Artist John Olsen first came to public prominence back in 1953, as a leader of art students protesting against the conservative Archibald Prize choices of the Art Gallery of New South Wales Board of Trustees. That’s him on the left of the picture: “Archibald decision death to art” reads his placard.

Now, 64 years later, he’s lambasting the current Trustees for “the worst decision I’ve ever seen” in awarding the $100,000 prize to up-and-coming Mitch Cairns for his portrait of partner and fellow artist Agatha Gothe-Snape.

The portrait prize is always judged by the Trustees, so as a former member of that august body Olsen has been part of the judging panel himself. He says this year’s winner is “entirely surface, the drawing is just not there”. He has gone so far as to call it “a disgrace”.

Current Trustee Ben Quilty has fired back, calling Olsen “ungracious” for his comments.

Sydney Morning Herald critic John McDonald, never one to pass up an opportunity to berate the Trustees when he thinks they’re wrong, had picked the Cairns entry as the likely winner the week before the announcement. He wrote that it paid homage to a long list of modernists, and while it did not attempt to be a likeness, “the work retains a sense of intimacy”.

Jun Chen and Ray Hughes at Friday’s announcement

Who’s right? I have yet to see the exhibition myself, so I can only hope that the real thing is better than what comes across in reproduction – a pinch from Matisse, a pinch from Picasso and a touch of yoga, thrown together under the banner of conceptualism.

Mitch Cairns is considered a rising star of the art world, and as McDonald points out, in recent years “the Trustees find it hard to resist the allure of young talent”.

Jun Chen’s fine portrait of legendary art dealer Ray Hughes was runner-up and joins the long list of good works that haven’t won. One I’ll always remember was Bill Leak’s magnificent 2001 portrait Robert Hughes: Nothing if not critical. After it was passed over by the trustees, Bill stopped entering and went deeper into the murky world of The Australian’s cartoon page. It was our loss.

(Along with Jun Chen, Ray Hughes was in attendance at the official announcement, in a wheelchair and a characteristically colourful suit, described by Damien Minton as “watermelon” but by his friend Roger Law as looking like something out of Guantanamo. Hughes may no longer be active as a gallerist but he’s still a player: his brilliant African art discoveries have been on show for the past month at Trinity Grammar.)

Just two of the AGNSW Trustees are artists: Quilty and Khadim Ali. The majority are drawn from the upper echelons of the business world these days. One could be forgiven for thinking that their choices are sometimes influenced by whether or not they like the subject. That’s the same criterion generally employed by the worthy gentlemen of the Packing Room Prize. Perish the thought.

Bill Leak ‘Robert Hughes: Nothing if not critical’ 2001

Painting by numbers

I don’t suppose the Trustees and management of the Gallery will really mind what’s said by John Olsen, or by Tim Storrier, another former Trustee who has weighed in saying that decisions like this year’s could “irreparably” damage the prestige of the prizes. The Archibald has long been a circus, and controversy is good publicity for it.

In fact the AGNSW has come to rely hugely on the Archibald, and its accompanying Wynne and Sulman art prizes, in order to boost visitor numbers which have otherwise languished in recent years.

The exhibition has long attracted a host of once-a-year visitors, who might not come to the Gallery for anything else. But at least when Edmund Capon was director, the Archie was never the be-all and end-all of the exhibition program; and it was a lot more fun. One year Barry Humphries opened proceedings with an affectionate but hilarious ‘Ode to the Archibald’. It was always a time of goodwill.

Edmund Capon talking about art

That made it special to be a member of the Art Gallery Society. For years there was a members’ party the night before the announcement – it was the hot ticket of the season, and we ran a sweepstake where members could second-guess the Trustees. We were also immensely proud of the role of the volunteer bodies founded by the Society. The Volunteer Guides not only had to learn very rapidly about the exhibits in all three prizes; they put on a lunch for the exhibiting finalists, the Gallery’s largest gathering of practising artists all year. In addition, the Society’s Kids Club gave rise to the Young Archie, the competition for school-age children which is now such a huge success.

That sense of community began to dissipate under the new regime of director Michael Brand and his exorbitantly-paid executives. Three years ago, while I was still executive director of the Society, the Archibald was moved from its habitual autumn slot to winter, part of a move to maximise both visitor numbers and revenue from commercial venue hire. It all came to be about numbers. Already Society members had lost the time-honoured eve-of-announcement slot for their party; corporate relations took precedence. Now it became harder to book any evening events for members during the whole run of the exhibition. Commercial venue hire, we were told, had to be given priority. For many of us, the event began to pall.

It was John Olsen who said in 2003, during celebrations of the Art Gallery Society’s 50th anniversary, that the membership organisation had “made the Gallery a friendlier place”. The new management appeared to be less appreciative.

If there’s an edge to the comments from the Gallery’s old guard about this year’s prize, it may not be solely about the merits of the chosen work. Fuelling the discontent is genuine concern at the loss of goodwill that accompanies the relentless push to corporatise the institution, and frustration at the current focus on the ambitious Sydney Modern building plan at the expense of the art. It’s all connected.

Voices of sanity in the arts

Earlier this month Richard Watts, deputy editor of the website ArtsHub, published a key article under the heading “Freeing the arts from the yoke of neoliberalism”.

Interviewing artists, arts professionals and academics, he concludes that in “a market-driven world of winners and losers” neoliberalism is having a drastic impact on the arts, prioritising ticket sales, visitor numbers and profits over creativity.

It’s a significant contribution to the discussion. 

Sydney Morning Herald reviews Culture Heist

A propos: from the latest review of my book, published in the SMH Spectrum section on July 22:

“White, former head of the Art Gallery Society, Art Gallery of NSW, is forthright and measured in her assessment of the effect of decades of neo-liberalism on the arts… She documents what most in the arts have observed with increasing dismay – a world characterised by the rise of philistine commercialism and the decline of art: art institutions and artists being judged by profits.” Read in full.