Australia: Art Nation

Sydney Opera House Sydney Opera House continues to be one of the country's most forward-thinking cultural institutions

This has been a fairly miserable few months for the arts in Australia.

The national broadcaster ABC axed its flagship culture show, Art Nation. Fans of the programme described the move as an act of cultural vandalism.

The celebrated cartoonist, Robert Crumb, who is renowned for his sexually explicit cartoons, decided to pull out of an arts festival in Sydney. He did so because the tabloid The Sunday Telegraph described him as "self-confessed sex pervert".

Edmund Capon, the country's most highly respected arts scholar, announced his retirement from the Gallery of New South Wales, leaving a big void not easily filled.

The arts community has also been mourning the death of one of Australia's best-loved artists, the fabulously feisty Margaret Olley, who died at the age of 88.

A photo taken on April 15, 2011 shows artist Ben Quilty (C), stands with legendary Australian painter Margaret Olley (R) Artist Ben Quilty won an award for his portrait of fellow artist Margaret Olley

In another blow to the standing of high culture in this country, the Arts Minister Simon Crean was prevented from attending her memorial service in Sydney because the opposition leader Tony Abbott has banned the use of voting pairs in parliament. It means that MPs are confined to Canberra when parliament is sitting.

Former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull, a friend of Margaret Olley's and an enthusiastic patron of the arts, was also in effect barred from the event. To apply this hostile tactic so rigidly seemed especially silly seeing as Mr Crean and Mr Turnbull on this occasion formed such a natural "pair".

But then, Tony Abbott could hardly be described as a renaissance man. A traditionalist in his artistic tastes, he once described the parliamentary collection of paintings as "avant-garde crap".

Neither has Julia Gillard offered much in the way of artistic leadership. When the cameras were invited to film her adding a few personal touches to the Prime Minister's office, it was her Western Bulldogs footy scarf that took pride of place, along with a Sherrin football, rather than, say, a landscape by Sidney Nolan.


For all that, the arts in Australia seem to be in much stronger shape than when first I started my posting. Brisbane has a fabulous new Gallery of Modern Art. Tasmania has the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), a destination gallery if ever there was one. Canberra can also boast the new National Portrait Gallery, which is housed in yet another cutting-edge building. Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art is also about to get an impressive new wing.

The Archibald prize for portraiture goes from strength to strength. This year's winner, oddly, was a portrait of Margaret Olley. Then there is the ever popular Sculptures by the Sea open-air festival on the coastal path between Bronte and Bondi.

Sydney Biennale, the country's largest and most ambitious festival of modern art, has been another hit with the public. The National Gallery of Victoria, which sounds oxymoronic I know, and its offshoot The Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square continue to burnish Melbourne's status as Australia's cultural capital.

On the arts front, the story that I would love to have covered during my time here was that the Sydney Opera House had been given the go-ahead and the money to fully realise the original vision of its Danish architect Jorn Utzon.

The interior was intended to be just as exhilarating as its stunning exterior. Alas, Utzon was forced to resign - the phrase "constructive dismissal" has rarely been more inapt - before the building's completion. A local architect finished the inside.

Still, the Sydney Opera House continues to be one of the country's most thrusting and forward-thinking cultural institutions. And here's more proof: the Ship Song Project, a celebration of the Opera House with the help of Nick Cave and friends. I love it. I hope you'll enjoy it, too...

Nick Bryant Article written by Nick Bryant Nick Bryant New York correspondent

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