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Artbank profile: James Kenney

James (Jim) Kenney

Deputy Director and first Curator of Artbank

1980 - 1996

Interviewed by Artbank Director Zoe Rodriguez

You are described in your handwritten notes as the Deputy Director and Curator for Artbank. (These were probably written in 1981 or 1982). When did you start at Artbank and what was your role?

I started at Artbank mid-July 1980. My commencement date was delayed a few weeks while I stayed at the National Gallery of Victoria on a secondment arrangement with the Commonwealth. During this time, however, I was able to attend the inaugural meeting of the Artbank Advisory Board in Sydney, as curator-designate, and I ran a few Artbank errands in Melbourne. So, it was a gradual immersion in the new job.

One of the errands run in Melbourne was to meet Ken Cato. He and his associates had just completed the mammoth job of creating the logo and visual identity of Commonwealth Bank so it was particularly kind of him to do the same for Artbank at ‘mates-rates’. I remember that I had envisaged something more fluid and maybe light-hearted but when he pulled back the black covers on the presentation board it was a magic moment. Artbank suddenly seemed real, a ‘thing’.

At that inaugural meeting of the advisory board it was also decided that my ‘local designation’ would be Assistant Director. In such a small organisation multi-tasking was vital and the traditional role of curator would have been an indulgence. The new designation sounded ‘grander’ but it was an appropriately vague term for what encompassed wide ranging ‘other duties as required’, as the last line in duty statements usually put it. Effectively I was ‘middle management’ with a hand in everything from changing lightbulbs to entertaining the Deputy Prime Minister.

Why did you decide to take the role?

I was aware of the success of the Canada Council Art Bank and, since both countries have similar political and cultural institutions there seemed to be no reason the model would not be a success in Australia. Being able to participate in the establishment of a public institution is an opportunity that comes along rarely. I have said that I was involved in Artbank at its ‘log-cabin’ phase and while the cabin has been replaced its footprint and foundations are still there after 40 years.

How do you think Artbank is different from traditional public collecting institutions?

Firstly, I do not see Artbank as a ‘collecting institution’. I believe it is more correct to call it a rental collection or, as some overseas equivalents have done, assign it to its own genre, ‘an art bank’. The universal definition of a collecting institution is one which collects, preserves and interprets. Artbank has none of these responsibilities though it dabbles in all three in a modified manner. It purchases artists’ work as a means of encouragement and promotion but not for posterity. Preservation would likely preclude rental to clients with minimal environmental controls and security. In this regard you might say Artbank is ‘all care and no responsibility’. Interpretation was limited by available resource. In its early days Artbank loaned work to other institutions to supplement their own exhibitions, with their interpretation. In the main, biographical information on the artist was the extent of ‘interpretation’. Artbank mounted some exhibitions from its own collection but these were strictly for the purposes of promoting the scheme.

What was it like being at Artbank right from the start? Did you have instructions on what to do, or did you have to make up your own path?

Being at the beginning was exhilarating and there were no instructions other than Artbank’s Charter and budget to constrain us. One very small example that comes to mind was my decision one day to spell Artbank as one word. No one had been doing that and the logo developed for us by Ken Cato and Associates suggested we had leeway. It also suggested the zeitgeist of the 1980s. It remains the convention today.

Artbank’s charter was generously open with few of the restrictions that even the Canadian Council Art Bank had to abide. For instance, there was no restriction on who could rent from Artbank whereas the Canadian model was restricted to government, charities and statutory authorities. In practical terms however we concentrated, initially, on the government client base since there was a demand that had not been catered to before and, in the commercial world, art was increasingly being seen in the workplace.  Artbank provided the opportunity for our government clients to move away from the faded Tom Robert’s lithographs that typically proliferated.

