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Visual Arts - 10 Years: Judy Millar

"Artists from New Zealand are getting out and about and are in touch with global art practices as never before."


As part of The Big Idea’s celebration of ten years online, critic Mark Amery has brought together a discussion of those years in the visual arts from five leading visual arts practitioners in response to his own thoughts. First up is artist Judy Millar.

As part of The Big Idea’s celebration of ten years online, critic Mark Amery has brought together a discussion of those years in the visual arts from five leading visual arts practitioners in response to his own thoughts. First up is artist Judy Millar.

What do you think are some significant changes in the visual arts in the last ten years?

It would be easy to look back on the last ten years in the visual arts and to think that nothing much has changed at all. Ten years ago we were already communicating via e-mail and zipping our images around the world. Ten years ago we were already debating whether recent technologies were making the world bigger or smaller. Arguments for and against so-called ‘globalisation’ were already rampant.

Of course ten years ago there wasn’t Facebook or Twitter to keep us amused. But that leaves the question of whether new forms of communication really change the messages sent or simply speed up the sending of more of the same; “here are my holiday snaps”, “hi”, “look at me”. We can’t forget the role new technologies played in what has been labelled the Arab Spring but it is still uncertain whether the uprising of the people in these lands will actually lead to greater freedom and better rights for the average citizen.

But of course there have been changes. The biggest perhaps being the rise in the influence of the private collector, the private collection and the private museum. At a time when more and more of the wealth has flowed into fewer and fewer hands it’s unsurprising that wealthy individuals have, during this time, challenged and expanded the role previously held by public institutions. The auction houses have established contemporary art as an investment without par, and have, along with the collectors who are their best clients, become the tastemakers of our time.

What are some experiences you've had and exhibitions that speak to the tenor of these changes?

The exhibition at the New Museum in New York in 2010 of the Dakis Joannou Collection curated by Jeff Koons is a good example of the new prestige of the private collection. Jeff Koons, extensively represented in the collection, was selected by the owner of the collection to curate a show from the collection for a public institution. While I loved the show the concept did play a little with my head. Who was the winner here, or was this a lovely example of win, win?

When the Hamburger Bahnhof Galerie in Berlin accepted the long-term loan of the Flick Collection to substantially boost their holdings of contemporary art, an emotive debate ensued. Apart from the controversial history of Flick’s personal fortune it was argued that storing and exhibiting the work would use up a large part of the funds available to the museum for their yearly programme, and limit the possibilities for other projects.

Both of the above examples show the influence exerted by private individuals on the exhibition programmes of publicly funded galleries. Of course this has gone on throughout history but the scale of the private collections has changed, with hundreds of pieces worth hundreds of millions of Euro involved in both these cases.

No longer satisfied to just have a collection, collectors now desire their own museums. In nearly every major city in the world internationally renowned architects are being commissioned to build monuments to private taste.

In New Zealand the auction houses and collectors have likewise increasingly influenced artists’ ratings. Leading academics are now more likely to be recruited to write segments in auction house catalogues than in exhibition catalogues for public galleries, leaving some question marks over their ability to think and speak independently.

Have changes in the past 10 years made it easier and/or harder for artists to build a career?

Given the rise in collecting and professionalism in the visual arts, both within New Zealand and globally during the last ten years it would be easy to assume that there has never been a better time to be an artist. The growth of tertiary art institutions however has led to an increasing number of artistic positions jostling for attention and funding. And somewhat ironically tertiary art institutions are now big players in funding the visual arts through their robust Research Fund purses; more students, more artists to teach them, more power to the academy in deciding which artists will be enabled to make their work.

The tertiary institutions have also tried to lead from the back by devising programmes that no longer address specific media or their histories. When in curating the 2011 Biennale di Venezia Bice Curiger signals that the change she has most noted in artists’ studios is a re-immersion in particular media and an end to cross media thinking, perhaps some of our art schools need a re-think. One outstanding example of a focussed exploration of a medium leading to new ends is the current exhibition by Pawel Althamer at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. Who would of thought old time figure modelling could get this good.

What are some of the other opportunities and challenges ahead?

Artists from New Zealand are getting out and about and are in touch with global art practices as never before. Travel is easier than ever and young artists are exhibiting their work internationally far more than previous generations. But to capitalise on the opportunities opening up for our artists we face some challenges. Artists hungry for success are pouring out of Eastern Europe and other developing nations, making it ever harder to gain traction on an international level.

Perhaps it’s time to give up on the idea of the existence of a specifically ‘New Zealand Art’ and instead look at the practices of our individual artists and understand how these can best be developed and promoted. It’s not necessarily helpful, when attempting to gain international recognition, to be presented under the umbrella of so called New Zealand Art. It certainly doesn’t help to build an understanding of contemporary art within the country when our public institutions still present art from New Zealand separately from that produced in other places.

For too long art has been regarded in New Zealand as something useful for building a unique national identity. It is time that the sophistication of contemporary art was better understood by those that hold the purse strings. This can only come about through stepping up the level of discussion amongst artists, amongst collectors, in our art magazines, in our tertiary system and in the public institutions.

What role does The Big Idea have to play in all this?

Hopefully during the next decade The Big Idea can continue to play a role as a discussion platform and help to develop better-informed conversations in the arts.

Further information:

Artist Judy Millar has spent the last few years bouncing between a hectic exhibition schedule in Europe and a hermetic life in a remote house on Auckland’s West Coast. Her first solo museum exhibition in Europe will be held in a museum in the north of Germany during the summer of 2012.


Written by

The Big Idea Editor

9 Dec 2011

The Big Idea Editor