The year that was in the visual arts may be best summed up as the year in which the arts were forced to make do with less.
The public cultural institutions have not recovered from the so-called "productivity dividend cuts" imposed by the Abbott-Turnbull governments with staff cuts and cuts to exhibitions and public programs.
The commercial art galleries are surviving in an economic climate where many art collectors and the occasional art buyers are living within tighter economic constraints and are spending less on art than in previous years.
A friendly accountant, who has many artists on his books, told me that he had never seen it so tough before for the visual arts.
Nevertheless, outstanding art exhibitions have been held in the nation's capital and here is a list of five highlights for the year.
Albert Namitjira: Painting Country
Some of the best shows have not been ones that have had the biggest media budgets attached to them and some have passed relatively unpublicised. The National Gallery of Australia's Albert Namatjira: Painting Country was an exhibition modest in its dimensions but, in many ways, it redefined Namatjira's legacy in Australian art. The Gallery, through the generosity of Marilyn and Gordon Darling, has assembled a near comprehensive collection of Namatjira's art, reflecting the full scope of his multifaceted talent. It was an unforgettable exhibition full of visual surprises and brilliant revelations.
The National Museum of Australia's Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters was another ground-breaking exhibition where the challenge was to present one of the great tales concerning the journeys of ancestral beings, not as a static collection of beautiful artefacts, but as a living tradition that could be perceived and experienced in real time by all viewers. In its presentation, it is an innovative marriage of high-tech apparatus, such as the immersive dome, and carefully selected objects. It is also an exhibition in which the Indigenous voice is not drowned out by that of anthropologists who, frequently with the authority of colonial overlords, examine empirically the activities of exotic peoples.
Of the exhibitions staged at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery, the one that particularly stands out in my memory is Robert Boynes' Modern Times. Over a number of decades Boynes has established his own peculiar stylistic language and a personal visual morphology. The imagery is socially engaged, without becoming a literal commentary on politics and current events, and the style is contemporary without absorbing many of the fashionable "isms". There is an authenticity in his artistic vision that over time has become more focused and intense and a greater urgency is apparent in his recent art.
Out of the crowded schedule of offerings at the Beaver Galleries, Canberra's largest, oldest and leading commercial art gallery, the show that was most memorable was Alex Asch's Strange couplings. Like Boynes, Asch is a Canberra-based artist (he actually lives in Queanbeyan if one wishes to be pedantic) and over many years has been developing an artistic language that is uniquely his own. He makes exquisitely crafted installations or installed environments, which with wit and a touch of subversive surrealism comment of the ship of fools on which many of us find ourselves. After the humour passes and we get over the verbal puns, there is much in Asch's art that is profoundly disturbing and that goes on to haunt our imagination.
Beyond the Blue: Unbroken
Another exhibition that was held in 2017 that had a powerful impact on me was Arone Meeks' Beyond the Blue: Unbroken at the Megalo Print Gallery. Arone Meeks was born as a lovechild of Valerie Meeks, a KuKu Miidiji woman from Laura in Far North Queensland and a Spanish man travelling with a circus. Much of his art deals with identity, sexuality and the rich culture of his country. This Cairns-based artist spent a six-week fellowship at Megalo and the exhibition included his work from the residency as well as some earlier prints. Meeks creates a personal iconography, where traditional pictorial language is combined with symbols that have personal significance for the artist.
Invariably, a selection of five exhibitions out of the more than 100 exhibitions that I visited in Canberra this year, is a tiny iceberg selection from a very rich field. Although Canberra art institutions have suffered under the present federal government, the Canberra art scene has remained vibrant and resilient and continues to present some of the most exciting and significant art exhibitions in the country.