Culture and the French

Judith White’s newly-released book, Culture Heist: Art versus Money, has stirred the possum in Sydney’s art world and divided it into two opposing camps.

On one side is the top heavy, out-of-touch management of the Art Gallery of NSW and on the other is a wide body of opinion among art lovers.

The AGNSW bureaucrats loathe Ms White’s book for daring to challenge the concept of the $380 million Sydney Modern project which is due to replace the current gallery in 2021.

She has broken the secrecy surrounding the controversial building makeover and questioned how it will be funded now and into the future. She has also raised important arguments about its grandiloquent design and how the adoption of an obsessive commercial mission is undermining curatorial excellence, sponsorship, attendances and staff morale.

After Culture Heist’s successful official launch at the State Library in Sydney on May 3, Ms White spoke at a “home” launch at Boardwalk Bookshop in Kingscliff on the far north coast of NSW on May 8.

Mrs Margot Anthony, a passionate supporter of the arts and wife of former deputy prime minister Doug Anthony, conducted the launch congratulating Ms White for writing “a heartfelt, angry, passionate plea for art for art’s sake, not the sake of corporations and money”.

She began by telling the crowded bookshop audience of her personal engagement with the AGNSW: “Like many of you here, no visit to Sydney is complete without a pilgrimage to the Art Gallery of NSW.

“For me, this began very early in my life when, at the age of 14, I was sent off to a boarding school in Sydney, SCEGGS at Darlinghurst, which clings to a small parcel of land close to Kings Cross. We, constrained boarders, needing entertainment on Saturdays, frequently wound our way in crocodile formation down the length of William Street, up by Hyde Park and across to the art gallery. I remember its imposing classical façade, the columns, the statues and the hushed, gilded, soaring magnificence of the entrance court.

“And then all those paintings – by masters from Europe and Australian artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. I dragged my new friends to the Gruner* painting Valley of the Tweed, and proudly said: “That’s where I live.”

*Elioth Gruner (1882-1939), a NZ-born landscape artist, won the Wynne Prize seven times.

Margot joins the Art Gallery Society

Continuing her journey into the world of art, Mrs Anthony, a highly accomplished concert pianist, continued: “It was my first experience of ‘real’ art and laid the foundations of a lifelong adventure and love affair. BUT – the Art Gallery of NSW was remote from where I lived.

“Just a few years later the Art Gallery Society was formed. The society was composed of retired professionals and art lovers who became an invaluable network for recruiting community support and encouraging donations and bequests for the gallery and its programmes. They raised millions of dollars over the years and funded many major art purchases of art works. They were a visible and good presence in the gallery as they manned the front desk in the gallery foyer. They brought warmth and involvement to the visitors and, along the way, recruited many more members.

“When the volunteers developed their guiding programme it was always exciting to see swarms of schoolchildren learning about their heritage. The guiding programme also brought another dimension to ALL visitors’ experiences.

“Like those of us living in the country, I was kept in touch through the society’s excellent publication Look. From curators’ articles I learnt a great deal about artists and new exhibitions, about the education programmes and visits to other galleries. In 2013 a cultural tour to Cuba led by Judith made me green with envy. Even if I couldn’t be there to take part in all those exciting happenings I didn’t feel left out. This informative magazine bridged the gap between city and regional art lovers. Judith published her excellent book [Art Lovers] documenting the proud history of the Art Gallery Society in 2013.”

The Edmund Capon era

Edmund Capon, AGNSW director 1979 to 2012

Mrs Anthony recalled the arrival of Edmund Capon as AGNSW director in 1976 saying: “I guess the hey-day for my generation was the welcome and the buzz that came when Edmund Capon was appointed director. He was ubiquitous, enthusiastic and engaging with persuasive powers that brought many great donations to the gallery.

“I must mention the enormously important role of the gallery curators during this time. This is at the heart of the problem that Judith has so succinctly presented in her book – the loss of this curatorial expertise and mentoring does not bode well for the future of our art institutions.

“I’m sure Judith will talk about this tonight in relation to the ambitious plans to build an expensive and extensive addition to the existing gallery to be called Sydney Modern. And she will mention recent revised global attitudes to the notion that ‘bigger is better’. I can do no better than finish with a quote from Professor The Hon Marie Bashir, former Governor of NSW, a wise and perceptive woman if ever there was one: ‘Judith White has written with first hand experience and passion about the centrality of every society’s need for a vibrant artistic culture’.

“I am very proud to be doing this here tonight in our home territory. I commend this timely and salutary book to you all.”

To order a copy of the book, go to

Personal disclaimer: For those readers who don’t know, Judith White is my partner, so I would be enthusiastic about her book, wouldn’t I? Yes, I am an avid fan of her book and its impassioned support of the AGNSW and public funding of the arts. I’m eagerly awaiting her next foray into the advocacy of an arts policy for all Australians.

Whither France under President Macron?

At 39, Emmanuel Macron is the youngest French head of state since Napoleon Bonaparte’s first reign as emperor began in 1804.

He is younger than both my oldest children, Laura and Lachlan, and looks younger than my son Scott who is 28. Six months ago he was a political nobody, self-exiled from the French Socialist Party which he served as a staffer and then as Minister of the Economy, Finances and Industry between 2014 and 2016.

