Art Gallery turmoil makes waves

Matt Condon and Judith White at the Avid Reader book launch in Brisbane

Brisbane audience welcomes book on Art Gallery of NSW … AGNSW director Dr Michael Brand spotted in Venice: next stop Brisbane … Theresa May’s big election gamble … Rupert Murdoch’s loses his news room gorillas … NSW Coroner report on Lindt Café siege: whitewash or what? …

Art gallery turmoil making waves

News travels fast. When Judith White launched her book, Culture Heist: Art versus Money, in Brisbane this week I fully expected an eager but small crowd at the event.

But news of the managerial meltdown at the Art Gallery of NSW had reached Brisbane and an enthusiastic crowd turned out at Avid Reader Bookshop in Brissy’s West End to get the lowdown on what on earth’s happening in Sydney.

The format was perfect for the occasion. Queensland award-winning author, Matthew Condon, an editor at the Courier-Mail, conducted a searching interview which demonstrated to everyone that he had done his homework and actually read the book!

It was a rare pairing. Judith and Matthew met when they both worked on the Sydney Sun-Herald 30 years ago. In his opening remarks, Matthew recalled that Judith reviewed his first novel, The Motorcycle Cafe, Penguin 1988. She was so impressed she organised an official launch at Susie Carleton’s Riverview pub in Balmain.

Matthew focused the conversation on the wider relevance of the issues that the author has raised in Culture Heist drawing out the impact of neo-liberalism on the CSIRO, the ABC, the Australia Council, public libraries and performing arts organisations across Australia.

Condon took special pleasure in quoting author Tim Winton whose scorching observation is included in Judith’s book: “We’re living in a dispensation that is endlessly reinforcing the idea that we are not citizens but economic players.”  The Avid Reader audience gave that a round of applause. Take a bow, Tim!

Townsville comes through too

Another staunch citizen who can take a bow is David Rainey who, among other things, is an acclaimed authority on artist Sidney Nolan.

David and his partner Kaye, née Taylor, are among my oldest and dearest friends. Our friendship dates back to Townsville, North Queensland, in the 1950s and 1960s when they were appearing in plays produced or directed by my mother, Lucy Mitchell, and we were reaching insecure maturity amid the tumult of our first jobs, first romances and rock’n’roll.

In tribute to Judith’s book David has written an authoritative review which will be shared by serious-minded art lovers across Australia.

He writes: “While Culture Heist is about the fracas with AGNSW and the dilemma it faces, the book is much more than merely an account of a parochial power struggle within one art museum – even if this is a central theme – and raises fundamental issues of entitlement and privilege in society.”

To read Rainey’s complete review, click here

Is there a doctor in the house?

Next week Dr Michael Brand, the embattled director of the Art Gallery of NSW, is billed to attend the opening of the Marvel Exhibition at the magnificent Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in the arts precinct on the Brisbane River.

He was spotted at the Australian pavilion of the 57th Venice Biennale this week on an all-expenses-paid five-star trip.

His jaunty predecessor, Edmund Capon, was also at the Biennale. Close your eyes and imagine the debonair Capon sweeping up to Brand with the greeting: “Michael, dear boy, how are things at the old HQ?” And then adding impishly: “I hope they’re not giving you a hard time, old sausage.”

In reply, Brand could be expected to grin – but through gritted teeth. Circulating amid the parties and receptions, the cocktails, fine wine, bubbles and canapés, were copies of Judith White’s eye-opening book. It was rather like being at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the 1970s when banned copies of the Russian novels of Solzhenitsyn were being surreptitiously handed around.

Art Gallery of New South Wales

Her book explodes the secrecy surrounding Brand’s stewardship of the publicly-funded gallery and makes a passionate plea for art, scholarship and education to resume their place as the gallery’s chief priorities and not crass commercialism, outsourcing, privatisation and other items from the neo-liberal economic agenda. To find out more about the book, or order your copy, click here.

Given a one-year extension on his AGNSW contract – he wanted five – Brand looks increasingly like a director serving his Last Hurrah before moving on. Meanwhile, back at HQ in Sydney’s Domain his exorbitantly-paid management team is adopting the pre-World War II British Government slogan, “Keep calm and carry on.”

Clutching bottles of Kool Aid, they look increasingly like an upmarket crowd from Jonestown waiting for their messiah to return and set them free.

Will May last until June?

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s imperious decision not to take part in any pre-election debates has been swallowed by the UK’s compliant media and celebrated by Rupert Murdoch’s favourite tabloid, The Sun.

The vulgar rag editorialised: “The Sun doesn’t really care how much or how little TV she does. We DO object to self-important broadcasters [Murdoch code for the BBC – AM] acting like their debates are a cornerstone of democracy.”

Meanwhile, Britain’s public broadcaster, the BBC, and the commercial network, ITV, have decided to hold debates with the other party leaders with the likelihood there will be an empty chair on the TV set to highlight the absence of the vicar’s daughter.

At the 2010 general election, Murdoch’s Sun took an entirely different point of view when it was hounding Labour PM Gordon Brown and championing Tory leader David Cameron. “If Iran and Afghanistan can have TV debates between party leaders, so can we,” boomed The Sun’s editorial. “David Cameron and Nick Clegg are backing a debate before we vote. There can be no hiding place for Gordon Brown.”

Dirty Digger’s clown

Incidentally, Murdoch has been obliged to terminate the squalid career of his favourite tabloid editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, after he compared black Premier League footballer Ross Barkley to a “gorilla” in his column in The Sun.

