untangling the awkward relationship between art and money

Breaking News: John Brack’s ‘The Bar’ headed for the NGV – for reals this time.



In exciting news for Melbournian art-lovers, it seems that the glowering cumulonimbus cloud that is the economic crisis may have a sterling silver lining.

We have been suffering a case of severely bruised pride since 2006, when cultural crusader David Walsh pipped NGV director Gerard Vaughan at the post, acquiring John Brack’s seminal painting, ‘The Bar‘ for the record price of $3,120,000 at auction.

In ‘The Bar‘, Brack’s reinterpreted Edouard Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère‘ and constructed a typically bleak picture of 1950s Australian culture. It is a companion piece to one of the NGV’s best-loved and most iconic Australian paintings, ‘Collins Street, 5 p.m.‘ Needless to say, when ‘The Bar‘ came onto the market, the NGV wanted it. Badly. But so did Walsh who, I have always suspected, saw the acquisition of the painting as a mighty fine way of rustling up publicity for his monumental private gallery, MONA (Museum of Old and New Art). It is hard to see how the painting fits into Walsh’s premise for his collection, which is organised around the twin themes of sex and death. That said, the drinkers at the bar do look somewhat cadaverous.

Notwithstanding Walsh’s reasons for acquiring the painting, to add insult to injury since the sale the painting has been taunting us; hanging at the NGV, side-by-side with its sister piece. Walsh graciously loaned the painting to the gallery while he finished building his cultural ark across Bass Strait. Its display in Australia’s most prominent public gallery can’t have hurt the painting’s lustre (or its provenance). I imagine it would have saved Walsh a bit in insurance costs over the last couple of years, too. But, I’m clearly just a bit bitter and cynical. Walsh is using his vast wealth to construct a major collection of international and Australian art that will be open to the public – what is there not to love in that? It’s just that he TOOK OUR PAINTING FROM US!

I digress. The good news is that we’re getting to keep it… really, truly. Walsh has sold/is selling ‘The Bar‘ to the NGV! (**golf clap**). The implication from the report I just heard on ABC radio was that it was a decision predicated by financial factors. Given the reportedly legendary scale of Walsh’s online gambling operation  this sounds unlikely. 

Who cares? ‘The Bar‘ is ours. And, Gerard Vaughan? The first round’s on you.

Image:  ‘Australian Art Sales Digest’

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