He resigned from President François Hollande’s discredited regime to form his own party En Marche!  [“On the Move!”] to drum up classical liberal-minded bourgeois centrism to defeat Marine Le Pen and her hard right, anti-European Union, anti-refugee National Front. In his sights was also the increasingly irrelevant social democrats (French Socialist Party) which finished in fifth place with a vote of just 6% in the first round. Its demise follows the equally spectacular decline in support for PASOK, the Greek socialists, and the official socialists in Italy and Holland.

Macron’s election victory has caused havoc among media commentators who had confidently predicted Ms Le Pen would become the first female president and seemed depressed when the racist-minded homophobette lost by a huge margin.

The media’s obsession with Macron’s marriage to Brigitte Trogner, his former drama teacher who is 24 years his senior, is a clear sign that homophobia and misogyny are alive and well in the press, Macron said this week.

He promised to select a Cabinet to represent gender equality – half male and half female – thus following the example of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. At his victory rally, the former Rothschild merchant banker promised the cheering crowd he would rule with “humility, strength and love”, a slogan immediately adopted by sections of the LGBTI community who regard the gilded young leader as one of their own.

As if to underline his opposition to US President Donald Trump, the French president-elect re-issued the short video link in which he invited US scientists, researchers, engineers and innovators to move to France to continue their careers.

It followed Trump’s arbitrary shutting down of climate change and other science funding programmes which has provoked street demonstrations across the US and Europe by medical, aerospace and IT researchers.

Macron, an ardent supporter of the European Union and the euro zone, implored overseas scientists: “Please come to France, you are welcome. It’s your nation; we like innovation. We want innovative people. We want people working on climate change, energy, renewables and new technologies.”

Macron is a gold-plated patrician whose while career has been sponsored by France’s political elite. By instinct, he’s a careerist of the Tony Blair/Bill Clinton variety. His presidential mission is to:

  1. Stabilise the Fifth Republic founded by General Charles de Gaulle in 1958 which, for the past 12 months, has been hit regularly by strikes, street demonstrations, acts of terrorism with the population living under semi-permanent martial law and closed borders;
  2. Rescue the French-German economic partnership, the cornerstone of European capitalist reconstruction since World War Two;
  3. Save the shoal of European banks which are drowning in debt i.e. unrepayable loans to floundering governments and business;
  4. Restore community-wide faith in the Brussels-based European Union (EU), the unelected bureaucracy which has been trying to rule European member states by centralised regulation.

In the 19th century Talleyrand and Bismarck failed to broker a lasting French-Prussian bloc; Macron isn’t in the same league as those two giants of statesmanship and diplomacy. The political future of France and the EU hasn’t been settled by Macron’s election; it remains perilously uncertain.

Will Le Pen’s defeat hurt Theresa May?

Almost a year ago, on 23 June 2016, Theresa May, then UK Home Secretary, was campaigning with her leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, in the referendum to remain in the European Union.

When the remain camp lost the vote, May abruptly changed sides and joined the Brexit camp. A day later, faceless Tory grandees rallied behind her, knifed Cameron in the back, chucked him out of No 10 Downing Street and installed the vicar’s daughter.

After repeatedly ruling out a General Election, May has triggered a clearcut exit from the EU in two years’ time and called an election for June 8.

British voting intentions have been thrown into question by the French presidential election which saw the decisive defeat of Ms Marine Le Pen, the Frexit candidate who promised to take France out of the EU,  shut its borders to immigration, close “radical” mosques, strip accused “jihadists” of their French citizenship, put up protectionist trade barriers, order 15,000 more armed cops onto the streets and establish more jails for a further 40,000 inmates.

Will Ms Le Pen’s electoral humiliation on May 7 shift the British electorate to vote against Mrs May and the Tories on June 8? The political temperament of French and British society is quite different, formed by very different historical circumstances.

Both countries had revolutions – Britain in 1642 and France in 1789. Both revolutions executed the reigning monarch: Charles I was beheaded in London and Louis XVI in Paris. France is now a headstrong republic and the English royal family, the German-originating Windsors, are busily trying to arrange a succession and their own survival. Cross-channel history, tradition and national sentiment is being stirred once again. Can you feel it?

Turnbull’s new mantra

In Act One of his prime ministership, Malcolm Turnbull’s mantra was “jobs and growth”.

As everyone knows, that PR promise was never realised. There was no rise in permanent fulltime jobs and growth failed to materialise. Instead, the economy plunged into record levels of private and public debt.

In Act Two the old mantra has been junked and replaced by a new one – “fairness, opportunity and security”.

Does anyone believe it? No. Is anybody listening? No again.

Meanwhile, Labor leader Bill Shorten continues to support paying billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to Catholic schools under Turnbull’s Gonski Mark II budget plan.

Lawyers and accountants advising the church hierarchy propose to cream off the top 50% to pay compensation to the victims of child sex abuse in Catholic schools and welfare institutions.

How do you feel about your tax dollars going to the Catholic church to pay for crimes committed by its paedophile priests? The deal, stitched up between the ALP leadership and the Vatican, will come unstuck if Victorian police take criminal charges against Cardinal George Pell, currently living in Rome’s Vatican City where he is Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, the hierarchy’s top financial supervisor. People living in Pell’s home town of Ballarat, where historical allegations of sexual assault still linger, will be watching this one with the closest attention!

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