In our first three years our ‘technology’ consisted of a Polaroid camera, a memory typewriter (remember those?) and two ordinary electric typewriters, and a phone system. With 40 years of hindsight you have to wonder how we ever managed. It was modest even by the standards of the early 1980s but, then again, computerisation was in its infancy and restricted to much larger business enterprises. At the beginning we requested a computer for collection management but the cost of providing a landline to the departmental mainframe in Canberra was prohibitive. The internet was restricted to universities. Only a few years previously Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had emerged from their garages and revolutionised the availability of computers to individuals and small enterprises so it was becoming increasingly clear that a landline was not necessary but it took a few years more to overcome the reluctance to give an outlying unit of the department data storage independence. The increasing demand for providing statistical answers to ‘Questions on Notice’ in Parliament which required manual counts from our paper index card system finally became too time consuming and impossible for short deadlines and the case for a local system was quite clear. In 1986 a new era dawned when we transferred card-based data to digital format.

Another aspect of Artbank’s early years was the problem in communicating rental proposals to prospective clients. Today there is the internet but in the 1980s and early 1990s we had to send photographs by post. Colour slides might have given better colour balance but it would have been financially prohibitive to have a large stock of colour slides. Technically it would have been awkward for the client.  But photographs by mail was slow and while a work might be under consideration by one client another might be waiting for a photo.

Tell us about the first lot of acquisitions for Artbank – they happened in a hurry!

Graeme Sturgeon had been appointed in April 1980, as I recall, and half of the annual budget for art purchases had been allocated but had not yet been released. In the early months of his appointment his time was taken up administrative matters at the parent department in Canberra. But time was ticking over and the deadline for all FY79-80 expenditure on 30 June. He was getting anxious. Finally, with only two weeks remaining he was given the ‘ready-set-go’ and his bountiful marathon began. Western Australia may have missed out on this first round of spending but he covered most of the galleries in the Eastern states and South Australia in a steak of largesse as far and wide as possible in just a matter of days. I am sure that for the galleries in particular this bode well for the future.

The first Artbank office was at 44 Market Street in Sydney. What was that like? When did you move to Roseberry and why?

Initially Artbank was wherever Graeme happened to be, usually his home in Sydney or in Canberra. When I joined in July the three of us (our steno-sec and receptionist Lindsay Collins joined us at this time) were assigned a disused office in the Commonwealth Centre at Chifley Square (now demolished). We sat amongst broken desks and office chairs and with some foraging we found the furniture we needed to set up shop. Our first client visit was to this sorry sight. It must have seemed unpromising but happily he stayed with us as a valued client for many years.

After a few weeks our new premises at 44 Market Street were available and we moved in to a handsomely fitted out new home in the middle of the city. Clearly the planning had taken place long before and it was woefully inadequate to the purpose despite its proximity to the amenity of central Sydney which was appealing for staff. The store/display room was kitted out with rolling racks but it was no bigger than a suburban lounge room so we rapidly outgrew the space. Being a commercial building, we also had to negotiate and keep on side the man in charge of the delivery dock who would not allow deliveries during the morning or afternoon peak. We also had to contend with packing materials and crates which were difficult to dispose of and certainly impossible to dispose of quickly.

Eventually we had an opportunity to rent a temporary storage off-site in Paddington. It could accommodate large paintings which the city-site could not but is was not a pleasant place to take clients and getting them there involved a lengthy trip in a Commonwealth car or taxi from the city and then back again.

The inadequacies of the Market Street location were evident early on and I became aware of a request for a larger space had been lodged with the department that arranged office accommodation. That did not seem adequate to me either so I wrote specification for increased display/storage space and appropriate amenity akin to our growing needs. Happily, this document was found at the top of the file just as the previous request was being looked upon and new premises were leased in Rosebery almost exactly in accord with my revised specification. None of us knew where Rosebery was and it proved to be difficult to attract junior staff but it was handily located nearer the airport and, at last, we had dock facilities with ample room for display, storage and packing. It became home for the next 30 years, hardly what I expected at the time I was drafting the specification.

