National Cultural Institutions

The role for our cultural institutions

P1090798I suspect that most people have a fair idea of the individual function of our main national cultural institutions.

However, there have been a few incident in recent years that have posed questions about the roles of the War Memorial, the National Library, and the National Portrait Gallery.

I recently reviewed an exhibition at the Australian War Memorial. click here. However when I visited, I did note the large banners hanging off the front walls. I wondered whether everyone would think this is appropriate. The walls of this particular building would be regarded as very special by many, given that the place is a national memorial.

Apparently I was not alone – this article has appeared locally – click here.

Over at the National Portrait Gallery there is currently a contemporary visual arts exhibition – titled In The Flesh – click here. The introduction reads:

1a0cdd58-7e6b-473b-a79d-6e94a15c3c58-798x1020In the flesh is an enthralling and immersive experience of contemporary figurative art that explores the concept of humanness. The exhibition invites you to contemplate the nature of consciousness, self-awareness and emotional states through the works of ten Australian artists. Confronting the themes of intimacy, empathy, transience, transition, vulnerability, alienation, restlessness, reflection, mortality and acceptance. In the flesh dwells on the interface of the mind and the body.

There’s been a few exhibitions over the years that have pushed the limits of what portraiture is or how the concept of portraiture is viewed through the National Portrait Gallery. This present exhibition is primarily about a contemporary visual arts theme and it this would fit very neatly within the mission of the National Gallery next door. The mission for the Portrait Gallery states:

The purpose of the National Portrait Gallery is to increase the understanding and appreciation of the Australian people – their identity, history, culture, creativity and diversity – through portraiture.

I remain to be convinced about how In The Flesh fits within this mission statement. However others do disagree. For instance this reviewer thinks that there should be more of this from the National Portrait Gallery. click here.

Meanwhile over at the National Library, they too have an exhibition space that has been showing a range of visual arts. Admittedly there is often a connection between some element of the exhibition and the National Library. For instance, the exhibition of the Westfarmers contemporary visual arts collection, we were told of a long connection of this corporation to the library. So why not some publicity for one of their supporters. Hmm, maybe? Click here for the exhibition.


I have to say that I enjoy going to visual art exhibitions anywhere, anytime. So on one level, I am very happy to see any of the national institutions take the trouble of staging some visual arts exhibitions. Let there be more and I will be there.

But despite my pleasures in going to their exhibitions, I continue to wonder about how they justify these contemporary visual arts exhibitions within their own stated roles and missions.

Meanwhile I look forward to the day when the National Gallery of Australia has its own in-house galleries dedicated to contemporary art – as opposed to the recent efforts down by the lake in that out-of-way space designed to be restaurant. And – while they are at getting their new wings built for contemporary art, let’s design a dedicated exhibition  space for photography. There’s a huge dedicated photography audience out here that has been very frustrated by out major public art galleries. Why not?

As for those banners on the outside of the War Memorial – hmm, I suspect they may have not please their friends by doing that. More visual arts exhibitions? Bring them on!


Paul Costigan



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