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The shipping of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, the Mona Lisa, to New York for exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1963 was, according to [Robert] Hughes, the beginning of the descent of the art world–particularly the contemporary art world–into today’s big-money morass (as Hughes sees it) of collecting for profit, naked speculation, insincere or wrongheaded or diabolical reasons behind big-time collectors saying how they just love art, undeserved celebrity for mediocre-or-worse artists, and a general vulgarity and crassness among art-world players (especially those hand-holders to the rich connoisseur wannabes, art consultants). The downward slide was supposed to have worked something like this: Showing the Mona Lisa at the Met to long lines of people who could only glimpse it from a distance for a few seconds catered to unwashed pseuds who only wanted to “get it seen”; that led to a bunch of superficial, unsophisticated people flooding into an art world that consisted theretofore of a bunch of integrity-ridden bohemian artists, several dealers more interested in determining art history than making a profit, and a few enlightened, altruistic collectors; those ambitious vulgarians, who liked the parties and the “action” as much if not more than they actually liked art, started to take over; meanwhile, the advent of Pop Art and particularly Andy Warhol and his flaunted permissiveness, propelled the takeover to warp speed and near-total control.


Peter Plagens


Filling the boards of arts companies with business appointees has been a dismal failure that has stifled creativity.

That is the view of the international arts entrepreneur Justin Macdonnell, who wants a radical rethink of the way arts companies are run.

For too long arts companies had been urged by funding bodies to simulate the business sector, he said yesterday at the first in a series of breakfast forums, Arts And Public Life, held by the arts organisation Currency House.

“Who has not been told that they need to get more people with ‘business skills’ on their board, more people with financial, legal, marketing prowess to guide and restrain the wilful artist – as though it were the arts that regularly had the corporate crashes, bankruptcies and shady dealings?” Macdonnell said.

This move had restricted the ability of arts boards to make informed judgments. Ironically, the funding agencies that had pushed their clients in that direction were now questioning whether the boards had the capacity to choose good artistic leadership.
“Throughout the English-speaking world, the board system of governance in the not-for-profit sector has been a miserable failure,” he said.

Macdonnell, who returned to Australia this year to establish the Anzarts Institute as an advocate for the arts, told the Herald credentials for appointing board members were often questionable.

“The pendulum has swung so far in the direction of appointing people to arts boards whose primary skill is to be business people and who are appointed on the grounds that maybe they’ve been a subscriber or an audience member or they’re described as a lover of the arts,” he said.

“Well, I’m a subscriber to Telstra but that doesn’t mean anyone would put me on [its] board or put me in charge of communications policy.”

Macdonnell, who has spent the past five years in Miami as artistic director of the Carnival Centre for the Performing Arts and who has worked extensively in South America, said the appointment of board members was taken seriously in the US. Potential board members received guidance there.

But he did not believe that simply including more artists on boards was a solution. What was needed was a way for artists and their boards to work more collaboratively and a rethink of the way arts companies were structured.

“Are we so limited in our thinking that we can come up with no better way of doing business than a company limited by guarantee with a board of seven and an uneasy diarchy of general manager and artistic director?” he said.

Many art forms around the world were in crisis, particularly classical music, which had raised the worship of the past to cult status. Theatre companies seemed to be in better shape because they were presenting current work as well as past.

“But they, too, seem to rely more on celebrity than substance in their quest for renewal,” Macdonnell said.

His five years in Miami had taught him that arts organisations had few skills in fostering and managing innovation.
Arts centres in the US were essentially presenters, not creators, of work.

“They take their shopping cart to the arts mall – also known as the booking conference – and buy pre-packaged shows off the shelf, like frozen peas,” he said.

“And they thaw them out for touring. To me, however, a presenter ought to present not just the pre-packaged but the fresh food as well – work made by our own artists.”

Joyce Morgan
Sydney Morning Herald