Some of the most significant works in the Artbank collection are very early acquisitions from Papunya Tula. Can you tell us about visiting that community and how you went about selecting and acquiring works?

About 1983 I was invited by Andrew Crocker to accompany him on his return to Papunya where he was the art adviser. Andrew was son of an orchardist in Somerset but he had acquired a commitment to promoting indigenous cultures in Australia and Africa. I met up with him in Alice Springs and with an elder from Papunya in the cab of a truck we set out across the Central Desert to Papunya.

A few years earlier I had travelled across Africa and the Central Desert was very like the flat arid lands of Chad and Eastern Nigeria.

I met many of the now-famous artists of the Papunya Tula community nurtured by Geoff Bardon in 1971. I did not see any paintings being painted, or at least I do not recall any, but seeing the environment and meeting the artists was a great privilege. It would also have been impossible to purchase any paintings direct from the artists at Papunya since their cash economy and Artbank’s government purchasing systems were incompatible. This was probably for the better because they needed a reliable system of trustworthy intermediaries with the commercial world and Artbank, I believe, needed to respect and nurture that relationship.

Can you tell us how Artwork number 1 in the Artbank collection got its number,

Richard Crichton’s Kangaroo Study No 4, 1980.

After Graeme’s marathon purchasing trip a few artworks began to arrive at our base in the furniture store room of the Commonwealth Centre. I remember a delivery man bringing in the first four and so I decided to put theory to practice and set about documentation. I think it was probably in a notebook and later transcribed onto index cards which we used until computerisation six years later. Three of the pictures in that first delivery were fairly unremarkable but the fourth was quite remarkable. Richard Crichton’s ‘Kangaroo Study No. 4’ seemed heaven sent for the occasion and I chose it for the first number which was 80.000.00 in the old numbering system which became 0001 in the new computer-based system. His image of a kangaroo was strong and seems to be permanently etched into my brain. I suspect if I had had 100 works to choose from that day this would still have been the one I selected to launch the rental collection.

What are some of your favourite acquisitions you made for Artbank?

I don’t think I have any particular favourite work but the act of acquiring was often very satisfying since we were reaching out to visual artists who were working away from the state capitals and regional centres and out of that particular commercial loop and the recognition that comes with it. People are making art EVERYWHERE and Artbank is uniquely placed to encourage them.

While I am not admitting to a favourite acquisition I do confess to some affection for a small painting (the artist will remain anonymous) that seemed to behave like an errant child asserting its independence.

The painting had been purchased from a Melbourne gallery but failed to arrive and no one in the chain of people involved seemed to know where it had gone. The documentation revealed nothing so that system was reviewed and revised. Some months later I was at government stores at Botany (an industrial suburb near Sydney airport and Port Botany docks) awaiting a rendezvous with someone. I was ushered into a store with caged rooms, one with artworks likely intended for the National Gallery of Australia. While I was waiting, I noticed a room with an open door and only one thing in it, a painting with its face leaning against the wall. I went to have a peek and Aha! The missing painting.

A few years later the painting came back from a client and when I looked at the reverse side I discovered the hangers had been reversed so it could be hung ‘upside down’. It was an abstract and while hanging it any which way was not negotiable the client evidently thought it was. How long had it been hanging this way and how many viewers noticed that something wasn’t ‘quite right’?

Who was Artbank’s first client/s? How did you build your client base? (Yours was an enviable rate that we aspire to today!)

I believe the kudos for ‘First Client’ must go to DR Don Edgar, founding CEO of the Australian Centre for Family Studies. His organisation had been established only a few months before Artbank. He may have become aware of Artbank by word-of-mouth because he contacted us when Artbank was still an idea operating out of a briefcase.

