Policy and practice : collecting contemporary Australian art, 1980-1995 : a thesis presented in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Philosophy in Museum Studies, Massey University
Since the 1970s contemporary art has been considered "a hot item". Art practice has been marked by diverse styles and innovative techniques and was often accompanied by a radical critique of art's production and its reception. In this period, there have been shifts in the sensibilities of some intellectuals and artists and a growing cultural critique which questioned or rejected the homogenizing values and universalizing notions of the 'grand master narrative' espoused by art museums. Instead, a growing consciousness about 'the politics of difference has challenged the art museum to acknowledge the importance of cultural diversity and adapt its policies and practices to reflect such dynamics. This thesis examines the way in which art museums have developed and enacted policies to collect contemporary Australian art between 1980 and 1995 and the consequences of those policies for the construction of public collections. The discussion is framed by the context of government policies for the arts and cultural heritage which underwent significant ideological transformation in this period. The thesis investigates the acquisition policies and practices of four leading Australian art museums between 1980 and 1995. It compares and contrasts acquisitions in those institutions and illustrates findings through a quantitative analysis of their collections. The thesis argues that there is a substantial difference between the rhetoric of acquisitions policies and actual collections of contemporary art. It reveals the anomalies and tensions which surround 'the finely honed discursive and rhetorical devices created to justify the structural and institutional support for élite practice.' It concludes that the collections of contemporary art are conservative, partial, incomplete and impoverished anthologies of contemporary art practice and that the art museum finds difficulty in overruling the traditional values of art history and the 'grand master narrative'. By establishing, perpetuating and institutionalizing the canon, the art museum systematically regulates and reproduces cultural representations. Furthermore, government cultural policies which increasingly support élite producers in 'cultural industries' and aim to disseminate the resulting 'Australian culture' to more consumers through cultural tourism and art export, assist the art museum to maintain its position.