29 November 2016

Versailles at the NGA - a summer of glitz, cake and unsettled staff

| Paul Costigan
Start the conversation

Usually at this time of the year, I am looking forward to the coming visual arts exhibitions at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). This year I am not so sure.

I love going to the NGA. I often go when it is quiet, and spend time with a group of works from their permanent collections. A couple of weeks ago, I went in late on Sunday (free parking) and took my time going through several of the galleries.

It is wonderful just to sit (when benches are available) and ponder a particular era of works– in this case those around expressionism and surrealism. I have often said that the collection works on exhibition at the NGA and at other public galleries are really blockbusters – just that they remain free and usually quiet.


However, I am yet to be convinced about what is being heralded as the major exhibition for this summer at the NGA. It is ‘Versailles: Treasures from the Palace’.

Part of my puzzle starts with the fact that Versailles remains in my mind as the symbol of an absolute monarchy in the Ancien Regime of France. It was not a good time to be alive for those not in the top circle.

I am probably supposed to be enthralled and mesmerised by all that glitter. I wonder whether all this glitz is to be a message that the ruling classes are back– and this is how they want to live.

Inequality in Australia continues to rise and rise. Our ruling classes are not aristocrats. They are more ‘bizocrats’. It was reported recently that a bank CEO now earns 80 times more than the average worker. The studies show that those in that small top bracket actually indulge themselves in a manner that most of us could only dream of (if that’s what you desire).

Several weeks ago there were stories in the press about NGA staff being told on a Friday that their job has gone and could they be out by Monday. There are links here to events interstate.

Over the last year or so there were tales about how other cultural institutions had employed a particular consultancy firm to guide a restructure along the current fashionable business model (these models change about every decade–more money for consultants).

New titles were introduced for new executive staff and the number of top-level executive staff was increased. Others were either told they were no longer required or were designated as being ‘broad-banded’– which means no matter what cultural professional or curatorial stream they had trained for and worked in –their chosen professional career was now not secure. Apparently it means that many of the cultural institution’s professionals could be moved wherever the new management deemed necessary to match the adopted corporate marketing models. The perception is that content and research were no longer as much a priority as has been in these cultural institutions.

That same consultancy firm was invited into the NGA. From the information in the NGA’s annual reports it seems that there has been an increase in senior executives from 4 to 7.

Meanwhile other staff are having their professional careers put to the test. Some staff were given notice – in some cases very short notice. Sadly all of this demonstrates just how quickly a workplace culture can change.

It points to the dangers in the inappropriate adoption of the latest ideological conservative business models for our cultural icons. It’s a cultural institution – it’s a public art gallery!

There’s another worrying trend that we have spotted in Victoria. Many public galleries seemed to place less emphasis on their collections and instead have started to offer more activities mainly to attract children. In some cases their foyers have become noisy playpens full of playthings. These galleries are no longer places for the contemplation of the visual arts.


Play centres are important – let there be heaps more. But an art gallery is – an art gallery.

And so back to the NGA. The shop has been moved back upstairs from where it came (and where it used to struggle). Why? The NGA is now to offer a huge Versailles playpen in their foyer.

Do they not know the real history of Versailles? What will the children be doing– playing political games and stabbing those who threatened them – or maybe being taught how to use any corner of the room as a toilet? Who knows? (Versailles may glitter today – but it was a pretty smelly place in its time)

There is a long standing practice for the use of ‘young people’ centres within art galleries. For instance QAGOMA (Brisbane) has been a leader in this now for ten years. Theirs is upstairs and appropriately placed on the top floor with specialised facilities. It is not in the foyer. It works and has been very successful. The NGA version sounds questionable.

And how much money is being spent on all these changes to the NGA’s gallery spaces?And they state that the Federal Government is responsible for the cut backs to staff! I do not think it is that simple.

On my last visit I noticed that many of the new exhibits are loans, some from fashionable commercial galleries. The result is that there is less of the NGA’s own collections on exhibition. Some of us value the collection and want to see more of it–not less. I also wonder whether there is now slightly less exhibition space. All this is not good when there is so much of the collection in storage.


In the last few months I have spent some time away from Canberra and have been asked about what is the NGA doing with this Versailles display as their summer exhibition.

I have also been queried about what is going on with the ‘new management’ given all the stories circulating about the new executive at the NGA. I did not have all the answers– and sadly for once I could not be enthusiastic about making the effort to visit Canberra this summer.

Will I get along to see the summer of aristocratic excesses? Yes –I love going to the NGA and so will probably visit just before Christmas (when it is always quiet) and have a look. But I have to be truthful in that I am not expecting to be enthralled and mesmerised. I actually like the visual arts – all manner of it. Displays such as this do not do much for me.

I am sure the opening and the marketing department and the activities organisers will spare no expense. Sadly other wonderful staff are paying for these excessive distractions with their jobs. Maybe they will be offered some cake!

Despite all this – the NGA is a place I recommend you visit – and visit often. There are so many fabulous works on exhibition in all the other galleries. Go and enjoy the quiet.

And maybe I will be proved wrong about ‘Versailles: Treasures from the Palace’.

Despite the practices of the current management, I encourage all concerned to continue to love our NGA. I wish all the best to the remaining professional staff.

Start the conversation

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.