Healthy debate stimulated by Arts Queensland forum

GoMA draws fire from critics

Fiona Foley

Fiona Foley speaking at the Creative Capital forum. Picture: Elleni Toumpas Source: Supplied

QUEENSLAND’S exponential cultural growth has received a reality check at a forum organised to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art.

Creative Capital, the brainchild of Premier Anna Bligh, was a hastily designed forum held at the State Library on Wednesday to reflect on GoMA’s success and to discuss a new direction for arts and culture.

But despite praise from former prime minister Paul Keating, who said Brisbane had become the “most culturally dynamic” city of its kind in Australia, the real buzz came from Fiona Foley.

The artist, speaking in the first panel, drew rapturous applause for her scathing assessment of the performance of GoMA and the Queensland Art Gallery. Foley accused professional staff of a lack of leadership in a consistent failure to acquire and show the work of the vibrant, nationally and internationally recognised indigenous artists on its doorstep.

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Her other recent criticism, which featured in The Australian on Tuesday, regarded the awarding of the recent $1 million Premier of Queensland’s sculptural commission to New Zealand artist Michael Parekowhai. The decision to overlook indigenous artists for the commission was cited as an example of Queensland’s ongoing “cultural cringe”.

“It doesn’t matter how many international shows are staged at GoMA or that millions of dollars are poured into this institution annually,” she said. “Public servants who work in the visual arts will continue as followers — not leaders.

“The reason is because you cannot build upon an invisible foundation. And that foundation starts with a philosophical, intellectual and political shift that is inclusive and proudly places at the centre Aboriginal peoples and their culture.”

She suggested the qualities that Queensland may use for authentic cultural difference were its unique Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander populations and cultures. Yet, she said, “the landscape at South Bank, Brisbane, could as easily be substituted for South Bank, London.”

Foley’s criticisms were disputed from the audience by GoMA deputy director Suhanya Raffel who said the Parekowhai commission was awarded to an international artist at the initiative of Bligh to celebrate the Asia-Pacific Triennial. Raffel also said that indigenous art was on display and collected and that gallery curators were “as passionate as they can be” about this area of Australian art.

The criticism about GoMA’s neglect of its cultural backyard is not new, nor is it unique to indigenous artists. Foley’s specific points about lack of acquisitive support and exhibition opportunities have been echoed, over some years, by many established artists and the commercial galleries that represent them.

But there was significant support for Foley at the forum, overshadowing Keating’s remarks that the cultural precincts around Brisbane’s South Bank had become the centre of the city.

This is the result of a $459 million investment in arts and cultural infrastructure that has marked Queensland’s cultural development since 2001. Arts Minister Rachel Nolan, who opened the forum, noted some of the state’s recent successes: the “ragingly successful Cairns Indigenous Art Fair”, the Queensland contemporary music scene, an Australia Council survey that recorded nine out of 10 Queenslanders participate in the arts, and GoMA’s claim to fame as the “most visited gallery in Australia/top 20 most visited gallery in the world”. The latter, together with comments from the president of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Alain Seban, she claimed, gave Brisbane international recognition as the arts hub of the Asia-Pacific.

The discussion focused also on culture in a broader sense and its embrace of community. The depth available in Queensland’s festival offerings, particularly contemporary music, was applauded by panellists including musician Robert Forster, who drew on his memories of the paucity of government support and repression that characterised the 1970s and 80s in Queensland. Q Music Festival board member Scott Hutchinson and Sunshine Coast mayor Bob Abbot also spoke about the state’s cultural future.

Few would argue with the value the Queensland government has assigned to developing a flourishing arts and design and innovative culture in its communities, with recent visits by identities such as Canadian futurist Bruce Mau. Such visits are symptomatic of commitment to developing a broadly innovative culture across a breadth of industries.

Nonetheless, traditional structures, pyramidal management forms, and other sorts of hierarchical “ladders” continue to be a source of discontent. Arts and cultural industries, like all others, are dealing with technological and societal changes that require new systems of management.

The shift of Australia’s economic powerhouse to the north and the west was also noted by Keating, putting, as it does, Queensland into a prime position to service growing populations and audiences.

Julianne Schultz, editor of the Griffith Review, noted requests for new financing frameworks and the need for a bolder embrace of indigenous heritage.

“Now that the building blocks are in place, richness and diversity may build around the structures — not one pyramid but many — it’s a great start,” she said.