Wake up, Brisbane!

By | May 6, 2016

Why is it so hard to get people into art galleries in Brisbane?

art-gallery-779575_1280When we think of art in Australia, the first cities that come to mind are really Melbourne (known as the art capital) and Sydney (it’s big, has everything, and plenty of it). Brisbane? Pfft! When I’m overseas, I often have to explain where exactly that is! Of course there are some wonderful artists here, but what the city lacks is the overall art awareness, which would help these artists to get more noticed.

Let’s face it – in Australia we are pretty damn isolated. So does our isolation breed a lack of enthusiasm for the arts? Yes and no. Australia is relatively young as a country and lacks that inbred drive for art appreciation that you see in European cities. This, in turn, results in less volume of art goers. While this does not greatly impact the bigger metropolitans, an average Brisbane resident knows about just one gallery in the city – Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art. It is hard to miss– positioned at the end of Victoria bridge, it is passed by just about every car, bus and pedestrian commuting in and out of the centre. Yet, its position as part of the Cultural Complex questions how significant its presence would be as its own institution. And it is in no way a reflection on the quality of work the gallery or the complex produce. Rather it is a reflection of the status of the arts in the city. Struggling.

If you go to smaller public spaces focussing on latest contemporary art (Metro Arts, IMA Brisbane), their opening nights will generally be buzzing with young visitors – many of them just out of universities or still in them. In fact, the audiences at the opening nights rarely exceed the age of 40, and these events are usually supported by young starving artists or hungry students eager to dive into the industry. Almost an underground scene.

On the other hand, big name shows and big galleries tend to attract older audiences. Considered a bit tired by the younger audiences, these are often frequented by older generations of art lovers. It’s not uncommon to see lines of pensioners at the ticket counter during an exhibition of an 18th or 19th century art master. Frankly, such a sight spells doom for the future of fine art in this city.

Of course, it is not entirely black and white. But this division in the audiences suggests that the contemporary practice is not contextualised in the history of art. The older audiences go to see the artists they know and understand, while the younger audiences are often not interested in the ‘old’. Instead these seekers of avant-garde search for the bizarre, the shocking and the technologically-‘savvy’ exhibitions.

As a child, I was frequently taken to galleries, museums and theatres by my mum. Growing up in Moscow, there was no shortage of artistic stimuli, and I was fortunate enough to be ‘subjected’ to plenty of ‘live’ art, as well as its replicas in books available at home. The point is that the continuous encouragement from my mother during my childhood left a mark of appreciation for art in general. I love contemporary and modern art. But the seeds of desire for historical knowledge planted in my childhood have given me the drive to seek the links between the past, the present and the future.

Is it a cultural issue? Absolutely! When visiting art galleries in Paris, Milan, or St Petersburg, I always see a variety of audiences. It is normal for a young man to take his girlfriend to an art gallery for a date. As normal as it would be for an Australian man to take her to the movies! Of course, European art museums now are loaded with tourists. But I am talking about recognising the locals, who frequent art establishments as a regular leisure activity. That is what’s missing in the Brisbane art scene. And I don’t mean that Brisbane has no art-minded men creative enough to think up a museum date for their girlfriends! I’m talking about gallery visits being the norm in our society.

The laid back attitude of the smaller Australian metropolitans affects commercial galleries as much as it does the public spaces. And, arguably, these galleries need the audiences even more – they are representing living artists whose bread and butter is their art! A couple of weeks ago in a workshop with an established Australian artist, he commented that his exhibitions will sell out in Perth, but not in Brisbane. This wasn’t the first time I heard a comment like this! Last year I attended a special “artist’s talk” event with a popular Sydney based pop-artist. The event brought zero audience, despite the curiosity gallery visitors expressed about his work! How can this be when his paintings, displayed in the windows of the gallery, were seen streets away? And again, the artist exhibited sold out shows in Perth. Brisbane is the third largest city in Australia! It’s disappointing that Perth takes over in the art collecting business, while Sydney and Melbourne claim the balance and regularity of audience.

It’s time to wake up Brisbane! We’re missing out.

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