Feb 12 2013

Art Gallery of New South Wales Scraps Role of Asian Art Curator

by Michael Young

The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, 2013. Photo by Jenni Carter. Courtesy the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Last week, director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) Michael Brand axed the position of Head of Asian Art when combining the gallery’s Asian and International departments. Jackie Menzies, who has acted in the position since 1995 and worked at the AGNSW since 1980, is retiring, with no replacement following her leave.

Brand, a specialist in Indian art, countered media criticism by issuing a statement that the two Asian art curatorial specialist positions currently occupied will remain features of the new department. 

According to the gallery’s website, its Asian collection that is valued in excess of AUD 55 million contains “some of the finest moments in art in the rich history of Asia.” This standing, however, has not prevented Brand from enacting what some consider severe measures in an effort to satisfy recent funding cuts.

Last year, the NSW government’s efficiency dividends, imposed on cultural institutions to help bring budgets back into deficit, resulted in an AUD 1.2 million (USD 1.3 million) cut to the gallery’s state-funded operations grant. Brand, who stepped in as director the same year, has said that although no department is immune to the budget cuts, “Redundancies would be avoided if possible.”

Brand addressed gallery staff last week at a meeting—that one insider described as somber—outlining cost savings which include outsourcing 44 security staff positions at the end of February. Brand reassured his staff that there would be no further positions abolished.

Jackie Menzies will retain a position as Emeritus curator of Asian art at the gallery. “Brand is certainly supportive of Asian art,” Menzies said in an interview. “Asia is now international, and the world is much more global than when I started at the gallery. It makes sense to bring together International and Asia into one department.”

Dr. Gene Sherman, executive director of Sydney’s Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and expert on Asian art, shares this view. “The Asian department was substantially focused on historical acquisitions and exhibitions. Under the new structure, this ambiguity will now disappear.” 

Several senior curators have left the gallery in recent months either by retirement or redundancy, opening up positions to younger curators within the institution. Terence Maloon, the curator of special exhibitions, left last year after 25 years at the gallery. Barry Pearce, the head of Australian art, recently retired after 33 years. Tony Bond, who curated the current Francis Bacon exhibition, will retire next month.

Other departures include Hendrik Kolenberg, senior curator of Australian prints, drawings and watercolors, as well as young, indigenous art curator, Jonathan Jones, who recently followed indigenous curator Hetti Perkins out the door.

Jones left for personal reasons and said in an interview last week that he sees nothing sinister in the shift at the gallery, thinking it should be seen as an opportunity to introduce “new energy into the institution.”

Brand’s changes could well be a case of a “new broom sweeping clean,” according to one Sydney gallerist who preferred not to be identified. This is the view shared to some extent by Menzies, who commented, “Maybe it is just time for a change.”

Brand maintains, however, that the gallery’s commitment to Asian art remains strong, writing in an email interview that the gallery has three important Asian exhibitions opening in 2013 and 2014. “A Silk Road Saga: Yu Hong’s Sarcophagus” excavated in Shanxi province in 1999 will go on display in August, while next year, “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” will tour Australia, along with a yet unconfirmed Indian exhibition.

While acknowledging the strength of the Asian holdings of the AGNSW, Brand identified what he perceived as a limited worldview at the gallery in an interview last July. “Sydney is an international city, and we shouldn’t be constrained and limited by the (Asian) region. Also we need to give students and the public an idea about what is going on in New York or Los Angeles,” he said.

Brand sees the merging of the two departments as breaking down cultural barriers and, as he said in the recent email exchange, to “provide a more focused response to contemporary art practice across different regions…[while] avoid[ing] the duplication of administrative functions.”

Brand’s turning the gallery’s focus away from Asia, however, comes at a time when Australia is looking to engage with the region. One gallerist who preferred to remain anonymous said, “Given the current emphasis on Australia in the Asian Century, the Government’s White Paper, and given our geographic proximity and cultural engagement [with Asia], it would seem to be a somewhat retrograde step.”

Chinese scholar Edmund Capon who established the gallery’s international reputation for Asian art scholarship and presided over the construction of the New Asian Gallery wing, preferred not to comment when approached about this article.