Just in time for autumn, the National Gallery of Australia opened their main exhibit for 2020, one over a year in the waiting, as the COVID-19 pandemic threw up almost as many barriers for art as it did for people.
Botticelli to Van Gogh showcases a collection of some of the greatest pieces out of London's National Gallery, and features works from some of Europe's greatest master painters.
It is a stunning exhibit, but it also feels unwelcoming, and overly costly. The NGA has so much more to offer you than this.
Now before NGA members and every art lover from here to Melbourne come after me with pitchforks, and lit torches made from rolled-up copies of this paper, please let me explain.
The exhibit prides itself on showing you a glimpse of some of Europe's greatest artworks. This it delivers on in spades. With my sister, we spent the better part of an hour, along with half of Canberra and several unhappy children (no one under five can really appreciate a Gauguin) inside the exhibit. We enjoyed seeing paintings from the great masters, and Van Gogh's Sunflowers truly is an experience to see in the flesh, shining as if painted with gold.
However, the experience felt rushed, overcrowded, and the presentation had very little thought to the viewer. There is no ability or incentive for you to sit and bask in the atmosphere of the art. The space is compressed, and designed to rush you towards the end. We came out of it wishing we could have spent two hours in there, but clearly the Gallery did not want us to.
Art should be something we can take our time to enjoy, and this exhibit is designed almost against that principle. Get in, get out, thank you for your money.
Indeed, at $56 for the two of us, it felt rather like our money could have been better spent elsewhere. Price barriers are a critique often levelled at the art gallery crowd, and this exhibit is no exception. The price is a limiter for many people who deserve to see, and should see, this exhibit.
For two people such as my sister and I, who have spent many months in Europe between us, it was not as entrancing as it would have been for families or young people financially locked out of a trip overseas. But these people are also financially locked out of this exhibit. This is a shame and a waste, and goes against the purpose of the National Gallery. Art should be viewable for free, and for us all.
I understand that in a post-pandemic world, the ability to see any glimpse of culture from the outside is one that we must grasp with both hands. If Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise were here, this would be a different piece altogether, such is my love for that work. But those doors sadly remain in Florence, and the NGA is still charging $28 per person for what amounts to around an hour in the exhibit hall.
With all the things I have described about it, the true value of the NGA is not to be found in this exhibit. What truly feels more valuable is what lies just around the corner from it.
The National Gallery holds some of the most important works of art in Australia from local artists. Its collection of Indigenous art is one of the most comprehensive that exists off traditional country. The early desert painting movement, weaving and textiles, and contemporary protest art from the 20th century all form a part of this rich collection of our history and culture. They are works of pure greatness that need to be admired at length.
And the great thing is, you can do just that. For free, and for as long as you like. These artworks have been bought by our government, both to safeguard them for all of us, but also to allow us to enjoy them at our leisure. They exist there permanently in the National Gallery, and have been on display almost continually since its opening. First Nations people are part of the fabric of this continent's rich history going back over 60,000 years, and these works represent our stories and experiences, from our cultural knowledge to the story of our resistance.
Seeing these works, along with the hundreds of others the NGA has from other artists across Australia and Asia, is a much better use of your time and intellectual capacity, not to mention money.
Some of them will challenge you. Some of them will comfort you. And some of them will inspire. You should see them because of their inherent value, their display of our proud culture and history, and their importance to our national story. Their being free and permanent is a mere bonus.
What they have to offer is beyond anything found in the current exhibit.
I am not attempting to dissuade you from going to see this exhibit because I am some uncultured hater of European art. I have spent many weeks in many European galleries and appreciate their value. With travel overseas no longer an option, and seeing a Van Gogh in person is what you enjoy, this exhibit at the National Gallery does have something for you. Albeit at a severe premium.
However, if this is all you see while you're there, you are missing the true majesty of what the NGA has to offer. The Indigenous collection is a permanent display of our national cultural treasures, priceless beyond compare.
I would rather spend a Sunday admiring those.
- James Blackwell is a proud Wiradjuri man and Research Fellow in Indigenous Policy at UNSW's Centre for Social Impact.