Australia (Winter 1991), that a ‘multicultural Australia policy must be the subject of intense discussion within the arts world’ and that the Australia Council is about ‘promoting content in mainstream arts practice that reflects multicultural Australia’. This orientation is reflected in some of the published articles contributed by a staggering number of 68 writers and framed as ‘working it out’, ‘in practice’, ‘case studies’ and ‘places, spaces and organisations.’ The NESB acronym is helpfully spelled out, and a number of writers are of Non-English-Speaking-Backgrounds, now replaced by the more inclusive ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’ CALD.
Asia was taken up following the first Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art' (APT) in 1993 at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. The same year Artlink issued a special issue Contemporary Arts of the Region, South East Asia and Australia, covering Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore (Nov-March, 1993/94). Some important writers contributed, including Apinan Poshyananda from Thailand and Jim Supangkat from Indonesia, with reviews of key contemporary artists such as FX Harsono (Indonesia) and Cheo Chai-Hiang (Singapore). But what of Asia and Asian art within Australia? Were there not issues to address in terms of representation, participation, support funding or issues of discrimination? Perhaps, the idea of a multicultural Australia served to obviate or obscure this question.
Over the next twenty years, the magazine seems more like a scattershot of issues and subjects, driven by wide-ranging interests and themes. Nevertheless, in 1999 Artlink published a special issue as part of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission and its Arts Board.’ Then in 2000, Reconciliation? Indigenous art for the 21st Century edited by lawyer Janet Maughan, Chairperson of the Artlink Editorial Advisory Committee. Her article “From the 21st Century and through the telescope”, notes of a paradigm shift in the last 30 years in Australian art with the development of Aboriginal art’ in which now the ‘other’ culture is speaking for itself. The issue marks an important shift in addressing directly the lack of respect for, and misuse of Indigenous art and culture in Australia. Marcia Langton, Vivien Johnson, Christine Nicolls, Margo Neale and Brenda L. Croft all wrote features, alongside sometimes overdue tributes to leading Indigenous artists who had died.
The turn of the new millennium also reinvigorated Artlink’s declared commitment to Asia with The long stare: seeing contemporary Asian art now (July 2000), edited by Caroline Turner, covering the 4th Asia-Pacific Triennale. The following year Artlink assumes a news sub-heading: “Contemporary Art of Australia and the Asia-Pacific.” However, while there is the subsequent occasional issue devoted to Asia, especially South East Asia, with a focus on particular countries, there are few issues which engage with the Pacific and Pacific Islander practices.
After reading through Artlink’s back catalogue, I wondered at the value of such a journal? Is the mandate of Artlink, as it set itself: a ‘record’ of art exhibitions and thematically orientated sufficient? What does it provide looking back over the decades, and what is the enduring value of Artlink? As noted at the beginning of this essay, early on Artlink named four issues which it wished to address: Feminism, Multiculturalism, Asia and Indigenous art. But, in looking at the uneven fate of these questions over the magazine’s duration, if these subjects are to impinge on the present and future, we still need to go further than having these issues simply framed within a theme. A partial ‘record’ is not enough of a mandate to elaborate on these issues, but collectively archived, they map changing priorities.
The question of multiculturalism, assimilated into the idea of Australia, can be seen in the 2021 census of Australia's 22 million population: 812,728 people identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin, representing 3.2 percent of the total population, though by 2021, representing over 30 per cent of Artlink’s content; one in four Australians were born overseas; 46 percent have at least one parent who was born overseas. Asian Australians of the total population amounted to approximately 17.4 percent (including 6.5 percent Southern and Central Asian, 6.4 percent North East Asian, and 4.5 percent South-East Asian.) Nearly 20 percent of Australians speak a language other than English at home.
Without doubt, the most striking difference to the Australia I left 38 years ago is the prevalence of Indigenous art, which has dominated Artlink over the past twelve years, and had an increasing presence since the late 1980s. Since 2010 the annual Indigenous issue’s focus has assured its pre-eminence as distinct from the endless variety of themes. The special issues have been edited or co-edited by Indigenous specialists—artists, writers, curators— and the editorials are clear in their orientation and perspective in commissioning writers and introducing the topics of the day. While Artlink Indigenous which began with Blak on Blak, writing on cultural identity and its politics has been a strong thread running throughout: the content has varied from specifically regional attention to global comparisons of Indigenous art practices, especially with Aotearoa / New Zealand/, Canada and the USA. Moreover, the breadth and strength of the work has been well illustrated and provocatively titled throughout.
The rise of Indigenous writers in recent years is a solid indication of their agency and the determination to write of culture, politics and history from lived experience, although there have been frequent calls for intercultural dialogue in Artlink’s pages. Ian McLean is one of the few non-Indigenous writers who introduced a comparative and theoretical elaboration of issues in his analysis of Aboriginal artists and relations between white Australian and Indigenous cultures. Of a similar generation, writers such as Djon Mundine, Marcia Langton, Margo Neale and Pat Hoffie were among those contributing to this discourse, but new generations of Indigenous writers are using different methods.
How then does the magazine in its entirety appear in light of having lived elsewhere for so long? Artlink is not an impartial record of contemporary art in Australia: on the contrary. Many of the Artlink editorials offer impassioned perspectives on contemporary art practice with distinct ways of viewing or approaching the subject and commissioning writers. The editorials suggest the focus is more than simply editing a record. The artists and writers have a point of view, an argument in some cases with official history or what has been documented, what has been unexplored and hence, what seems to count as a history of contemporary art in Australia. These serve as opinion-based and often rigorous correctives to a reader’s perception of the state of things: such is the value of the subjectively composed archive, however irregular and fallible it may be.
- ^ See Kit Messham-Muir, “Art & Text: the rise and fall of theory”, Artlink 42:1 (2022): 22-27
- ^ Art Monthly Australasia, https://www.artmonthly.org.au/about
- ^ See “The Artlink Archive Project: Jacqueline Millner and the art writer’s marathon”, https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/4976/the-artlink-archive-project-jacqueline-millner-and/
Charles Merewether is a writer and art and cultural historian. He was Curator, Contemporary Art at the Georgian National Museum of Art in Tbilisi, Georgia from 2016-2021. In 2022 the Russian invasion of Ukraine disrupted his residency status, and he returned temporarily to Australia. He has lived and worked internationally since 1984 and in 2006 curated the 15th Biennale of Sydney, Zones of Contact.