If you haven’t noticed from the plethora of advertising all over our beloved Capital and Action buses, the Tom Roberts exhibition is on now at the National Gallery of Australia.
When I first heard about this, I was offended that our national gallery would show this artist’s first solo exhibition whilst the National Gallery of Victoria celebrated the monumental careers of Ai Wei Wei and Andy Warhol and the Art Gallery of New South Wales decorated its walls with works ranging from Da Vinci to Dégas.
Therefore, I went into the Tom Roberts exhibition with major reservations. I felt as though the NGA was serving us the most basic Australian art to please the oldies and bring in some tourists. But this random Australian artist brought in the goods for the NGA. There was a line to enter to the gallery the morning of the exhibition – keep in mind this was a Tuesday – and hordes of old people were lining out the door to collect tickets.
Issue 1: I have never seen a bigger or more elaborate exhibition shop in my whole life. It was like a tacky typo store mixed with Country Road complete with “period” façade, oh and it was painted a dark blue – literally the most eye catching part of the whole exhibition.
Issue 2: The layout was so boring, the walls were white. The rooms were chronological (original); there was one feature room which held the huge painting we all would have seen in high school at some point depicting the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia.
Issue 3: The gift shop sold men’s hygiene products, why? The members café was also “high tea” themed for the duration of the exhibition, because Shearing the rams definitely screams ‘high tea’.
Anyway, aside from the NGA’s obsession with commercialism, the celebration of the work and life of Tom Roberts could just be found under the thick layers of marketing and high priced shaving cream. Tom Roberts really was a brilliant member of the early Australian art world, and the NGA did do justice in describing his contribution. The art was of high quality and the collection was complete which gave one and expansive view at his oeuvre.
The question one is faced when visiting such an exhibition is what the role of the NGA is. Should the public institution appeal to the masses with this basic, but immensely popular, exhibition or should it aim to provide a platform for art to be explored and developed? Being a public institution it obviously should appeal to the masses, which sucks, because the masses don’t understand art and they have boring tastes which fuels theses commercialized exhibitions exploring an old Australian artist whose need for a solo exhibition is not really founded in my (very humble) opinion. In a perfect world the NGA would have enough funding to celebrate these amazing Australian artists of the past whilst being included in the international art conversation.