It’s been more than a month since Crikey first raised questions about the
controversial selection process for the 2007 Venice Biennale.

While we’ve been quietly beavering away making inquiries behind the scenes,
the art world rumour mill has been churning out a motherload of poisonous
gossip, with many senior and influential figures privately expressing anger and
dismay at the way the Australia Council has dealt with this matter. In 12 years
of covering the arts, I have never witnessed anything as widespread and as
vociferous as the outcry over the way the artists were chosen for Venice.
Regrettably, and this says everything about how small and fearful the art world
is, no one is putting their concerns on the record.

To quickly recap: three artists have been chosen to represent Australia in
Venice next year – Callum Morton, Daniel von Sturmer and Susan Norrie. All of
these artists are highly regarded. No one is seriously questioning their
worthiness for selection. It’s the way they were chosen that is causing so much
consternation.

The selection panel comprised John Kaldor, a renowned and highly
influential art collector who is also the Australia Council’s commissioner for
Venice; Juliana Engberg, the director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary
Art in Melbourne, Lesley Alway, the director of the Museum of Modern Art at
Heide; and Rachel Kent, senior curator of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

While the Australia Council insists the panel’s decision was unanimous, it
is widely believed that Kaldor and Engberg carried the most weight in the
selection process.

The three artists chosen have all been exhibited in major shows curated
either directly by Engberg or hosted by ACCA, which she runs. Both Morton and
Norrie both have work in the current show at ACCA curated by Engberg, The
Unquiet World,
and von Sturmer has a solo show at ACCA starting next
month. Engberg curated a mid-career retrospective of Susan Norrie’s work
in the mid ’90s. It’s not overstating it to say that Engberg figures prominently
on each of the artist’s CVs.

Susan Norrie is also currently on the board of ACCA, so she is effectively
Engberg’s boss, or at least one of them. Another of Engberg’s bosses is Naomi
Milgrom, the rag trade squillionairess who is chairman of ACCA’s board. Milgrom
is John Kaldor’s significant other. They are both involved in Kaldor Art
Projects
,
an organisation dedicated to bringing international contemporary art to
Australia.

One of the most controversial aspects of the selection process this
time was the decision to exclude curators. It was common practice with
past biennales for artists to team up with curators in applying for
selection. By being made to apply on their own, many artists felt at a
disadvantage, given that curators are generally regarded as being more
adept at writing submissions. Many curators believe the chief reason
they were excluded from the process was to ensure that Juliana Engberg
would secure the curatorial role in Venice.

The Australia Council has confirmed that Callum Morton was granted access
to the Australian Pavilion in Venice before applications closed in April.
Rumours of Morton visiting Venice have helped fuel the many conspiracy theories
doing the rounds, with some observers seeing it as proof that he was given an
inside advantage. It may be he was simply showing initiative. According to the
Australia Council, access to the pavilion was available to anyone who asked. As
it turns out, Morton won’t be showing in the pavilion, which has been reserved
for Daniel von Sturmer.

When Crikey began scrutinising the selection process, we asked whether any
members of the selection panel owned artwork by any of the the three selected
artists. We never got an answer, however I can confirm that Lesley Alway does
not own work by any of the artists bound for Venice. Engberg told me she
couldn’t help with my inquiries because all comment had to come through the
Australia Council. I asked the council whether it had any policy that prevented
members of the selection panel answering my questions. A council spokesman said
it didn’t.

One of the selectors has privately expressed the hope that this whole
matter will eventually die down. No it won’t. Not until people start getting
some straight answers.

Peter Fray

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