Artist John Kelly has long been critical of the Australia Council’s treatment of the arts as a “brand”. In the the early 2000s he used its kangaroo logo for an artwork that was eventually used on MONA owner David Walsh’s Moo Brew beer label.

It was an ironic comment on the Australia Council’s “branding”. But can lightning strike twice? Now Kelly is asking the Australia Council to fund a new art project that is critical of the institution. 

 

New Arts Minister Mitch Fifield has recently announced the first recipients of the new “Catalyst” grants, to be given to projects at the minister’s discretion. Incredibly, Fifield awarded nearly half a million dollars to one commercial gallery to take an art exhibition to the Oceanographic Museum in Monte Carlo. Funding the commercial sector raises interesting questions of acceptable use of artists’ work.

For example, would the gallery need to furnish proof that all the artists were aware of their work being used in the application? What is to stop a commercial gallery buying work on the secondary market and then apply for funding using the artists’ names? I am not suggesting the gallery has done this in this case, but galleries love big names and if they don’t have them, now they can literally buy them.

No artist has a bigger name than Damian Hirst. A few years back I saw a pretty ropey Hirst exhibition at the Monaco Oceanographic Museum. One could imagine the brand manager’s light-bulb moment: let’s put Hirst’s dead shark in a museum full of dead fish, a museum that claims to be dedicated to scientific research. That Hirst had a shark killed for art would seem to contradict this ideal. But who cares? People will flock to the show, and they did (including us).

Near Hirst’s shark was a sign that read:

“Sharks … the great species, cornerstone of the marine ecosystems, are now truly threatened with extinction because man has become the ocean’s greatest predator Together, we can and must change things.”

The Monaco Oceanographic Museum is not an art gallery; it’s more like the old museum in Melbourne’s Swanston Street with lots of glass cabinets with stuffed, fishy stuff.

My story intersects the above in a strange way. In 2002 I was invited to exhibit a sculpture in Monte Carlo and in accepting the invitation I was served a French lawsuit. I looked for support from the Australia Council, but there was little forthcoming.

In fact they made my life harder. An application, an appeal and months of time-consuming correspondence seemed a waste of time, yet at the same time I remember a number of commercial galleries being supported to attend ARCO, an art fair in Madrid.

While I exhibited alongside Alexander Calder, Keith Haring, Niki Saint Phalle, etc, I also had to fight the legal battle, where an art dealer claimed he was my agent based on an unwritten contract that overrode our written contract and that I had been parasitical in accepting the Monte Carlo invitation.

Added to this was that I had also been parasitical in approaching the dealer’s professional connections, including the Australian embassy in Paris.

After a five-year battle the court found the dealer was not my agent, but that I had been parasitical as accused. To cap it off, John Spender, who had been Australian ambassador in France, gave evidence at the request and in support of the French art dealer based on what he had observed as Australia’s ambassador. Thanks, mate!

However it may also be my greatest artistic achievement: to be parasitical on an art dealer who did not represent me would seem to be a miraculous feat. It took a long time to recover from the ordeal, and the work that grew out of this experience has now become known as the “Moo Brew” work.

In researching the role of the Australia Council I learnt that rather than being keen to support artists at this time, they seemed far more interested in attempting to “brand the arts”, as suggested by Saatchi and Saatchi, in their commissioned report Australians and the Arts.

My light-bulb moment was that the Australia Council had evolved into an organisation that was distancing itself from the very people who make art: the artists.

It was actually advocating an anti-art strategy that demands conformity. An analogy might be of the bus company that decides that they could be more efficient if they did not pick up any passengers. Or maybe an oceanographic museum whose reasons to exhibit murdered sharks was seemingly justified because its research funds “come from the entrance fees paid by the public, and the shop and restaurant”. (This quote was taken from the “Guide to the Oceanographic Museum Monaco”).

To me at least, it seemed the Australia Council was much more interested in supporting brand managers whom they could trust, whether they were curators or commercial galleries, who would present a form of Australian art that fitted an acceptable identity of Australia.

They have many willing and possibly many unwitting helpers from the art world. Just look at their participation in the Venice Biennale and the consistency of the selection.

My project began in 2002, and it continues to this day in the form of a question. Can the Australia Council in a “liberal” country like Australia support an artist who is critical of the very institution that is being asked to support the project?

I have my doubts but it seems an important question to ask at a time when few artists are prepared to openly dissent, challenge or be critical of the all-powerful institutions whether that be the council or the minister’s office.

*Read John Kelly’s application at Daily Review