It’s a rare thing for a public gallery director to say “Thanks but no thanks”. But that’s what Ron Radford did this week when he ended a five-year relationship with the charitable arm of the Millionaire Factory and killed off the $50,000 National Sculpture Prize.

The Macquarie Bank Foundation is said to have ploughed about $500,000 into the prize since 2001 in a sponsorship deal with Brian Kennedy, the former head of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

But Radford, as the NGA’s current director, has scrapped the prize, telling The SMH‘s Steve Meacham: “I don’t think any art museum does believe [a prize] is the best way to help art. It’s not the worst way, either. But there are more imaginative ways.”

In defending his decision, Radford had a gentle dig at the nation’s most popular art prize, The Archibald, hosted by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

“You’d never change the Archibald, but let’s not kid ourselves the Archibald is about art,” Mr Radford said, echoing sentiments of many people in the art world, including many of the artists who have tried to win the thing. However, while that’s what many insiders believe, it’s rare for anyone, least of all the director of a rival institution, to express such a view in public, with disparaging remarks about the Archibald generally left to the media.

Radford wasn’t suggesting that the Archibald also be scrapped but he was blunt in assessing its cultural significance. “The Archibald isn’t [the Art Gallery of NSW’s] most important art exhibition, just their most important circus. But it’s become iconic and you wouldn’t want to touch it.”

That drew an indignant response Edmund Capon, the Archibald’s veteran ringmaster and director of the AGNSW. “Of course the Archibald is about art. It’s a very significant exhibition which has played an extraordinary role in the history of Australian art and Australian life. You don’t have artists of the stature of John Olsen entering it, and relishing winning it, if it is not serious art.”

Capon neglected to point out that Olsen, although a recent winner of the prize, wasn’t always an Archibald fan. In his youth, Olsen led a rowdy demonstration against the Archibald, damning it as too conservative.

No one would seriously want to get rid of the Archibald. It’s too much fun. But Radford’s right in saying that there are better ways to advance the cause of art. That’s a bold thing for a gallery director to say when corporate sponsors are so eager to attach their names to art prizes because of the publicity they attract. Radford should be applauded for taking a stand.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW