A job title can say a lot, a little or absolutely nothing about what a person actually does? Some titles seem almost wilfully vague, particularly when they’re handed out by an organisation such as the Australia Council, which has raised obfuscation to an art form.

For instance, why would you call someone a “senior curatorial adviser” when it would be so much simpler – indeed more accurate – to call them a curator? And why give someone the lofty label of “assistant commissioner” when it would be much more precise to call them a fundraiser?

These ponderous titles have been the stuff of intense speculation in visual arts circles recently, adding yet more fuel to the already incendiary behind-the-scenes bitching over the Australia Council’s handling of our representation at next year’s Venice Biennale.

Juliana Engberg, the director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, was appointed senior curatorial adviser for the Venice project sometime last May. Exactly when is unclear because the only public announcement the Australia Council made about Engberg’s Venice gig was a one-liner at the bottom of an undated statement on OzCo’s website.

Engberg’s appointment has outraged many art world figures because the position was never advertised. Indeed, in a break from longstanding practice, curators were specifically excluded from applying for a role in Venice. In the past, the application process involved curators teaming with artists to prepare proposals, but this time artists had to apply on their own and were given only two and a half weeks to get their proposals in.

OzCo defends Engberg’s appointment on the grounds that she is “a leading curator” with more than 400 exhibitions to her name. Critics of her appointment say that giving her the long-winded title of “senior curatorial adviser” is a way of masking the fact that she’s really been given the prized position of curator without a contest.

Engberg was on the four-member panel that selected the artists. The panel was led by contemporary art collector John Kaldor, who is also Australia’s Commissioner for Venice.

Kaldor has since appointed two Sydney collectors, Michael Whitworth and Andrew Cameron, as “assistant commissioners”. These positions were not advertised and there was no public announcement of the appointments. OzCo says Whitworth and Cameron aren’t being paid and that they will assist Kaldor “with the overall promotion of Australia’s Venice effort”.

Crikey understands their chief task is to hit on well-heeled art patrons for donations. OzCo is only putting up half the $1.6 million budget for Venice. The rest has to come from private sources. Crikey has already reported (12 July, item 7) disquiet over the Venice fundraising drive, with public galleries upset at facing direct competition from the Australia Council as Kaldor chases handouts from a limited pool of private patrons.

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