Are Australian Universities “letting Australian art down”?

24 03 2011

Presented without prejudice… a link to an opinion piece written by Nicky McWilliam , director of Eva Breuer Art Dealer in Sydney, and published today in the Sydney Morning Herald. In it, Nicky, who has stepped into her late mother’s formidable shoes and is now running what has been one of Australia’s most successful secondary market dealerships, bemoans what she sees as the lack of formal training in Australian art history at a tertiary level.

Due to my sometime association with the University of Melbourne, I suppose I have a horse of sorts in this particular race. That said, I’m not there in a permanent capacity, and have nothing to do with policy or decision making within the art history program. So take the following as you will. Of fourteen subjects offered at undergraduate level at Melbourne, two are dedicated to Australian art, which given the broad scope of the field, seems about right. After all, Melbourne University offers a degree in ‘art history’, not ‘Australian art history’. That aside, the study of Australian art is a cornerstone of the program at Melbourne. Ergo – later this year, we’ll see the publication of the Cambridge Companion to Australian Art, edited by Professor Jaynie Anderson, who is also currently furiously lobbying to secure the establishment of the Australian Institute of Art History (**blatant self interest proclamation – I’m the administrative assistant for the initiative to establish the AIAH**).

The other thing to bear in mind when considering McWilliam’s opinion piece is that Australian art is, rightly, included in a good number of the subjects that cover general art theory, but don’t necessarily include the word ‘Australian’ in their titles –  ‘Art, Market and Methods’, and ‘Art History: Theory and Controversy’, for example, are two subjects I’ve been involved in teaching, and both include substantial examination of Australian art in a broader art historical context. So, to pass judgement on the entire Australian tertiary system based on an online survey of subjects on offer is perhaps a little perfunctory.

To satisfy student demand, it is necessary to offer as broad a selection of subjects as possible. The fact of the matter is that students don’t flock to subjects with purely Australian content as a matter of course. The ‘cultural cringe’ factor identified by McWilliam is as much, if not more, symptomatic of student choice, than it is a reflection of University policy.

That said, I experienced exactly the same problem confronting McWilliam when I was employing staff back in the dark ages when I ran Leonard Joel’s art department. I was frequently staggered by the dearth of the most basic knowledge about Australian art and major artists. But I didn’t expect that knowledge of and exposure to these artists needed to be acquired through tertiary study. What astounded me was that someone purporting to be passionate about art and art history had not spent enough time in one or more of our major public collections educating themselves, if only by osmosis, about the history of art in our own country. The lack of curiosity implicit in not absorbing some basic knowledge about our own cultural heritage always set off alarm bells for me. But I didn’t blame the tertiary system for those failings. Just the individuals concerned.

(Image: ‘Art for Dummies’, by Thomas Hoving, via




One response

1 04 2013
Are Australian Universities “letting Australian art down”? | Red Earth Blue Sky

[…] Are Australian Universities “letting Australian art down”?. […]

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