This week, Dr Nick Gordon looks at some of the highlights from Australia’s flagship public galleries, bastions of the visual arts, whose primary responsibilities are to conserve our culture, support artists and provide a space for us to engage with many different voices.

Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat at the NGV
Keith Haring / Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines, virtual tour still courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria

What Australia’s public galleries can do with limited public funding, generous philanthropic support, and some ticket sales is extraordinary. Let’s start with the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia’s first public art gallery, which has been exceptional in its efforts to keep us engaged online during the coronavirus pandemic through the NGV Channel. It offers virtual tours of its temporary exhibitions and permanent collections; essays on topics ranging from Van Dyck’s Portrait of Rachel de Ruvigny to the conservation of artworks made from neon lights; and interviews with artists. The channel was established well before the COVID-19 shutdown and it shows: the site is easy to navigate and online material is well organised by category.

Their website is not the only good thing, unsurprisingly. The most recent blockbuster, Keith Haring / Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines, (previewed by Limelight) has been made available online. The show brings together 230 works by the two artists, beginning with their graffiti – in some cases, this has been cut off the subway walls so it can be conserved – and traces their short careers (Haring died at 31 and Basquiat at 27) right through to their well-known paintings and sculptures of the mid-1980s. The two artists forced a transformative moment in contemporary art: the elevation of street art into the realm of painting, sculpture and architecture.

Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the opening reception for Julian Schnabel at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York , 1987. © George Hirose

The exhibition does not shy away from the political and social issues that both artists confronted and which give each artist an edge that remains as sharp today as it was in the 1980s. Indeed, dampening the politically charged nature of their work would be deeply counterproductive. Haring and Basquiat were challenging an establishment that was both political and aesthetic: the formalism of American art in the 60s and 70s, the sequestration of art behind institutional doors, and the discrimination entrenched in social life. By moving their art from streets into museums, curators must carefully address this loss of context, and the attendant irony such a loss might entail.

But there are limits to how much of the “energy and texture” of New York in the early 1980s can be transported to a museum. The accompanying information, both text and audio, provided by the NGV is beneficial in this respect. The first rooms evoke the range of influences  on the two artists, from specific artists and events to the general effects of the New York zeitgeist. Understanding the immediate context of their art amplifies its power rather than explaining it away, and some works in particular – such as the multilayered language of Basquiat’s Isthar – retain their mystique.

Keith Haring / Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines, virtual tour still, courtesy of NGV

Even if Haring and Basquiat are not to your taste, the online walk-through is still worth taking a look at. It is a three-dimensional online exhibition, in which you navigate easily with a mouse or trackpad: you can move and look in different directions and zoom in to take a closer look at the art. The audioguide has been integrated with pink circles indicating an “audio stop”. Where audiovisual material is part of the exhibition, you see a green spot. Clicking on these starts the video, without opening a new window or forcing you to navigate away from the exhibition. If you prefer to read the accompanying information, you can download, in print or mobile format, a 25-page edited transcript of the audioguide. As an online exhibition, this is a cut above most.

The NGV also has a walk-through of Marking Time: Indigenous art from the collection, guided by Judith Ryan AM, the NGV’s Senior Curator of Indigenous Art. This walk-through is about 15 minutes long: it progresses room by room with a short video from Ryan introducing the theme and significance of what you see, before it zooms in and pans across some key works.

Marking Time virtual tour still, courtesy of NGV

The exhibition shows how Indigenous cultures are simultaneously ancient and contemporary. It focuses on transformations in the second half of the 20th century, when Indigenous iconographies started to be recognised by non-Indigenous populations as art rather than anthropological specimens. But, as Ryan makes clear, this change came about through Indigenous agency: translating traditional iconographies into new media was a way for Indigenous artists to “assert the primacy of their culture” against ongoing colonisation.

Ngallametta at QAGOMA
Mavis Ngallametta, Ngak-pungarichan (Clearwater), courtesy of QAGOMA

To look at contemporary Indigenous art in more detail, head to QAGOMA’s exhibition Mavis Ngallametta: Show me the way to go home, running until August 2. The show brings together more than 40 of her paintings and sculptures and is the first major retrospective of her work. Ngallametta, a Putch Clan Elder from Aurukun on the Cape York Peninsula, was a master of the traditional arts and materials of her Country – the weaving, for example, which the Wik and Kugu nations were already famous for – before she took on acrylic paint at age 64.

What Ngallametta did with paint in the last 11 years of her life is spectacular. The walk-through, guided by Katina Davidson, QAGOMA’s Curator of Indigenous Art, traces Ngallametta’s development of her distinctive style and representation of Country through the detailed analysis of many works. You see her integration of acrylics with traditional painting materials, changes in her composition and her use of different perspectives and narrative techniques. The walk-through also makes the impact of her larger works clear, with the curator providing both commentary and a sense of scale that is too often lost on screen.

Archival AGNSW
Tracey Emin in coversation with Wayne Tunnicliffe at AGNSW in 2018. Artwork © Prabhavathi Meppayli

Exposure to an incredible variety of artists and their work has been a recurrent strength of Australia’s public galleries, and is evident in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Together in Art program, which is growing rapidly through the crisis. To my mind, the week’s highlights here have come from the archive. Five great talks by five great artists, for example, provides us with access to extended interviews with artists, including Tracey Emin, Lindy Lee and William Kentridge, recorded in conjunction with each artist’s exhibitions in Sydney.

The AGNSW team has also added some rarely seen ‘home video’ footage with the support of the National Film and Sound Archive: Salvador Dalí, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd and Con Colleano, who was one of the most successful circus performers of the 1920s and 1930s. It’s not often you get to look through these more casual windows into the lives of the artists, and it’s a timely reminder of the heritage our institutions protect on our behalf.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.