Photo: Anne Graham
Tony Bond OAM, is the Director, Curatorial at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), where he has collected international works for the gallery since 1984. In this interview, Tony discusses current international perceptions of Australian art, the benefits of collecting international art, and the challenges he has faced in building the permanent collection at the Art Gallery of New South Wales over the past thirty years.
Interview by Elinor King
How do you think the current Australian visual art sector is perceived by the wider international community?
Australian visual art is far better known now than it was 30 years ago. A number of artists, writers and curators have made important contributions overseas and today they tend to be acknowledged as Australians, whereas they often used to disregard their place of origin and even disguise it. However it is still difficult to have an international profile and live in Australia. This is partly a matter of visibility. Even in an electronic age face to face encounters matter. Collectors often like to socialise with artists and if dealers can’t deliver this they tend not to make the artist a significant player in their stable.
I have also noted that international curators will often talk about the importance of a given Australian artist and how shocking it is that they are not better known overseas but when asked what they plan to do about it, they nearly always side step the issue. Artists one meets routinely at openings and dinners are more likely to get included in exhibitions and collections. While this might sound very unprofessional it is none the less a factor in human behaviour. Some artists manage to shuffle back and forth between continents but it makes normal relationships hard and it is an expensive and uncertain way of doing things.
Having said this I should acknowledge that the Asian region has created new opportunities. Japan and now China have become very open to Australian artists. In Japan the combination of Art Front and the Triennials organised by Fran Kitagawa have been very welcoming to Australians and in some cases opportunities to make permanent public artworks through Artfront have also been created. The Embassy in Tokyo is also very proactive as the opening of a new Australia House in Echigo testifies. In China it has been expats who have created openings. Redgate residencies have a long history of helping Australian artists make work and find gallery spaces to show their work. China Art Projects also works to bring Chinese artists to Australia and vice versa. Both these agencies are run by Australians and they make spending time in Beijing surprisingly easy and enjoyable.
Do you think that the current Australian arts sector represents international perspectives well? What would you change or improve?
I think that the best of Australian art is thoroughly engaged with the international art world. Communications are so good these days and so many people in the arts travel as a matter of course that it is difficult not to be part of the conversation. Recently a few commercial galleries have become far more international. In the past dealers could not afford the risk of acquiring international work to exhibit in Australia but that was the only way they could get a serious body of work here.
Part of the problem was also that as collectors started buying overseas, they also became part of the art crowd turning up regularly at White Cube dinners for example - why would they buy from a gallery here when the best work had already sold in London or New York and the artist was usually not around to socialise in Australia. Some dealers have taken this head on and not only made sure the artist comes but have also taken the extraordinary risk of bringing out major works. One extraordinary case was Anna Schwartz commissioning Antony Gormley to build a monstrous steel figure that filled her vast Carriageworks gallery.
Some dealers have been regular participants in international art fairs representing Australian art in Europe, USA and now more and more in Asia. This is an important way of bringing our artists to the attention of collectors and curators but it is also an expensive exercise. So far I have not mentioned the Australia Council whose programmes of residencies and involvement in biennales, especially Venice, has made some headway. I have always thought that there should be a sum set aside to support artists selected by overseas curators for significant exhibitions almost as a matter of course. Most overseas artists get some support from their arts agencies or dealers. The geographic isolation of Australia does add to the costs both for the artist and for the exhibitors so some assistance is a big incentive. Such inclusion of Australians in critically reviewed exhibitions is worth any number of national flag ship exhibitions which tend to remain curiosities not always sought out by opinion leaders.
What do you believe are the benefits of representing international perspectives of art within public art collections in Australia?
It would be unthinkable not to represent a broad range of international art here. While getting Australians out into the world is important, many more developing artists and students will encounter international artists in collections and exhibitions in Australia. This exposure should be an important part of their early engagement with the best examples of the art of their time. Isolation is not a good thing – you can see examples of it particularly in regional centres where many artists feed off their own community and spiral inevitably towards a form of repetitive craft activity that speaks only to a quirky local audience. The same would happen to Australian art as a whole if it did not engage. I hasten to add that there are some very fine artists living in relative isolation in the bush but who have maintained an expansive vision of the world. Brian Blanchflower is one of these.
