Terra Australis Incognita:
A conversation with Kathleen Soriano about 'Australia' at the Royal Academy - 2
CK Why was that? What were their reservations?
KS I think it has partly to do with a lack of context and familiarity. They just weren't familiar with these artists. They weren't able position them within the canon or the order of value they ascribed to artists.
That was the first thing. The second thing - there was concern, justifiable concern. Based on that lack of knowledge how could we expect our visitors to know about them? Visitor numbers tend to be important to all institutions regardless of central government funding. Sometimes, more so if you get central government funding.
But it was too powerful to allow it not to happen. I needed to fix that and started on the idea of working on an idea of an Australia exhibition. But we never moved it beyond an idea.
When I came here [RA] in 2009, I realised that our galleries are the perfect place, scale wise. We have a long history of survey shows: British art in the 20th Century. German and Italian art in the 20th Century... We also did Africa and China. There's a tradition here of tackling those sort of ideas in the same way so it felt completely logical. I thought more about how the Academy is an international platform, that of course we need to the Monet, Manet and Degas - which we do really well; but we also need to broaden that Western art canon. But 9 times out of 10 you need to do it with a range of artists and bringing a number of them to the table.
And knowing that people won't like everything in the show but they might fall in love with a certain period or artists and go away and learn more.
My sense of working out how successful the show is whether we see more Australian art shows in this country over the next 10-15 years. That to me will be the measure.
Familiarity is always very important with art and artists. You have Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev who did dOCUMENTA last year. She included 5-6 Australian artists in dOCUMENTA but she spent 3-4 months in Sydney. It is by having people go and see a little bit... You need to be exposed to something in order to grow a love for it. This is my gesture to get more people exposed to it.
CK It's extremely important what you're doing. Like you said it is that sense of familiarity, you can't really open doors for the work to be seen otherwise unless they have a context. You're creating a context where the work is able to be seen in one way, which is from a historical canon as you say. I think that's essential, especially for somewhere like Australia where it's located so far from Europe.
KS I wonder whether it's changing though. Artists like Shaun Gladwell and Christian Thompson, because they got up and they've left... I wonder if that whole idea of context and familiarity becomes less necessary because of the global world in which we operate.
CK For me this exhibition also raises questions about identity, nationality. Does this have any value - where the art is coming from?
In terms of when curating the exhibition, were these questions considerations about particular artists?
KS Artists had to be born in Australia or mainly grown up there... Or they needed to be nationals from other countries who were spending a lot of time or living there. Like John Beard is a Welshman but who's been living in Australia for 30 year now... There needs to be depth of connection. I was trying to pick artists that were speaking about the underlying theme.
Those questions the exhibition would provoke rather than being in my head when I was selecting. I felt like I had present things in simple terms in order to create... I don't know… it was almost like planting the field - so it was all there in the clearest and simplest terms for other people to do things with.