Ron Radford’s vision for the
National Gallery of Australia might not have upset so many people if it
weren’t couched in such provocative language. His argument has some
merit – Canberra is not strong in old master pictures whereas the state
galleries are, so why not add weight to the states’ already
comprehensive holdings? That would leave the NGA to concentrate on the
areas where it is strong, such as American art from the mid 20th
Century and Australian art of all eras.

The problem, however, is the slightly disparaging and preachy tone he
adopts in outlining his vision on the NGA’s website. Here’s a taste:

For a nation formed over only two centuries, but with an ancient
Indigenous past, Australia’s new National Gallery should not try to emulate the
national museums of the European Old World, formed from princely and
aristocratic collections or those formed by the robber barons in the United
States. Nor should we repeat the British colonial collections formed from the
mid nineteenth century onwards in Australia’s six colonial capitals.

That could be interpreted – and has been by some critics – as a swipe at
the collecting priorities of the state galleries, and sounds a bit rich coming
from Radford, considering that his last job was director of the Art Gallery of
South Australia, where he spent 20 years building its collections of colonial
and old European paintings.

Radford is alarmed at how his statement has been interpreted, hotly
denying he was being critical of the state galleries. “I can’t
criticise what I did for 20 years,” he told Crikey. “I worked very hard
to build those British and European collections (in South Australia).
But while it might work for Adelaide, it doesn’t work for the National
Gallery.”

In parts of Radford’s vision statement, he appears to adopt the jargon and
the thinking of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The 36-page statement – meant to be a curatorial master plan – is peppered
with language better suited to Machiavellian diplomacy, with Radford arguing
that the NGA’s collection should be “highly relevant to Australia’s contemporary
strategic engagement”. There are references to “international politico-cultural expectations”,
“politically sensitive audiences” and Australia’s “strategic aspirations”.

If you believe, as I do, that art museums shouldn’t be instruments of
government foreign policy, you might find Radford’s language a touch
alarming. When queried about the statement, Radford insists I have
taken his words out of context, however he’s unapologetic about placing
the gallery’s approach to collecting in a broader political and
strategic context. “Art has always been political,” he says. “The
buying of British art (by the state galleries) was political.”

After a very intense one-hour conversation with Radford, I am sort of
persuaded that he doesn’t mean that the gallery’s approach to collecting should
be directly aligned to foreign policy. But the way his vision statement was
worded, it was easy to reach that conclusion.

Peter Fray

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