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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

Being true has its price: NGV Wilson Security protestors inadvertently risk funding of leftist art

When around a dozen artists-as-activists last month shrouded Picasso’s Weeping Woman in a black veil emblazoned with the Wilson Security logo at the National Gallery of Victoria in protest at its contract with the company, which is also involved in running the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres, were they acting as artists should against the established order or were they trashing their own interests by so openly biting the hand that feeds them?

The artists want the gallery to dump its contract with Wilson Security, accusing the company of covering up human rights abuses at the offshore detention centres and profiting from "human misery", reported The Sydney Morning Herald at the time. These allegations have since proven to be false.

The artists said they targeted the painting because it represented human suffering and was one of the most valuable and popular artworks in the NVG's collection.

In an open letter sent earlier to the NGV director Tony Ellwood, 1,500 artists, patrons and members of the public condemned the contract, arguing it "sends a message endorsing the systematic abuse of vulnerable people".

NGV director, Tony Ellwood Photo: Herald Sun

The image of this high-minded, if not peculiar, assault on the Weeping Woman painting may have unintended consequences. The strikingly and most notable aspect in my mind however was the fact that the protestors made no effort to hide their identities. Could this 'stunt' in some way put benefactors offside and in turn put the artists' futures at risk?

Whilst the artists did not achieve their desired result in the termination of Wilson Security’s contract, at least for now, nor perhaps the grander ambition of the immediate closure of the detention centres the protest raised within me the question of security in one’s artistic career: how to be true to yourself as an artist while surviving in a commercial or public funded art market - both of which do not tend to sponsor leftist ideas.

Pablo Picasso's much-targeted Weeping Woman Photo: NGV

There is no doubt pressure on artists to be activists, to send a message to society, and to think about how their work will influence certain political changes. This can be viewed as part of the artist’s enduring desire to find relevance – beyond the visually aesthetic. So for them the question is: how can my work convey some sort of socio-political message? How will I fit into the future?

Survival into the future likewise occupies much of the thought of artists. This affects the way artists across all disciplines think about their work. When visual artists are found discussing their practice or part in a movement, a lot of what they are talking about is how to obtain gallery representation or a spot in a particular show.

Love or hate the idea, an artist is nowadays seen as someone who sells work through a commercial system, to people they might not know, who’s political and social affiliations they might not know. Dealers and curators are left to wonder how long those contradictions are sustainable. An artist’s exhibition might be it is feared sponsored by people they oppose. Then what?

Photo: Herald Sun

In Australia how many public galleries have conservative political party supporters as their major donors? How then does that sit with the more progressive curatorial decisions?

The activists in my mind clearly failed to achieve their primary aim in getting Wilson Security sacked. But their point more generally was not lost. The NGV is a significant and influential public institution, and its role at the forefront of our civilised Australian society is paramount. In fact its reach is growing. Of itself the NGV says in its last annual report,

The National Gallery of Victoria was founded in 1861 to collect, conserve, develop and promote the state’s artworks and bring art to the people of Victoria. Building on this 153-year history, today the NGV is a dynamic, vibrant and essential community asset that contributes to the cultural, educational, social and economic wellbeing of Victorians.

Our vision (is to create) an inspiring future: enriching our understanding of art and life.

How it operates and its relationship with the artistic community will shape the NGV's impact on our national psyche into the future. The NGV protest in pursuit of a non-arts related, partisan political agenda last month may not be as damaging as first thought and instead serve as a timely reminder of the gallery's mission to sponsor change through the arts and fund modern creative thinking, regardless of prevailing political biases and as disruptive as that may be.

I am left with only one somewhat obvious concern. How deserving of it's job is Wilson Security anyway given it could not it seems safeguard even these inanimate objects on this one day?

The National Gallery of Victoria Photo: Visit Victoria

Main Photo: Kat Soutar

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne, Australia

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