Museums Collectors Features Australia

Neighbours worth getting to know

Australia’s museums are acquiring more contemporary Asian art but its private collectors blazed a trail to the region

Asian art at the influential triennials organised by the Queensland Art Gallery/ Gallery of Modern Art. Photo: Queensland Art Gallery

Over the past 30 years, museums and galleries in Australia have gradually embraced Modern and contemporary art from Asia. Initiatives funded by privately backed organisations and public bodies, notably the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT) at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (Qagoma) in Brisbane, have helped foster links between the two continents, bringing commercial and critical acclaim for Asian artists in Australia.

Exhibitions and forums focusing on Asian artists are, for instance, a staple of the private Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (Scaf) in Sydney, and Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Whether such institutions, especially those funded by the public purse, can maintain this momentum remains a point of debate.

“All the Australian major art museums collect and exhibit Asian art and have [accompanying] education and public programmes,” says Anna Waldmann, an art adviser and the former director of visual arts at the Australia Council. She warns, though, that “major [public] art institutions have obvious constraints: not just money, but space and politics.”

Cultural politics

Crucially, some leading arts professionals say that there has been a shift in the cultural perspective of Australia, which must be seen in a historical context. “We were established by artists at a time when the influence of the market and the interest in Asian art was very different,” says Aaron Seeto, the director of the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney, which was founded in 1996 by the non-profit Asian Australian Artists’ Association (4A).

Seeto says that at the time “there was a particular kind of racist xenophobia infiltrating into public discourse”. In 1996, the right-wing independent politician Pauline Hanson was elected to the Australian parliament, saying in her maiden speech: “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians.”

“The founding members of 4A felt that there was a need to… ensure that artists of Asian background weren’t being ignored within the narratives of Australian culture,” Seeto says, “that their work was being collected by state museums and that the productive exchanges between artists which were occurring at this time were being discussed in critical ways.”

The 4A Centre supports contemporary art production in local communities while engaging at national and international levels. Its high-profile initiatives include the “Edge of Elsewhere” project (2009-12), organised in collaborations with the Campbelltown Arts Centre, whereby 16 international artists created works in partnership with Asian communities around Sydney. Under a current residency programme, Australian artists spend up to a month in the Beijing studio of artist Shen Shaomin.

Seeto says that government policy has brought about exchange opportunities for artists. “No-Name Station”, a cultural exchange project was launched in 2010 to coincide with the government’s “Imagine Australia: Year of Australian Culture in China” programme. The collaboration between the Gertrude Contemporary arts complex in Melbourne and the Iberia Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing comprised exhibitions across several sites in Australian and China.

The role of museums

Are museums doing enough? In 2011, the NGV opened its new contemporary Asian and Pacific art gallery, with recent acquisitions on show such as the video Farmer, 2009, by the Thai artist Sudsiri Pui-Ock. “Working actively in the [Asia-Pacific] region is an important part of our strategic vision for the gallery,” a spokeswoman says.

Meanwhile, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in Sydney has organised some significant Modern and contemporary Asian art shows including “Mother India: Video Plays by Nalini Malani” in 2012.

In early 2013, the director of the AGNSW, Michael Brand, axed the position of head of Asian art, combining the gallery’s Asian and international departments. The institution currently employs two Asian art curators. Gene Sherman, the executive director of Scaf and an expert on Asian art, told the Art Asia Pacific journal in 2013: “The Asian department was substantially focused on historical acquisitions and exhibitions. Under the new structure, this ambiguity will now disappear.” She tells The Art Newspaper that under Brand, the gallery plans to expand its contemporary Asian collection.

“I don’t think contemporary Asian art has been a particular focus [at AGNSW] in the way it has been at the Queensland Art Gallery,” says the Melbourne-based dealer Anna Schwartz, whose gallery is participating in Art Basel Hong Kong. “However, there are certainly a number of very good works, probably in proportion to the representation of other non-Australian cultures.”

Russell Storer, the curatorial manager of Asian and Pacific art at Qagoma, says: “When it was established in 1993, the Asia Pacific Triennial was one of the first large-scale exhibitions to focus on contemporary Asian and Pacific art, and it remains the only recurring exhibition to look regularly at the contemporary art of this region.”

The development of Qagoma's collection has largely been driven by works commissioned and acquired for the triennial. “In Asian art our strengths are Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian contemporary art,” Storer says. “From the beginning, the APT created a network of artists, curators and scholars, and it allowed the Queensland Art Gallery to acquire dozens of works by Asian artists,” Waldmann says.

Influential collectors

Links between Asian and Australian artists have been strengthened by the efforts of influential patrons outside the Australian museum sector. These include Gene Sherman, who founded Scaf in 2008. The privately funded venture, describing itself as a “philanthropic enterprise”, has made its mark by commissioning major works by Australian and Middle Eastern artists.

Sherman initially ran a commercial gallery in Sydney promoting Asian art. Scaf was built on Sherman Galleries’ two decades of commercial exhibitions and artist representation from 1986 to 2007. “I organised guest-curated exhibitions such as ‘Echoes of China: From Behind the Bamboo Curtain’ [in 1997],” she says. Sherman’s collecting activities have also proved a fillip for the Asian market, with around of a third of the works in her 800-strong holdings by Asian and Middle Eastern artists.

Another trailblazer is Judith Neilson, who with her husband, the South African-born billionaire Kerr Neilson, founded the White Rabbit gallery in 2009, based in a renovated warehouse in Sydney’s newly gentrified Chippendale area. It is the first Australian gallery dedicated to Chinese contemporary art, housing the largest collection of 21st-century Chinese art in the world, Judith Neilson says. The current show, “Reformation” (until 3 August), includes provocative pieces by Sun Hongbin and the Shanghai-based collective MadeIn Company.

Neilson makes regular trips to China and Taiwan to augment the collection, which by early 2014 comprised almost 1,000 works by more than 350 artists. She argues that “White Rabbit is probably unique. Because the collection is owned by me, and the gallery is funded entirely by the philanthropic Neilson Foundation, the White Rabbit operates outside the box that hems in many state-funded galleries and museums.” None of the works, which are mostly bought directly from the artists, is for sale, she adds.

Whatever their real intentions, collectors are often faced with accusations that public displays of their art are merely a “shopfront” designed to possibly increase its value. But an anonymous source in the Sydney museum sector says the “Sherman Foundation and White Rabbit are just as important and proactive in commissioning and showing Asian art as the museums. They have been working in the region in an in-depth way, have long-term relationships with artists and bring that passion to their programmes.”

CORRECTION: The exhibition "Echoes of China: From Behind the Bamboo Curtain" was held at the Sherman Galleries in Sydney in 1991, not 1997 as originally stated.

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