Australian Arts

Gary Garrels

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

Let me take you down the strange rabbit hole of contemporary art museum culture. The senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gary Garrels, was forced to resign from his position in July after more than 20 years of service. His departure was forced by a staff petition of over 180 signatures which stated ‘considering his lengthy tenure at this institution we ask just how long has his toxic white supremist beliefs regarding race and equity, directed his position curating the content of the museum?’. He had outraged them by saying ‘don’t worry we will definitely continue to collect white artists’, during a diversity presentation, arguing ‘not to collect work by white men would be reverse discrimination’.

Although the charges appeared to be baseless accusations, Garrels had been successfully targeted by a cancel culture mob. It seems to me particularly unjust as last year he engineered the sale of a $50.1 million Mark Rothko painting to fund the purchase of works by female artists, artists of colour and LGBTQ+ artists. In a way the worst part of the story is that the Board of Trustees accepted his resignation; an absolute disgrace.

The National Gallery of Australia recently announced a new policy to address a gender imbalance in their collection which currently is approximately 70:30 male to female works.


I am wondering if this is bad news for me, an old white male dauber. This is of course inclusive if you are a woman but seriously exclusive if you are man. If it is about balance, how many works are required and if it is about quotas, then they will hopefully not be at the cost of quality or excellence which is surely the guiding principle of any fine collection.

I have seen on YouTube elephants drawing quite respectable modernist abstract works with the brush in their trunks, loaded by an assistant. Will the pachyderm get a beret at the NGA and will the assistant be noted in the catalogue? Be very careful not to snigger at this as absurdity continues to be ascendent. This is a global trend. It may not be long before going to the NGA may require one to state one’s gender.

To be honest my work has not been on the preferred list at the NGA and may never be but now I must consider my future. My attempts at fine art are no good perhaps, or even if I produce works of a high international standard, as I believe I do, the NGA may still not be interested because of my gender. Is it possible I could be cancelled because I am an old white man who has spent a lifetime honing his trade and is too old to adopt and adapt the fashionable positions required to play in this cultural revolution?

I have just re-read Michael Medved’s book, Hollywood vs. America which was published in 1993. It is a history of the political and cultural attitudes of Hollywood since its inception and he comes to a conclusion which unfortunately is still relevant. ‘Why does our popular culture seem so consistently hostile to the values that most Americans hold dear? Why does the entertainment industry attack religion, glorify brutality, undermine the family and deride patriotism?’ In 1993 Medved was very optimistic that Hollywood would change for the better. How wrong he was.

I was in Madrid during the northern winter of 1995 to spend some time in the Prado. I always wanted to visit Capas Sesena, a tailor that had made distinctive Madrilian capes for Ernest Hemingway, Picasso and numerous other poseurs possibly like myself. It was a beautiful old establishment on a narrow street and had been selling capes for many years. I bought a beautiful navy cape but was warned that I should not attempt to wear it in Barcelona as it represented a political statement. What they didn’t warn me was the I shouldn’t wear it to a football match in Bathurst, NSW, either. Subsequently on a very cold day I wore it to a rugby match between Shore and St. Stanislaus’ College. Arriving at St. Stannies’ grounds to watch the match after lunch, I had to walk past a large stand of St. Stanislaus’ pupils. Just when I thought I had passed the test and was on my way some wag said, ‘Holy shit it’s f—ing Batman’, followed by a wave of sniggering from the bleachers. Shore lost the match but I have to be honest I haven’t worn the cape since. I have now given it to my wife to wear. It would appear that women get a lot more credit than a man for wearing such an elegant garment however I think being labelled ‘Batman’ is a bit rough!

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