There was some on-air publicity at the time of Artbank’s official opening (August 8th 1980) and we relied on this for attracting clients. Our budget did not allow for paid-advertising but the host department in Canberra helped feed the media with announcements. I remember arriving in Alice Springs on my first visit there and while unpacking I turned on the television news and heard that I had arrived in town. Channel Nine also had a very well-produced segment which elicited many client inquiries. These media segments were very productive and of course word-of-mouth fed on them. In the early years these were all we needed to generate more than enough client interest at a pace which would not overwhelm the organisation. In fact, about 1984, we had to do our best to cool demand and lie low because stock levels were insufficient to offer clients satisfactory choice. We did not want to have anyone going away unhappy for that reason. All in all, I would say that the demand and supply nexus was in happy balance for Artbank’s early years. Not too much, not too little. Cinderella conditions.

Who was the most difficult client you had to work with (can just be a general description, rather than a name)

Most of our clients were delightful and we developed a happy relationship with many who became fans over the years. Selecting artwork is perceived by most as recreational but it is also an opportunity for self-expression as it is for the artists who create the art and, in many enterprises, opportunities for self-expression are few and far between.

But of course, there are always exceptions. I recall one client who wanted to make a selection and have it delivered all on Christmas Eve! We did it but then waited months and months for the account to be settled. Such is retailing!

You are from Canada originally. Did Artbank Canada influence your work/ how you established Artbank in Australia?

I was familiar with the Canada Council Art Bank. There were some differences in the models adopted by the two countries so we grew independently without much direct influence. However, as it happened, the Canadian Art Bank is located in Ottawa which is also my hometown. On many visits home I called in on their Art Bank and in the mid-1980s I spent one month with them sitting in on juries, visiting artist studios and galleries across Canada and getting to know their approach. I found myself feeling slightly awkward since I should try to be a bit more exotic than I was. After almost 50 years in Australia I still do not have a remotely Aussie accent and since one of my ancestors is acknowledged as the founder of Ottawa it was a case of the return-of-the-native. In fact, I was more ‘native’ than any of them!

Our Artbank was operating on the smell of an oily rag in comparison the Canada Council Art Bank. It had an expensive jury system for acquisitions designed to bring together artists from East and Western Canada as well as from the two linguistic cultures. It dispatched large quantities of artworks across the country (at least once a year) so that clients could make selections without travelling to Ottawa. We struggled on sending not-so-terrific colour photos and perhaps benefitted from being based in a Sydney with a larger local market.

However, in the early 1990s the Canadian Government, with the Canada Council Art Bank as collateral damage, underwent massive budget cuts to bring down the deficit. The art bank was closed down and staff dismissed. It was revived many months later when it was realised the damage that would be done to the Canadian art market would be enormous if the collection were to be sold. Their model was revised to resemble ours more closely.

What’s one of your best memories of the 16 years you worked at Artbank?

Perhaps the most memorable moment of my time at Artbank was the day I left. This might seem an odd thing to say but I was able to look back at an organisation that was viable, firmly established and well regarded. It was on the brink of a more responsive funding model and, thanks to the boys in California and Seattle we were about to enjoy the benefits of computer technology. The internet was not yet a ‘thing’ for enterprises other than universities and scientific institutions but the sense of rapid change was palpable. Had I not begun my Artbank career at the very beginning I might have had a different sense of ownership and satisfaction but on my retirement felt more like ‘Mr Chips’ looking back on my 16 years.

Can you describe what sort of Director Graeme Sturgeon, our founding director was? What do you think his legacy is for Artbank?

Graeme understood artists and the cultural and economic environment in which they were working. He had trained in Australia and England in fine arts but decided his vocation lay elsewhere, primarily in art criticism. He certainly was familiar with the length and breadth of the visual arts. He understood the motivation to make art and the difficulties in making it a career. In short he had credibility with the art community and that was conferred on Artbank.

Within Artbank he was collegial and fostered a congenial working environment. As one colleague said to me recently ‘we had a good time’. I believe most of us who worked with him have happy memories and that is certainly a positive legacy.