The market proved just as healthy for the auction houses, with a succession of record prices being set, culminating in Menzies’ November sale of Brett Whiteley’s 1974 painting, Henri’s Armchair, for $6.13 million. Such results made it clear that despite all predictions of an economic downturn there were still plenty of buyers prepared to invest heavily in a status symbol.
The 22nd Sydney Biennale launched at the beginning of March when the virus was just starting to spread and quarantine restrictions had not been applied. Brook Andrew’s Nirin was the first Indigenous-themed Biennale, bringing together 98 artists or groups of artists from 47 countries, including Haiti, Mozambique, Nepal, Afghanistan and the Samí region of Sweden. Many of them were in Sydney for the opening but within a week they had taken the last plane home while the exhibition went into lockdown.
It looked like a depressing end for a bright, ground-breaking show due to wind up on June 8, but when the Art Gallery of NSW re-opened on June 1, the Biennale display was extended until the end of September. This was good for the exhibition but it also testified to a lack of initiative that has become a feature of an AGNSW that finds it hard to focus on the present while it waits for the colossal white elephant called Sydney Modern to take shape. This was brought home to me last week when I attended the re-opening of the National Gallery of Victoria which was celebrated with a monumental second instalment of the NGV Triennial. The lesson was: Open with a bang, don’t fall back on the familiar.
When the AGNSW re-opened there was a real thrill at being there on the first day but that surge in visitation quickly died down. Three months later we were into the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes, which will linger until January 10. The Archibald may be an Australian institution but it has become an interminable gap-filler and fund-raiser for the gallery when one might hope for a more imaginative exhibition schedule, even allowing for the difficulties imposed by COVID-19.
The 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s voyage along the east coast was eclipsed by the Black Lives Matter movements as much as by COVD-19. Most institutions chose to mark Cook’s voyage in a very minor way but the National Museum of Australia put together an innovative, ground-breaking show called Endeavour Voyage (until April 26, 2021) that combines memorabilia from the journey with oral history accounts drawn from descendants of those Indigenous people who met the explorers. The NMA showed it was possible to deal with history’s competing claims without falling into ideological postures.
The National Gallery of Australia decided to respond to a slump in attendances caused by the bushfires at the start of the year, then the COVID crisis, by hosting a monumental show of Australian women artists. Know My Name could have devolved into a tub-thumping exercise in feminist politics, but the curators put together a varied and lively display in which the works – all 600-plus of them – were allowed to do the talking.
As for other venues, the Australian War Memorial spent much of the year fending off charges that it was spending an obscene amount of money on its proposed renovation while its peers struggled for funds. In Sydney, the Australian Museum benefited from a million dollar bequest from Brian Sherman, which came along at exactly the right time.
The most ambitious cultural building work was done privately, by Judith Neilson, whose White Rabbit Gallery of contemporary Chinese art has now been joined by the visual and performing arts centre, Phoenix Central Park, and the truly astonishing warehouse and venue – Dangrove, Alexandria. We have yet to see the full scope of these buildings which will come into their own in a post-pandemic world.
We’ll also remember 2020 as the year Sydney University finally opened its long-awaited museum, named the Chau Chak Wing, after the Chinese philanthropist who stumped up the cash when the university’s wealthy alumni looked the other way. It adds a valuable new dimension to a city that should be much better served by its art and cultural institutions.
This brings me, finally, to the story that remains the cultural flashpoint of the year: the Berejiklian government’s heavy-handed attempts to destroy the unique Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo and impose an unwanted, badly-planned commercial development, masquerading as a museum, on the people of Parramatta – at a cost somewhere between $1-2 billion. A concerted campaign by friends and supporters of the PHM brought about an apparent backdown by the government at the end of June. Yet even amid the celebrations it looked like a smoke and mirrors trick, and with each passing month it becomes clearer that destructive intentions remain intact. It’s dismal to think that in 2021 we may escape from a deadly pandemic only to find ourselves fighting the same old battles with a secretive, duplicitous government prepared to advance the interests of their mates over the state’s cultural heritage.
John McDonald is an art critic and regular columnist with Good Weekend.