Here is the final version of the public letter on John McDonald. I should stress that the concern of the committee is with the future of our National Gallery not with McDonald's career. We believe his well known views may lead him to exclude large numbers of significant artists from the National Collection.
Thanks David B
PUBLIC LETTER TO MR. KERRY STOKES AND MEMBERS OF THE COUNCIL OF THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF AUSTRALIA
We, the undersigned, wish to express our profound concern at the appointment of the journalist John McDonald as the senior curator and Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia. In doing so we represent and reflect a widespread concern that has emerged in the wake of his appointment.
John McDonald is a well known writer who has succeeded in appealing to a general readership through The Sydney Morning Herald. His record as a critic is not, however, adequate qualification for such a senior curatorial position. He possesses neither formal qualifications as an art historian, nor relevant experience as a curator or administrator. he has never worked in a museum or gallery to create a public program or to organize an exhibition. Neither has he collaborated with a major institution in such a project, and he has never managed staff across a range of backgrounds and skills commonly found in major institutions such as the National Gallery of Australia. Yet it is clear from the duty statement for his current post that this experience was considered essential to their satisfactory performance.
John McDonald built his career on a calculated populism, only made plausible by the ruthlessness he brought to his work as an art reviewer rather than by the acuity or subtlety of his argument. As his reviews show, he has relentlessly attacked and undermined the integrity of curators, fellow writers and artists for more than a decade. A record of consistent confrontation and divisive abuse is hardly appropriate to the role of a senior curator. Indeed it may well prove to be detrimental to the professional standing of the National Gallery as a whole.
From the time he began writing on art in the mid 1980's, John McDonald has demonstrated an intolerant attitude to Australian art with strong ideological overtones. A retrospective overview of his writing confirms that he has never held a position of principled conservatism as he now pretends. From the outset John McDonald has parodied and denigrated contemporary art, its supporters and institutions, in the most opportunistic manner. Contemporary art for him is an intellectual shambles, which he has taken every opportunity to mock through apparently deliberate misrepresentation of the careful distinctions on which it rests. He has consistently implied that it is composed of little more than layers of cynical collusion, deliberate elitism and attempts to hoodwink the public.
John McDonald has only been able to exploit this position by appearing to remain outside the 'system' he has so frequently disparaged. One of his favourite rhetorical tactics has been to imply that all art in Australia is controlled by self selecting academics and collusive establishments. Now that he is to take up a leading position in the very profession he has so derided, how will he earn the respect of his curatorial peers? How does he hope to convey to the Australian public the sense of 'vision and optimism' that is so conspicuous in the gallery's policy statement.
We are concerned that John McDonald's appointment may be designed to consolidate a fundamental change to the identity of the National Gallery of Australia. We therefore call on the Council to recognize the legitimacy of our concerns and to encourage a climate of accountability in which the future of the National Gallery of Australia can be properly debated. We request that this letter pave the way for a meeting between the chairperson of the Council of the National Gallery of Australia and members of the Working Group to discuss our concerns.
Jane Barney, Director of the Contemporary Art Centre
Dr. David Bromfield, Art historian, critic and curator
Brad Buckley, Associate Professor of Painting, SCA, US
Dr. Rex Butler, Lecturer of Art History, UQ
Ben Curnow, Independent Writer and Curator
Susan Hempel, Director of 'Span Gallery'
Bernice Murphy, Past Director, MCA
John Nixon, Artist and Independent Curator
Robert Owen, Associate Professor of Sculpture, RMIT
Leon Paroissien, Past Director, MCA
Make Parr, Artist
Anna Schwartz, Director, Anna Schwartz Gallery
Ted Snell, Associate Professor, Curtin University, WA
Nick Tsoutas, Director, Artspace
Nominated spokesperson, Brad Buckley
Secretary for the Working Group, Simon Ingram
Cheques for 'McDonald ad' should be sent to: PO Box 607, Alexandria, NSW 1435
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