05/08/2019 - 15:15

Art and environment a precious pairing

05/08/2019 - 15:15

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AGWA chair Janet Holmes a Court spoke to Business News about the gallery’s latest exhibition, art in public spaces, and why she won’t put a price on art works.

Art and environment a precious pairing
Janet Holmes à Court is as much driven by her love of art as she is by a passion for the environment. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

AGWA chair Janet Holmes a Court spoke to Business News about the gallery’s latest exhibition, art in public spaces, and why she won’t put a price on art works.

'The Botanical: Beauty and Peril’ exhibition launched at the Art Gallery of WA on July 6 has been included as part of a larger celebration of the botanical world coordinated by the Mundaring Arts Centre.

The centre’s fourth ‘Icon Project’, the What on Earth series of exhibitions and events will be held across Perth between August and October at locations including AGWA, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Flux Gallery, and  Mundaring.

The AGWA exhibition draws on works from the gallery and Janet Holmes à Court collection to provoke a discussion around Australia’s natural environment.

Co-curated by Melissa Harpley, Laetitia Wilson and Megan Schlipalius, the exhibition celebrates Australia’s natural landscape while emphasising the many threats against it, from bushfires through to colonial conquests.

Speaking with Business News about the exhibition, AGWA chairperson Janet Holmes à Court said the exhibition was a plea for people to take better care of the environment and recognise Australia’s reputation as a biodiversity hotspot.

“We start off with botanical drawings outside and then gradually move around and get to this area that shows you what fire has done,” she said.

“It’s an illustration of the preciousness of the biodiversity we have and the damage [people have] done.

“I hope people do think about that and hopefully take more interest in the environment and protect it a bit more.”

Though environmental themes and awareness are the underlying drivers of the exhibition, Ms Holmes à Court argued that it relied on the strength of its featured works, including photographs from John Gollings and installations from Monique Tippett.

When pressed as to how the featured works communicated ideas about the environment, Ms Holmes à Court invoked friend and artist Brian McKay in saying that good art had the capacity to move people in ways they couldn’t explain.

“I think a lot of these works do that,” Ms Holmes à Court told Business News.

Environmental advocacy has long been a cornerstone of Ms Holmes à Court’s philanthropic work.

A long-time supporter of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, she attributes her interest in nature to her mother, who taught her to appreciate wildflowers during walks through John Forrest National Park.

In terms of the exhibition’s themes, however, it is clear she is driven as much by her love of art as by her passion for the environment.

Throughout, Ms Holmes à Court referenced prominent works to illustrate her points, including Matt McVeigh’s ‘Cultural Prism’, which juxtaposes the names of prisons with native flora, and Eva Fernandez’s ‘Flora Obscura’, a series of photographs of eradicated wildflowers where the Midland workshops are built.

Ms Holmes à Court said this was a passion that again came from her mother, who regularly took her to the art gallery as a child.

“I have this memory of coming to the art gallery and seeing Hans Heysen’s ‘Droving into the Light’ at the top of the stairs at the old art gallery that is now the old museum,” she said.

“AGWA has loaned that to the national gallery in Victoria, and I was thrilled [to see] the other day [when I was] in Melbourne, on the side of the national gallery’s annex, a monstrous blow-up poster of it.

“That really gave me a great feeling of awe.”

Ms Holmes a Court’s advocacy in the arts is storied and well documented.

As chairperson of AGWA, and previously the WA Symphony Orchestra, and the deputy chair of Chamber of Arts and Culture WA, she has been on the frontline of the state’s arts and cultural scene for more than 20 years.

That passion was evident last year when Ms Holmes à Court waged a campaign against Perron Group, after it announced plans to move a large, integrated Brian McKay work from the foyer of Central Park.

Although a representative from Perron told Business News at the time that the group was confident it could relocate the work while retaining its structural and visual integrity, Ms Holmes à Court argued that the artist’s intent was destroyed by moving sections of it.

A friend of Mr McKay’s before his passing in 2014, Ms Holmes à Court said she was upset to learn another of his works, located in the foyer of the Reserve Bank building on St Georges Terrace, had been damaged by the owners of a coffee shop who had taken a lease on the space.

“One of the parts of the mural had been damaged by chairs and tables banging up against it,” she said.

“Another had been damaged because something was stuck over the top of it and when it was pulled off, so too was part of the mural.”

She rattled off a list of other defacements to public art that has left her incensed, including stories of trucks reversing into James Angus’s ‘The Cactus’ in Forrest Place or drunken revellers throwing bottles at works outside of the Alex Hotel.

“I think that there’s something fundamentally wrong that a city has all this public art that is not respected,” Ms Holmes à Court said.

“Someone was telling me that in Chicago, there’s an amazing Anish Kapoor [that] has only ever been graffitied once, and the person who did that was given a major fine.

“It’s never been touched, never been kicked, never had a truck drive into it and never had a bottle thrown at it.

“So it is possible to encourage people to respect art more than a lot of people do.”

Ms Holmes à Court said she hoped she could do something to change those attitudes while chairman of the AGWA.

“I’d like to encourage people to feel comfortable in here, see how important it is and how they can be stimulated, calmed or changed by spending time with art,” she said.

Although vandalism provokes her ire, Ms Holmes à Court said it was only part of a broader neglect of the arts in the public space.

Though declining to single out any particular government figure as being hostile to the sector, she said the lack of an inclination to invest in art galleries, orchestras, theatre companies or the opera was telling.

“I think if the public made a bigger deal about that, then government would have to respond,” she said.

Ms Holmes à Court said the arts was often the first sector to lose funds when governments scaled back spending or started paying down debt.

Those comments came as AGWA director and chief executive Stefano Carboni was replaced by two interim appointments, with reports the government was exploring amalgamating AGWA, WA Museum and the State Library of WA under a single administration.

Ms Holmes à Court declined to provide comment on those issues for this story.

That art is monetised in that way makes her visibly uncomfortable.

“I refuse to talk about art and money in the same sentence,” she said.

“People ask me what I paid for certain pieces or what they’re worth, [but] for me, [art] is not a commodity.

“I’m not interested in selling anything, so why should it matter?

“I don’t talk about what they’re worth and I don’t know what they’re worth, because that sort of commodification, especially of indigenous art, is a great shame.”

By way of example, Ms Holmes à Court mentioned The Man Who Stole Banksy, a 2018 documentary that shows the process by which the famed graffiti artist’s work on the Israeli West Bank barrier was removed and sold at auction.

Highlighting the disparity between the message and monetary value of art, Ms Holmes à Court said art shouldn’t be commoditised, but instead be available in public spaces to provoke thought and discussion.

“That’s why we’ve always regarded my collection as a public-private collection,” she said.

“Artists do not paint pictures to be put in the basement and never seen.

“If it’s buried in the basement of a building somewhere, what’s the point?”

For Ms Holmes à Court, there is no greater tragedy than parsing the difference between a $10 million or $100 million work of art.

“Does it become so valuable you can’t put it on display?” she asked.

“To me, it becomes worthless if nobody can see it.”

‘The Botanical: Beauty and Peril’ is showing at The Art Gallery of WA until November 4.

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