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ART OF NEPOTISM

Essay for Selekta: The Real and The Unreal
Published by West Space, Melbourne
Curated and edited by Simon Maidment
Softcover, 72pp, colour, 2005
Design by Warren Taylor, Adam Willett and Adam Ceddia
ISBN: 0975145533 (out of print)

For the curation of Selekta, the West Space Committee each selected a piece of work by an artist that engaged with the theme 'the real and the unreal'. In turn, those artists selected another artist’s work to be added in the second week of the exhibition, and those artists in turn selected another round of artists for the final week. Selekta posed questions around artist connections: is it a study in aesthetic and conceptual influence, an expression of fandom, or an inquiry into where art-making stops and curation begins? Visit the West Space website.

The Art of Nepotism:
From New York to Taipei, partiality is here to stay...

American writer Sophy Burnham dropped a social bomb on the New York art scene in 1973 with her book The Art Crowd. Part of it went like this: “There is a constant movement of people around the jobs of the art world, from college professor to museum director to dealer to magazine editor... Incestuous collusion, mutual back-scratching, under the table wheeling and dealing, nepotism, and clique allegiance are intrinsic principles of the modern art world.”

Burnham had more than a few curators and editors on the run with their little black books tucked safely under their arms, but she wasn’t the only one on the offensive. Literary legend Tom Wolfe followed up in 1975 with The Painted Word, a scathing attack on the NYC art establishment under the auspices of the New York Icebergs (you know...Greenberg, Rosenberg, Steinberg, etc). Wolfe slathered open criticism back onto the critics who used artists as pawns in their game of cultural whitewash. But three decades after Burnham and Wolfe catapulted truth back onto the artistic playing field, we find that things haven't improved.

In 1989, the Australian art scene was attacked from within, when critic and curator John McDonald warned against the dangers of the art hierarchy disappearing up its own self-elected significance: “The art community contains a small, highly vocal minority and a large silent majority. Unfortunately, only the minority usually seems to be considered when survey exhibitions are put together, works acquired for some public collections, or reviews and articles written for most art magazines. This threatens to restrict the scope of contemporary art even further, reducing it to a very cosy club, with a strict code of nepotism and brain-numbing conformity to fashion.”

Few artists, curators or writers would deny that nepotism is rife in our industry, yet we seem able to happily shrug shoulders while scrambling on the ground for funding scraps. So if no one has a problem publicly, why do we continue to complain in private after leaving an opening? And why are there so many current discussions around the parochial attitudes and invisible walls of an industry that purports an agenda for the exploration of new ideas? Hmm, let’s look around...

Recently, there were a few quiet eyebrows raised when Beijing artist Qiu Zhijie held an exhibition in Taipei. Featuring a collection of signed affidavits from art powerbrokers from afar afield as San Francisco and Amsterdam, the work stated that “nepotism is too often a deciding factor, not only in art, but for anyone who tries to get ahead in life.”

In Zurich, a few years earlier, a member of the Kunsthaus exhibition committee, Franziska Muller, was so outraged at appointments and curatorial decisions being made at the whim of certain “stakeholders” that exposure soon ensued. Following leads from a letter written by Muller, the newspaper Tages-Anzeiger published an article about candidates for the Kunsthaus director’s position: “Burgi or Heinrich? Both are part of the Zurich art mafia through the magazine Parkett. The composition of the search committee ... took care that only Parkett-conforming candidates had a chance.”

Perhaps we should just accept artistic nepotism as openly as we currently do behind closed doors? A good example might be from this year, where the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale held a winter group show entitled Nepotism: The Art of Friendship. Curated by Edouard Duval Carrié, the museum’s artist in residence, the exhibition included 35 works made by artist friends selected by Carrié who said: “I find artists always accusing the curators of museums of some sort of nepotism of their friends. So I decided to play on that.” The show was a success, with critics applauding Carrié’s biting commentary on the inner workings of the contemporary art scene, while quickly noting down contact details for his friends.

Flipside now to India where, earlier this year, art writer Aditi De released her latest book Articulations: Voices from Contemporary Visual Arts. Featuring interviews with India’s leading contemporary artists, neither the interviewees nor De herself make light of the “rampant nepotism and apathy of the apex cultural institutions” that they consider hold India back from the international art stage.

Similar feelings have been emerging in neighbouring Pakistan. Niilofur Farrukh has written of the problems Pakistani artists face in being selected for high profile exhibitions to help develop an international reputation. Farrukh writes that the environment until recently was one in which “national awards became erratic and plagued by nepotism with the politicisation of cultural institutions.” The solution for artists has in fact come from Pakistan’s commercial gallery sector that is now shaking up the provincial marketplace.

Another Pakistani writer, Quddus Mirza, recently asked whether this payola-style of industry standard is prevalent in other countries: “Most of our national institutions have lost any relevance or respect inside the country—especially amongst the professionals—due to a consistent display of disinterest, incompetence and nepotism. Recognition from an outside body is a must, in order to be known in one’s own country.”

Make no mistake in thinking that the more established centres for contemporary art escape accusation of buddy brownnosing. After losing the Turner Award back in 1999, YBA shockgirl Tracey Emin became more than a little vocal about the awards: “It varies from year to year...Sometimes you have fantastic judges who make really exciting, dynamic decisions about what goes in the show...then you might have another year when there’s so much nepotism involved you get loads of really crap artists in it because they’re one of the judge’s best mates.”

For those of us working in the contemporary arts, there would seem to be no avoiding the personal complications and ethical contradictions associated with nepotism. Chances are if you desire some longevity as a professional that you will need to befriend those you despise. You may also find that your ‘real’ friendships eventually lead you to big badass places you had never thought possible.

Meanwhile, it may well be easier to take the well-worn road and haul your talents overseas. Chances are you will one day come back with a swagful of international recognition and the contemporary cronies who avoided you for so long will then be whacking a good old Aussie “Our...” as a prefix to your name. Just so everyone knows that you know we know you.

REFERENCES

Sophy Burnham, The Art Crowd, David McKay Co, New York, 1973, p 125.
Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
John McDonald, Sydney Morning Herald, 30th December 1989, p 42.
Susan Kendzulak, 'Trading places at MOCA', Taipei Times, Sunday 10 Apr 2005, p 19.
Steven Henry Madoff, 'Musical Heirs', ArtForum, Summer 2000.
Nepotism: The Art of Friendship, July 2004 – February 2005, Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale.
Aditi De, Articulations: Voices from Contemporary Visual Art. Rupa & Co, 2005.
Niilofur Farrukh, 'Art Galleries in Pakistan', The South-Asian, http://www.the-south-asian.com/Sept2000/Art_Galleries-Pak- 3.htm
Quddus Mirza, Worldly Desire, http://www.jang.com.pk/thenews/apr2005-weekly/nos-24-04- 2005/enc.htm#top
Brett Thomas, 'Eminently Outrageous', The Sun-Herald, 3 February 2003.