Describing Barkley, awarded 22 caps for England, as “one of our dimmest footballers”, MacKenzie wrote that watching his eyes “not only are the lights not on, there is definitely nobody at home. I get a similar feeling when seeing a gorilla at the zoo.” (“Here’s why they go ape at Ross” by Kelvin MacKenzie).

For football clubs, players and fans this was the final straw. The tabloid rag was banned from club grounds, advertisers walked away, players white, black and brown, vowed never to talk to Sun reporters again and a random reader boycott was started. As a result, MacKenzie, the paper’s editor from 1981 to 1994, lost his weekly column for which he was paid – on Murdoch’s orders – the wholly extravagant sum of £300,000 a year, or $525,000.

MacKenzie is most notorious for concocting the front-page splash blaming Liverpool fans for the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989 and accusing them of drunkenness and looting the bodies of victims.

Four days after the disaster, with 94 spectators dead, MacKenzie ordered a front-page headline, “THE TRUTH”, with three sub-headlines, “Some fans picked pockets of victims”, “Some fans urinated on the brave cops” and “Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life”. His original headline was “YOU SCUM” but he relented at the last minute changing it to “THE TRUTH” when the whole story was a pack of lies.

In another foray into race relations, MacKenzie “reviewed” the award-winning film Gandhi directed by Sir Richard Attenborough describing it as “a load of fucking bollocks about an emaciated coon”. That was in 1982.

The grubby Murdoch empire appears to be unloading its unsavoury bigots, probably at the behest of Murdoch’s sons, Lachlan and James, who are trying to perfume the odious image of the family’s “criminal conspiracy”.

In the past 12 months MacKenzie, Col “Pot” Allan, “Big” Bill O’Reilly and “Raunchy” Roger Ailes have left the corporation’s employment. During that period, big advertisers began to withdraw their support and politicians ignored phone calls from “Mahogany Row” chiefly because of the phone-hacking scandal in the UK.

When will they tackle the conga-line of crazies and bigots in their Australian entities?

It’s the coroner calling

NSW State Coroner Michael Barnes is the son of the late Alan Barnes, The Age journalist who was the Melbourne paper’s bureau chief in the Canberra Press Gallery from 1967 to 1974.

During his distinguished newspaper career Barnes Snr was a reliable source for ASIO, the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation. Spooks gave him “background briefings” and, in return, he provided insider information on politics and the media.

Next Wednesday, May 24, his son will deliver his long-awaited report into the Martin Place siege in which three people were killed – hostage taker Man Haron Monis, barrister and mother-of-two Katrina Dawson, 38, and Lindt Café manager Tori Johnson, 34.

Coroner Barnes appears to share his father’s felicitous view of the domestic spy agency. In his 600-page report, all references to ASIO’s involvement have been redacted. In addition, the evidence of ASIO officers, given in extraordinary conditions when the press and public were banned, has been censored too.

Monis shot Johnson at point-blank range with his sawn-off shotgun, NSW Police killed Monis and one of their richocheted sniper’s bullets killed Katrina Dawson. Why police were using heavy duty assault bullets in the close range conditions of the former bank building in Martin Place has staggered munitions experts but never been satisfactorily explained.

At the conclusion of the siege, then prime minister Tony Abbott ruled out a royal commission into the siege and NSW Premier Mike Baird fell into line. They decided to stage an inquest which lacked all the necessary powers to gain access to the documents, decision-making personnel and instructions of the participating agencies, including ASIO and the Australian Federal Police.

Coroner Barnes’s headline finding – the one demanded by Canberra and Sydney politicians, police and security agencies – is that Monis engaged in an “act of terrorism”. This supports the state-designed narrative that the victims are “martyrs of Islamic terrorism” and the Martin Place site is a shrine to “the war on terror”.

Quote of the month

This week readers of Murdoch’s Australian newspaper saw the best and the worst of Mark Day, the highly accomplished and much respected journalist.

On Thursday he wrote an outstanding news story and feature article on new revelations about the dreaded “Brisbane line”, the wartime project by the Menzies government to allow the Imperial Japanese Army to invade and steal the northern half of Australia in order to protect the Melbourne and Sydney clubs, the banks and the stock exchange.

The rest of the country was outraged, and when Labor prime minister John Curtin came to power the appeasement project was scuttled and subsequently ridiculed by army top brass, the RSL and senior Liberal politicians.

Day has revealed that new evidence uncovered by an intrepid researcher Sue Rosen shows that the Brisbane line strategy was indeed on the cards. Her book Scorched Earth will be released next week.

There was never any doubt in the Mitchell household in North Queensland that Menzies and his mates were prepared to sell out everyone living north of the Brisbane line.

The latest revelations will be especially welcomed by two Brisbane journalists, Peter Thompson and Rob Macklin, who have pursued this subject for decades.

Now, returning to Mark Day, last Tuesday he wrote about the new era of journalism in his weekly media column In The Australian saying:

“Make no mistake: Google and Facebook are the journalists’ enemy. They rip off content from mainstream publishers without payment, ignoring copyright, and redistribute it through their social media outlets with advertising attached. They pocket the revenue derived from other people’s work and then, to add insult to injury, structure their businesses through tax havens to avoid paying their dues here.”

Inadvertently, Day has almost perfectly described the “business model” of his own boss, Murdoch, as well as the one used by the chairman of the London Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere, and Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick Barclay, owners of the London Telegraph and eccentric identical twins.

Day’s journalism in the past couple of days expresses the contradiction at the heart of the Murdoch media empire: occasional good reportage amid a mountain of guano.

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