© 2008 ABC, Updated
The story around Bill Henson and his controversial nude photographs of pre-pubescent children was undoubtedly the arts story of the year. It had it all: police raids on an art gallery, moral outrage, the censorship debate, the artist and his models in hiding, a high school principal investigated and a denouncement from the new Prime Minister that the photographs were “revolting”.
Just when Kevin Rudd thought he had won the hearts and minds of the arts community, including actor Cate Blanchett who co-chaired his Australia 2020 Summit in April, they turned around and bit him, defending Bill Henson’s right to artistic expression and strenuously denying the images were pornographic.
“The potential prosecution of one of our most respected artists is no way to build a Creative Australia and does untold damage to our cultural reputations,” they opined.
But the government arts funding body, The Australia Council, stepped in at just the place where artists feel it – the money end. It introduced guidelines for funding grants where children would be involved. The jury’s still out about whether such rules are workable. And talking about arts funding, hopes that Labor would boost support for the arts were largely dashed. There was some nips and tucks here and there but no great bonanza.
Money, money, money
The exception was with the poor relation of the arts, literature. The Rudd Government introduced the Prime Minister’s Literature Prize, two healthy pots of $100,000 for fiction and non-fiction. The inaugural prizewinners were Steven Conte for The Zookeeper’s War and Phillip Jones for Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and Encounters on Australian Frontiers.
Australian Steve Toltz was among the six shortlisted in this year’s Man Booker Award for Commonwealth writers for his debut novel, A Fraction of a Whole. Indian writer Aravind Adiga, who spent part of his high school years in Sydney, won with his novel The White Tiger.
Sydney Artist Del Kathryn Barton won the $50,000 Archibald Prize. Nudity didn’t offend the judges of the Moran Prizes. A naked self-portrait by Fiona Lowry and a shot of four generations of Belinda Mason’s family in their birthday suits won the $50,000 photography prize.
Money was flowing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Donors dug deep to help build a new wing and collection of contemporary art. And the gallery forked out more than $16 million for a painting by French impressionist Paul Cezanne. Eyebrows were raised when the hat was passed around to help pay for it and two works from the collection by leading Australian artists Brett Whiteley and John Perceval were auctioned off as part of the fundraising.
Meanwhile, art prices took a tumble at the big auctions, reflecting the economic downturn.
The National Gallery in Canberra returned to the safe territory of the blockbuster with an exhibition of Degas and the opening of the new National Portrait Gallery added to the cultural reputation of the national capital.
Australia’s film industry had a complete and long overdue makeover. The Australian Film Commission, the Film Finance Corporation and Film Australia were merged into a super body called Screen Australia. Ruth Harley, former head of the New Zealand Film Commission, was appointed CEO. Arts Minister Peter Garrett introduced the 40 per cent producer offset, a move that should increase badly needed corporate investment into moviemaking.
The 50th AFI Awards in December were marked by a raft of low budget films reflecting the shrunken state of the local industry. Two successful but relatively small films compared to previous years, Black Balloon and Unfinished Sky, carried away most of the major prizes. But next year will be different with a slate of expensive films already released or in post production. The highly trumpeted but tepidly received, Australia, Baz Luhrman’s rambling period movie set in the outback was first off the rank. Others in the pipeline are Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer, Anna Maria Monticelli’s and Steve Jacob’s Disgrace, George Miller’s Happy Feet 2, Robyn Kershaw and Rachel Perkin’s Bran Nue Dae and Trish Lake and Sue Brook’s Subdivision.
Opera Australia had a patchy year. Great productions in Sydney and Melbourne were soured by criticism of its artistic director Richard Hickox from disenfranchised singers claiming, among other things, that he was lowering musical standards.
Two of the artistic and critically acclaimed highlights were Hickox-conducted productions of Benjamin Brittain’s Billy Budd starring the finely honed Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Leos Janacek’s The Makropoulos Secret directed by the prolific Neil Armfield.
The year ended tragically with the sudden death of Hickox from a heart attack at the age of 60.
The artistic director of Belvoir Theatre, Armfield continued his grip on turning out some of the best productions with an emphasis on powerful Indigenous plays. For a change of pace, he’s followed the wildly successful seasons of Keating by directing another playful sendup of celebrity – Shane Warne the Musical. It opened in Melbourne and will have seasons in Sydney and Perth and perhaps other cities later.
Blood on the floor
There was blood on the floor of the two theatres this year. Barrie Kosky’s Women of Troy and Bell Shakespeare’s Titus captured graphically on the stage how society breaks down when war wreaks havoc. I have never seen so much red paint and severed heads been thrown around the theatre before than in Titus, with John Bell centre stage in the Sydney Opera House’s Playhouse.
Cate Blanchett was often in the news, partly for her movies, partly for her new baby but mainly because this was the year she and husband Andrew Upton took over the artistic reins of the country’s largest theatre company, the Sydney Theatre Company, from Robyn Nevin. Interest is high about what the dynamic duo will achieve in their first season.
A baton change occured at the Sydney Symphony with the departure of maestro Gian Luigi Gelmetti, returning to Europe after five years of toing and froing. His swan song was to take the entire orchestra on a tour of his Italian homeland. His successor, Vladimir Ashkenazy, had a warmup with a season of Elgar before taking over the chief conductor’s role in the new year.
There were sour notes in Melbourne as Peter Garrett tried to merge the Australian National Academy of Music with Melbourne University. A spirited campaign by some of the arts world’s high fliers won a year’s reprieve for the academy and its artistic director Brett Dean.
The pop world hailed a new princess when Melbourne teenager Gabriella Cilmi blitzed the ARIA awards, winning six major prizes. And a new star of world music emerged. A young man from Arnhemland, Geoffry Gurrumul Yunupingu, won multiple ARIAS for his haunting songs.
There was dancing aplenty. The Australian Ballet and the Bangarra Dance Company appeared on a double bill in Paris. The Sydney Dance Company is hoping to find its feet again with the appointment of a new artistic director, Rafael Bonachela.
I was especially touched by the death of the Sydney Opera House’s brilliant architect Jorn Utzon in December, aged 90. Just over six years ago, I had the rare privilege of interviewing Mr Utzon at his Mallorca house, his first TV interview since he was dropped from the project in the 1960s. He was then aged 84 – an imposing figure of a man, yet gentle, dignified and incredibly kind. He was so pleased to be working again on the future design directions of one of the world’s great buildings.
“I have the Opera House in my head like a composer has his symphony,” he told me. Sadly, he never saw the building finished but there’s no doubt the Sydney Opera House will always resonate with his genius and generous spirit.
The arts highlight for me this year was a simple but stunningly evocative video installation by the American artist Bill Viola. Arts patron John Kaldor brought Viola to Australia to show his Tristan Project in the Art Gallery of New South Wales and in a quiet old church in the inner city suburb of Redfern. What a compelling sight it was: a mixture of fire and water and two star-crossed lovers. Pure art!