A Gripe with GoMA

Thu, 27/06/2013 - 08:53 -- damien

Strangely I don’t really have one. At least I thought I didn’t. In fact, I’m the last person you would expect a complaint from. You could consider me a diehard Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) fan. I’m that type who has religiously visited almost every exhibition since its opening on the banks of the Brisbane River; and even before that, was fed on a diet of the Queensland Art Gallery’s (QAG’s) children’s programs and early Asia-Pacific Triennials since the age of six. My singular gripe was wishing they’d turn the air-con down every once in a while.

It’s easy to point out the positives and successes of GoMA. It is now a world-class facility, being lent precious Picassos from the Musée National Picasso in France and the ‘core collection’ of surrealist works from the prestigious Centre Pompidou. Brisbane’s ‘black box’ has earned the trust of Europe’s most iconic galleries, which is no small feat. By doing so it has secured landmark exhibitions and put Brisbane on the international art and cultural tourism map. 

How can there be any grievances towards a building that acts as the strongest representation, to the relief of many, that Brisbane is finally shaking off its cultural boneyard status? If you know where to look, you can and will find complaints regarding GoMA. Whether or not they are justifiable is a question that can only be answered upon closer examination.

Christopher Allen’s scathing review of ‘21st Century, Art in the First Decade’ in The Australian’s ‘Review’ puts forward the two most broadcasted gripes with GoMA. From the outset he expresses his annoyance at the number of children populating the gallery space. Labelling it a ‘carnival’, elephant and slide included.1 

Unfortunately, a flow of children throughout the exhibitions is sometimes unavoidable in a gallery that sets the bar nationally for children’s art education programs. Savvy Brisbanites have enough sense to visit exhibits in the early morning or in school hours to avoid this problem. But alternatively, like the rest of the gallery’s patrons, Allen could just grin and bear it. It’s well understood adult tolerance can be quickly eaten away by the excessive banter of kids. In this case, they just have to keep being reminded that despite what it often sounds like, the kids are benefitting from a hands-on art education more than you’d realise. Art and culture underpin a healthy society and GoMA is introducing these important aspects to the next generation.

Allen also lamented that people who looked like they had arrived ‘from the shopping centre’ were simply there for the spectacle and interactivity of slides and balloon rooms, not to appreciate the delicacy that is fine art. 

Anyone who finds fault in the gallery’s visitors for only appreciating the spectacle of contemporary art misses the whole point of GoMA. It must be remembered that the unwavering philosophy of Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art is ‘to connect art and people’,2 which it has done so successfully in ‘21st Century’. For the sake of stating the obvious: the gallery was never made to exclusively cater to the tastes of the art intellectuals. 

A further argument against this particular point of Allen’s is put forward in contemporary Australian art magazine Eyeline with its in-depth comeback article of Allen’s review. The writer Sally Butler argued many of the artworks in the ‘21st Century’ exhibition utilised the concept of spectacle as a theme.3 So in appreciating the spectacle, visitors were actually appreciating the art. Though Allen’s protests are the most public, both of his views can be disregarded as they fail to address any real problem within the gallery. 

A less publicised frustration regarding GoMA is found within Brisbane’s emerging artist community. Many believe that although GoMA has generated an interest and appreciation in the public sphere for contemporary art that wasn’t previously present, Brisbane’s ‘black box’ now overshadows and doesn’t provide support for emerging contemporary artists and the smaller galleries they are a part of. It’s certainly not as though there is a lack of gallery standard works being produced. Throughout the city, Artist Run Initiatives showcase local talent that displays sophisticated execution of concept and chosen media, often exceeding gallery standards.

It seems to be a case of accidental ignorance on GoMA’s part. Just as the gallery consistently offers support to rural and school age artists, it possesses more than the capacity to extend a hand to local artists. GoMA has no reason not to acknowledge, be proud of and show the wider public the wealth of talent from the surrounding metropolitan areas.

Finally, a complaint that far too often runs under the radar is the focus of statistic blog ‘Countess’, which documents gender inequality within contemporary Australian art. GoMA’s 2008 summer exhibition ‘Optimism’ consisted of 53% male, 33% female and 14% group works, while the more recent ‘21st Century, Art in the First Decade’ had a starker contrast of 65% male, 30% female and 7% group pieces.4 The facts speak for themselves; female artists are not getting an equal share of gallery space. While GoMA is certainly not the only major exhibitor in Australia with gender inequality within exhibitions—the 2011 Archibald Portrait Prize5 and 17th Sydney Biennale share eerily similar imbalances—it doesn’t justify the issue.

By peering around the widely publicised views of Brisbane’s GoMA, it’s clear an unnecessarily cold main foyer is certainly not the only problem. As Queensland’s, and perhaps Australia’s premier gallery, GoMA has the obligation to address the founded and justifiable complaints of local artists and still present gender equality in contemporary exhibitions. However, the more public and superficial complaints raised by Allen display short-sightedness and a base misunderstanding of GoMA’s visions and method. They truly are just gripes that can be overlooked.

notes: 

1. Allen, C., ‘Carnival Capers’, The Australian, 9 April 2011. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/arts/carnival-capers/story-e6frg8n6...
2. Unknown. ‘Queensland Art Gallery – Gallery of Modern Art , About Us. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. Queensland Government. http://qag.qld.gov.au/about_us (accessed 20 September, 2011).
3. Butler, Sally, ‘21st Century: Installation Art in Its Prime’, Eyeline #74, 2011, pp.50-57. Print.
4. Unknown. ‘Female Artists Only One Quarter of Artists in – 21st Century: Art in the First Decade @ GoMA – How Representative Is This?’ CoUNTesses, 28 March 2011. http://countesses.blogspot.com (accessed 20 September, 2011).
5. ‘Archibald Finalists :: Finalists :: Archibald Prize 2011 :: Art Gallery NSW’, Home, Art Gallery NSW. http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/archibald-wynne-sulman-priz... (accessed 21 September 2011).
Images page 15. Bharti Kher,
The skin speaks a language not its own,
2006.
Fibreglass and bindi.
167.6 x 152.4 x 457.2cm (irreg., approx.). Purchased 2007. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Collection Queensland Art Gallery. ©The artist.
page 16. Date of birth and gender of artists in exhibition 21st Century: Art in the First Decade at GOMA 2011. Countess, http://countesses.blogspot.com.au/2011/03/21st-century-art-in-first-deca.... Gender of artists in exhibition 21st Century: Art in the First Decade at GOMA 2011. Countess, http://countesses.blogspot.com.au/2011/03/21st-century-art-in-first-deca....

Catriona Drummond
Clayfield College