Article: Artinfo in conversation with Robert Nelson on the NGV

Robert, we hear a lot about the NGV and its challenges, I guess all brought to a head by the departure of the munificent Allan Myers, Chairman of Trustees, and Dr Gerard Vaughan, the Director.  How do you think the NGV is faring? What are the issues and concerns or challenges that it faces?

You know, it depends what you look at.  If I stand in front of that Correggio that the NGV just acquired, I feel quite humbled.  It’s not just the $5m that it cost at auction but the fact that it’s there in perpetuity, sitting alongside other treasures that only Melbourne has.  But then if I look at what contemporary shows the NGV has done, I don’t get a sense that they’re setting any agendas.
I’d say that as an innocent spectator.  But being a watcher of an institution yields another perspective.  From a cultural management point of view, the big historical challenge is how to protect art against marketing.  The pressure is on for every public cultural institution to get more foot-traffic.  The signals are:  go get big names, celebrity figures whom we can sell to the public.  We want crowds.  We want to rival the football each winter.
So the poor curatorial staff, who are scholars at heart, have to sit around and strategize how best to play the media with the usual charismatic suspects of popular art history.  Against this trend, I reckon that the NGV has resisted the pressure with some dignity. They haven’t vulgarized their mission.  They’ve gone in for blockbusters but they’ve been serious ones and often they aren’t ideal for publicity, a bit obscure and recherché.  I think that they’ve behaved with integrity and have kept standards high.
Well, they might have behaved with dignity but will that save them from competition from other galleries?  Isn’t the reality that it’s tough out there?  I mean, don’t you think that the NGV is struggling against competitors such as GOMA and MONA?  It seems that the NGV was surpassed last year as Australia’s most visited gallery by the contiguous GOMA and Queensland Art Gallery.  How could such an bastion suddenly be eclipsed?
Oh, hardly eclipsed!  We all have good years and bad years.  MONA is new and matches our need for excitement; but imagining a longer-term view, MONA is a pilgrimage rather than a hub.  It costs gigalitres of jet-fuel to get to and cannot pretend to be a museum like the NGV.  As for Queensland, the figures might reflect variations in tourism generally, which are not due to the prestige of the gallery.  I’m not sure how good the analysis is and whether it reaches down into the causes.
Tourism aside, are we really measuring cultural impact with these figures?  I’m not sure that anyone wakes up and says:  I think I’ll go to St Kilda Rd; oh no I won’t, I’ll go to Brisbane instead.  Rightly or wrongly, these institutions aren’t genuine competitors.  It looks like competition but it’s largely illusory because they don’t take business away from one another in the way that Coke and Pepsi do when they share a shelf in the supermarket.  The only thing is that the museums demoralize one another with their bragging over foot-traffic.  Their role vis-à-vis one another is to have more swagger over statistics.  But really it’s just a war of words.
A war of words or a war of shows?  One of the big marketing tools for museums is blockbusters.  It seems that the more recent Melbourne Winter Masterpieces have not been as successful as shows such as the Impressionists or Salvador Dalì?  What do you think is the secret to a successful Melbourne Winter Masterpieces show?
It’s a good question because the Winter Masterpieces of late have been quite good, just not vast crowd-pullers.  You might expect that Klimt, say, would pull in the crowds.  He’s hugely popular among people who like art.  But there’s the problem.  It’s actually not a huge demographic.  The people who’ll come in to see Klimt are already highly educated.  They’ll go to the Winter Masterpieces anyway.  To get the extra thousands, you have to look at a section of the public who haven’t heard of Klimt but have heard of Picasso.  They’re two different leagues of celebrity and two different demographics.  Dalì similarly is a household name.  How many of them do you think the NGV can get in one decade?
This is the publicity plug-hole.  It’s a bottomless drain on an institution to fill up the sink with liquid reputations year after year.  It’s because art has been coopted by the language of marketing.  It shouldn’t happen with public institutions.  We have art precisely to resist that kind of cultural debasement.  Thank goodness the NGV holds out somewhat against these philistine patterns of globalization!
So then what do you think of the calibre of the blockbusters the NGV has held?  Has the NGV become too reliant on blockbuster shows?  And is this trend taking place in galleries worldwide?  
The NGV blockbusters are solid; but honestly, my heart goes out to the curators.  The NGV doesn’t only do blockbusters; quite the contrary.  They’re the rarity.  There are numerous shows all the time where the several departments pull off imaginative things using their own collection.  They’re often ingenious and might score a curious review in The Age.  But they won’t bring in the tennis crowd.  So the poor blighters, good curators all, are forced to go for high-octane solutions, which are very risky.
Poor blighters, eh?  Tell me what you think of the tenure of Gerard Vaughan.  In what condition will he leave the NGV?  And in any case, why do you believe he is leaving the NGV?
Gerard didn’t exactly give many reasons but just said that it’s crucial to leave at the right time.  But from where I’m sitting, I can imagine some of the reasons.  I’m glad that I’m a critic and not Director of the NGV, because otherwise I’d have to orchestrate the next king-hit and bring culture to a celebrity-economy that I find personally distasteful and contrary to the very purpose of art.  How disillusioning!  The summit of high culture turns out to be the gallows for artistic ideals.
In the face of these commercial pressures Gerard has had dignity and authority and personified the trust that we feel in the place.  He leaves the NGV as a place of integrity.  Good on him that he hasn’t cheapened the silver but added a few pieces while he could.
Robert, you say ‘commercial pressures’ but are they really under some kind of economic threat?  I mean it’s funded by the state, isn’t it?
Yeah, good point.  That’s the funny part.  The foot traffic for blockbusters yields money but they’re quite trivial sums in the scheme of things; and the state prestige is surely far more important.  The pressure derives more from a culture of metrics, the same bureaucratic obsession that traumatizes academics with the figures of their productivity.  It’s just possible that there’s also a need to represent positive figures in order to encourage philanthropic growth.  So it’s not a real economy but an artificial one based on perceptions.
Is there anything that the NGV should do better, apart from creating more excitement around contemporary art?
Yes, I think that the dissemination of art into the public remains a great challenge and a part of the role of the NGV is therefore educational.  The NGV has the huge advantage of being encyclopaedic and is almost a design museum as well.  I feel that it could be telling stories a whole lot better than it does.
Robert, thanks for talking to Artinfo

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