Unfortunately there are far too few significant collections of international art on display in Australia. In some cases it is lack of space allocated and this is a major issue for the future. In other cases there just has not been the continuity and focus on contemporary art collecting. This is why Biennales still have a place and why spaces such as ACCA in Melbourne and Art Space and [the] MCA in Sydney play such an important role. Permanent collections are none the less important because if they are well made, well deployed and interpreted they form a lasting opportunity to reflect on the meaning and place in the history of art that exhibitions which come and go do not allow. Generations of school children may then learn not only what is hot but what has been significant in getting to where we are today in terms of ideas and powerful experiences of objects from around the world and over time.
As head of curatorial at the AGNSW, you have been in charge of collecting international art for the permanent collection. What is the process to acquire a work and what are some of the challenges you have faced in acquiring international works?
The collection I have built is rather special because in 1984 there was no international contemporary collection so I had the opportunity to start one from scratch. That is a rare privilege that I have taken very seriously. The first step was to decide on the scope of such a collection. Neither funds nor space permitted a comprehensive representation of art movements or individuals. The collection would start from 1984 rather than attempting a contemporary history from the 1960s or Avant Garde precursors of the early Twentieth Century. This remains the most serious gap in the collection today.
I needed a framework to narrow the field and to allow for coherence in both display and interpretation which is essential for a collection to function in the gallery. I decided that the collection should explore key ideas in the recent history of art. The single most important figure in this history would be Marcel Duchamp. It was not the anti-aesthetic Duchamp I was interested in but the inventor of a language of objects and materials that had an affinity with the subject rather than making a picture of it.
This idea of Duchamp’s could be summarised as employing an ‘ontological communion’ between signifier and signified. It was to liberate art from the limitation of pictorial illustration for coming generations and this had become widely understood through diverse art movements such as Nouveau Realisme, Arte Povera, Minimalism and other forms of Neo Dada and conceptual art. This was the philosophical territory that allowed artists to explore the relation between mind and matter, embodied memory, affect as embedded in the object and liberated by the responsive observer. It constituted a narrative about key issues in late twentieth century art.
In practical terms it involved a lot of travel to most parts of the world, but I confess most often to Europe in the early days. It was necessary to let the most relevant dealers know we were collecting seriously and to convey the ideas that were driving the process. This involved multiple visits not only to dealers but to artists’ studios and major exhibitions. Finding the right work by the right artist that would talk to other works in the collection was of paramount importance. Getting to know artists helped define the ideas I was to work with. I have learnt far more from artists than from more academic sources but it is also true that most of the artists I admire turned out to be fantastically well read and profoundly engaged with art now and with art history.
How do major exhibitions at the gallery tie in with the permanent collection?
The major exhibitions I have curated provided fantastic opportunities to meet more artists and work with them. All of them have fed into my ideas about what art is and thus to my interpretation of the collection. I also often acquired work from the artists I exhibited. Not necessarily straight away, our funds trickle in slowly and in any case the best works for an exhibition were not necessarily right for the collection.
Milestones have been The British Show (1985), Boundary Rider (the 9th Biennale of Sydney), Body, Trace (the inaugural Liverpool Biennale, UK), and Self Portraits: Renaissance to Contemporary. The British show happened while I was thinking out the philosophy of the collection and helped me to get my head around a number of fundamental ideas such as ‘ontological communion’, the void and the horizon which I now see as paired manifestations of the boundary between consciousness and matter which is where art is the most powerful instrument for investigation. Artists I met then became lifelong friends and many of them came into the collection over the years including Gormley, Kapoor, Law, Houshiary, Deacon and Willats.
Boundary Rider used the idea of bricollage and found objects as a language that might transcend cultural difference. Artists who came into the collection subsequently were Doris Salcedo, Perejaume, Haim Steinbach, Svetlana Kopystiansky, Adrian Piper and Rachel Whiteread.
Body was the natural sequel to Boundary Rider. It explored the principle of embodiment and embodied memory. I included Salcedo again and we now have two very important works in the collection. I also acquired portfolios of Ana Mendieta, and Wiener Aktionismus artists, Videos of Abramovic, Acconci and Paul McCarthy.