Saturday 20 January 2018

Art News New Zealand column, Summer 2018

New Year - New Power Dynamics

One, a start-of-the-year column might have been 'New year, new you'. In 2018, it's more like 'New year, new power dynamics'.

2017 was a year of disruption and challenge, studded with calls to remove artworks from institutions, most notably in the United States. Sam Durant's Scaffold, an addition to the Walker Art Center's high profile sculpture garden, was removed and given to local Dakota people after communities protested that the installation of the work (which takes the form of abstracted gallows, including those used to execute 38 Dakota men in 1862) without consultation was unconscionable. At the Whitney Biennial, Dana Schutz's painting Open Casket, based on the famed photograph of Emmett Till's mutilated face, was the subject of protest actions and petitions for its removal and destruction. Works by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu planned for inclusion in a survey of contemporary Chinese art were withdrawn by the Guggenheim Museum after the institution received "explicit and repeated threats of violence" by protesters over the treatment of animals involved in the making the works. In December, a petition was launched to remove Balthus's Thérèse Dreaming from the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Met declined.

Some commentators have cast the events of the past year as a resurgence of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. But these new demands for the removal of "offensive" artworks are decidedly different from those of the past: where once institutions galvanised against criticism from conservative groups and elected officials, today's protests are more likely to come from the left, from grassroots activists, from artists themselves, and most of all, from those who have historically been denied power in institutions - both political and artistic.

At the same time, figures have fallen from pedestals, both literal and metaphorical. Across the United States alt-right and anti-right groups rallied around public monuments, especially those commemorating Civil War-era Confederate leaders. Statues were pulled down, both by protesters and civic authorities.Likewise, 2017 saw an upswing in New Zealand of questioning of the values put forward by our own public memorials, particularly those commemorating colonial figures and activities. Meanwhile, the conclusion of the year saw a rapid tumbling of men from positions of power and influence across the cultural landscape - including the visual arts - as accusations of sexual assault and harassment became public. All these conversations are also taking place in Aotearoa's art communities and institutions, as we see a rebalancing of power and the internet's power to strengthen the voices of those traditionally denied mainstream presence.

Late  2017 saw another power shift, as New Zealand First lent its authority to the Labour Party to form a new government. In a decision read as deeply symbolic, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has taken the Arts, Culture and Heritage portfolio, with Carmel Sepuloni and Grant Robertson as associate ministers (if you were around for the last Labour government, you will remember the warm glow that accompanied Helen Clark's own holding of this position). Ardern's speech at the Auckland Theatre Awards in December contained a clarion call for the value of the arts: "When we mention the word wellbeing and we think about the arts; when we mention the word community and we think about the arts. When we mention togetherness, identity, culture, our heritage, and we think about the arts. And I crave the day when we stop explaining ourselves and people just know it."

Signals of a new emphasis on arts and culture are starting to emerge, with government agencies calling sector leaders into an assortment of workshops to discuss the place of the arts in this or that initiative. A signal from a different direction has also been made, as Paul Goldsmith takes over as Spokesperson for Arts, Culture and Heritage for the National Party, communicating to arts leaders his intent to create an arts policy that will reach across the aspirations of the sector, from our largest institutions to grassroots organisations.

Concluding this musing on power: this summer saw the passing of Dame Cheryll Sotheran. Director of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and and Dunedin Public Art Gallery and driving force in the creation of Te Papa, Dame Cheryll was arguably, the most distinctive individual influence on museum practice in this country in our recent history. Determined to radically overhaul what a museum of New Zealand could be and do, Dame Cheryll inspired deep loyalty from many who worked with her - and also weathered enormous criticism and condemnation. Since leaving Te Papa in 2002 Dame Cheryll largely disappeared from the view of the art world. It is beyond time that we pay tribute to her determination, readiness to push for change, and the endurance of her vision.