Notes & Observations / Opinion Piece

Archaistic kore: reflections on a broken sculpture

By Simon Holberton

It was Rahm Emanuel, the current mayor of Chicago and former chief of staff to President Obama, who said: “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste”. By that he meant that an astute leader could always turn adversity to benefit by adopting an active rather than passive posture. Recent events at the National Gallery of Victoria, where a 2000 year old statue was dropped and broken and some messy staff reductions are in train, suggest that the leadership there ignored Emanuel’s advice. The NGV was passive, and has paid the reputational price.

First, the back story. In the early 1950s Tomas Harris – spy, art dealer, artist, and one of those colourful figures the British seem to specialise in producing – gave the NGV a headless statue of a standing woman clothed in a form-revealing gown. Dubbed the Archaistic kore, it was Roman (in spite of its Greek name) and, if you split the difference, carved around the time of the birth of Christ. It is one of the few pieces of monumental Roman sculpture in Australia.

Archaistic kore 1AD Gift of Tomas Harris 1951

Archaistic kore, c. 1AD Gift of Tomas Harris 1951, National Gallery of Victoria. Arrows identify the principal break

In January this year, during its removal from one part of the gallery to another, the statue was accidentally dropped and a previously-repaired fault line running diagonally across both shins reopened resulting in the statue being in pieces. It is now under repair by the gallery’s conservation department.

So, how did we learn about this accident? Not from the NGV, the custodian of the statue. No. We learned about the accident from a union official, quoted in The Age newspaper, who used the incident to make a political point against the Gallery’s management who are currently engaged in cutting the number of persons employed there. You would have needed a heart of stone not to be moved by the official’s concern for our cultural heritage.

What conclusions can we draw from these events? The first is this: Tony Ellwood may be a gifted museum administrator but he needs to think again about the way he communicates. He has been behind the curve on these issues – staff cuts and the broken statue – and he needs to get out in front.

First of all he should have come clean about the broken statue when it happened.  He then should have taken a leaf out of the book written by the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University in England. In January (what is about January?) 2006 the Fitzwilliam faced the horror of a clumsy visitor stumbling into and smashing three Chinese vases from the Kangxi reign. The Fitzwilliam wrote the play book on how to deal with such events and the NGV ought to have made a virtue of necessity and promoted  the restoration of the Archaistic kore as a celebration of the conservators art, as did the Fitzwilliam. It worked volumes for them and forestalled all criticism of why they had three late 17th century Chinese vases displayed in the open for anyone to touch, or break.

The second issue is about the way the NGV handled the staff cuts, a ham fisted approach typical of Australian management. The NGV decided to respond reactively to questions about cuts, not lead. It says the decision to cut jobs followed “a review of its strategic priorities and the need to implement business efficiencies”.  These are good reasons. But they also affect the livelihood of persons employed.  If Mr Ellwood and his board concluded that such decisions must be taken he should have said so publicly.

What is the result of not doing so? Management cedes to unions the stage on which to speak on behalf of employees and the gallery. Importantly, it also cedes to others first mover advantage in interpreting management’s actions. And, it places Mr Ellwood in the position of playing catch-up; he is behind the story, struggling to lead. By cutting staff Mr Ellwood may well be doing the right thing by the Gallery and the people of Victoria who pay for it. But, you’d never know.

Stop Press: The unions are now asking questions about internal appointments that were allegedly not advertised. Oh dear. Rule No. 2: If you are going to have a fight do it on ground of your choosing, and at the time of your choosing.

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