by Jenna Price
Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.
My parents were in the rag trade. That was pretty standard for Holocaust survivors who came to Australia. It worked this way at least in my family – Mum did piecework when she got off the boat. Dad worked at Port Kembla. They saved enough to start a small business and then built it into something bigger.
John Kaldor was a big deal to my parents. He was younger than they were, had arrived a couple of years before they did; and he fitted in to Australia in a way they never could. His English was perfect, theirs less so. But they worked within a few hundred yards of each other in Surry Hills. And it wasn’t long after Kaldor began his business that he brought contemporary art to the schmattes district in a way which transfixed my mother. She received an invitation to Coloured Feast (1973) to celebrate the opening of the new Kaldor showrooms. I had already decided to study art for my higher school certificate and knew about Christo (we didn’t hear much about Jeanne-Claude back in the day) and Gilbert and George. Mum was keen to go. My memories are vivid of the night. Mum made me a dress from bold Kaldor fabric. We walked up the hill to the showrooms together. Dad decided work was more important. But Leslie Walford, famed interior decorator, and even more famed social writer in Sydney’s Sun-Herald from the 1960s through to the 1980s, took notes:
“The mayonnaise was purple, the sausages blue. The cauliflowers were red or pink or green. The jellies were psychedelic. The pâté was turquoise, the corn on the cob sky blue. Was it the first work of art ever eaten in Australia?”
In an interview with Valerie Carr about the forthcoming Coloured Feast in the Australian Women’s Weekly, then a publication where you could expect real news about contemporary art, Kaldor said he didn’t really want to startle people with the food.
“Our feast won’t be too psychedelic,” he told Carr in September 1973, yet its memory is still intense in my mind.
This wasn’t “art” in my father’s mind. While Miralda was Spanish, he wasn’t El Greco. That was about as modern as Dad got. He wasn’t even sure Australians could be artists. And if you take an overview of the Kaldor Public Art Projects, it looks like Kaldor and Dad were pretty much on the same page at least when it comes to state of origin. Dad died in 1976 and would have been shocked by Jonathan Jones’s expansive work in the Royal Botanic Gardens, which marked a clear shift in the Kaldor projects.
I looked at all the artists who are named as exhibitors in the Kaldor Projects since 1969, either solo or duo. Since I’m only looking at solo or duo projects, I chose to leave out An Australian Accent, where three Australians, Mike Parr, Ken Unsworth, and Imants Tillers were shown in 1984 (that group exhibition travelled extensively and gave an international platform to these artists). I also leave out 13 Rooms and Making Art Public. Of the 35 projects, I count 32. It gives a clearer historical picture of the story so far. Of those 32 projects, one is Jonathan Jones, of the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi nations of south-east Australia; 15 projects have either one or two artists who can be predictably classified as European by residence at least before Brexit or at least before they died. Some divide their time in that group: Miralda, for example, spends time in the US.
A further 15 shows are of artists who live in the US or its territories (or did before they died) according to their biographies. Of those, Charlotte Moorman (d. 1991), Sol Lewitt (d.2007), Jeff Koons, Barry McGee, Stephen Vitiello, Bill Viola, Jennifer Allora and Asad Raza were all born there. Others such as Vanessa Beecroft, Urs Fischer, Marina Abramovic and Ugo Rondinone moved to the US. Jeanne-Claude is the only artist born in Africa; Nam Jun Paik the only artist born in Korea; Guillermo Calzadilla was born in Cuba but, along with Allora, now lives in Puerto Rico, a US territory. Tatzu Nishi, the only Japanese artist, now divides his time between Japan and Germany.
Does it matter if the Kaldor Public Art Projects are nearly exclusively white (some artists explicitly mention heritage which is non-European) and either European or from the United States?
I asked Ghassan Hage, Future Generation Professor of Anthropology at the University of Melbourne, about whether this really mattered. Hage, it could be argued, is Australia’s leading scholar on race. Should Kaldor Public Art Projects be more diverse?
Hage: “Why should it be representative of anything, why does it have to be non-white or non-European? Is it really a national thing and therefore there has to be [or is] some tension or some need to represent, something like a variety of people to reflect the variety of artists around Australia? Or is it his own thing and that’s his taste? Then he is free to choose and people who don’t like this, don’t have to go and watch.”
As Hage points out, there are historical reasons why certain things are more white than others. A contemporary view would say that it is not acceptable now for something to be so white.
“And that is not said in a spirit of hatred but in a spirit of diversification, with the expectation that there will be a gradual transformation.”
There is no point in taking a tokenistic approach: “You can’t expect something [to go] from all white to a radical cultural diversity, but the critique has to begin somewhere.”
Hage says there are two stages of transformation – the first and most obvious is for galleries and museums to exhibit non-white art, but the second and perhaps even more crucial is for the organisations themselves to be changed (as Richard Bell points out in his essay, Bell’s Theorem).
“It is a reasonable thing to demand some gradual move towards inclusion and diversification of both what is being presented and the mode in which it is being presented. Any step towards diversification is good [unless] the step becomes perceived as an answer or a structure.
“There is a continuous need for critique, an ongoing process.”
Jennifer Higgie, editor-at-large of international contemporary art magazine Frieze, says that it’s important to recognise that from the beginning the Kaldor Public Art Projects were also forward-thinking.
“John Kaldor started with a European – an outsider – sensibility, animating both local and public spaces. He didn’t just ask Christo [to Australia] to impose something the artist did elsewhere, he invited Christo to wrap the cliffs.
“It was, ‘how might this art adapt or be interesting to local people?’”
Higgie is back in Australia to finish writing her book The Mirror and the Palette, an investigation of historic self-portraits by women artists. She says she’s noticed a shift in how art situates itself in this country.
“More vital and more representative – an awareness by Australian institutions of the importance of discussions on race, class, sexuality and gender.”
“Art wouldn’t be able to happen without philanthropists – they are hugely important and hugely generous. Of course there are challenges,” says Higgie.
For Kaldor Public Art Projects, some of the critiques and challenges are about making changes in its own organisational practices. More recent group exhibitions address questions of balance and origin. Clearly there’s more to do, but in contemporary art, change is inevitable, even if slow. I can see change is coming. If Mum were still alive, I know she’d be coming to see the latest Kaldor project, and maybe I could even have persuaded Dad to walk up the hill with me.