Betty Churcher AO Memorial Oration 2022
Dr Melissa Chiu with Julia Baird
Join Dr Melissa Chiu, Director, Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in conversation with globally renowned author and award-winning journalist Julia Baird for the inaugural Betty Churcher AO Memorial Oration.
Dr Melissa Chiu is one of Australia’s most successful international curators. After completing her postgraduate studies and working with the collection of Western Sydney University, Chiu helped to establish Sydney’s Gallery 4A, a dedicated exhibition space devoted to promoting cultural dialogue about issues important in the Asia Pacific region. In 2004, she was appointed director of the Asia Society Museum in New York City and Director of the Hirshhorn in 2014. Chiu is also currently Curatorial Director of the 2022 Hawai‘i Triennial, Pacific Century - E Ho‘omau no Moananuiākea that interweaves themes of history, place, and identity within the context of Hawaiʻi’s unique location at the confluence of Asia-Pacific and Oceania.
Julia Baird hosts The Drum on ABC TV and writes columns for The New York Times and The Sydney Morning Herald. Baird’s biography of Queen Victoria was published in several countries to critical acclaim and listed in The New York Times' top ten books. In 2021, Baird’s powerful book exploring media, women and politics Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians was revised and re-editioned. Her title, Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder and Things That Sustain You When the World Goes Dark was published in Australia in March 2022. Exploring Baird's personal experience of life-threatening illness and ‘the things that give us comfort, that make us strong’ the book became a COVID-19 pandemic lockdown best seller.
Betty Churcher AO (1931–2015) was a leading Australian arts educator and administrator. During her esteemed career, Churcher was the first woman to lead an Australian tertiary education centre as Dean of the School of Art and Design at Phillip Institute of Technology in Melbourne (1982–1987), first woman to lead a state gallery as Director of Art Gallery of Western Australia (1987–1990) and first and only woman Director of the National Gallery (1990–1997). Established in 2022 as part of the National Gallery’s Gender Equity Action Plan, the Betty Churcher AO Memorial Oration is a major annual event featuring leading women in the arts who inspire creativity, inclusivity, engagement and learning.
This event was first broadcast on 21 Apr 2022 as part of the National Visual Art Education Conference.
Nick Mitzevich: Welcome to the inaugural Betty Churcher Memorial Oration. I’m Nick Mitzevich, Director of the National Gallery of Australia. I acknowledge and pay my respects to the traditional owners of the Kamberri region, known today as Canberra, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and all First Nations peoples across Australia. We recognise their continuing connections to Country and culture, and pay our respect to their Elders, leaders and artists, past and present. The National Gallery is custodian of the world’s largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and one of our most significant works Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s The Alhalkere suite stands behind me.
The Betty Churcher Memorial Oration is a new major annual event in the National Gallery’s program. This event recognises and celebrates leading women of the arts who inspire creativity and inclusivity in their contributions to cultural life both here in Australia and across the globe. The Betty Churcher Memorial Oration is one of several initiatives that support the Gallery’s ongoing commitment to gender equity and greater inclusivity for all. Last month we released the Gallery’s first Gender Equity Action Plan that follows the success of the Know My Name initiative to address historical bias and under-representation of women and gender diverse artists in the national collection and more broadly across the cultural sector.
Tonight we will hear from one of the world’s leading art authorities, Australian expatriate and current Director of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC, Dr Melissa Chiu, interviewed by author and award-winning Australian journalist Julia Baird. We will cross to Melissa and Julia shortly. Before then I want to introduce Betty Churcher, particularly if you are not already familiar with her important contribution to art and cultural life in Australia. I’d also like to acknowledge and thank Betty’s family who supported the establishment of this memorial oration in her honour.
Betty Churcher was the National Gallery’s second director and first and only woman to hold this position. Betty was also the first woman to lead an Australian tertiary education centre as Dean of the School of Art and Design at Phillip Institute of Technology in Melbourne in 1982 and the first woman to lead a state gallery as Director of Art Gallery of Western Australia in 1987. As Director of the National Gallery from 1990–1997, Betty oversaw an era of creative transformation and major audience growth. She was committed to remove as many barriers that may stand between the audience and a work of art. She became known as "Betty Blockbuster" for her commitment to large-scale exhibitions that could breakthrough to audiences beyond the traditional gallery-goer.
It is the spirit of Betty’s inclusive approach that continues in the Gallery’s current vision to lead a contemporary cultural agenda. Thank you Melissa and Julia for helping us launch the Betty Churcher Memorial Oration. Over to you.
Julia Baird: Thank you, Nick. And what a great honour to be here in conversation with Dr Melissa Chiu, an Australian whose reputation and whose influence has spanned the globe as a curator and as a champion of contemporary art and whose trajectory has seen her go from Darwin to Sydney to New York to now Washington. So what is it that drives her and what is her vision and why has it been so popular? Why has it struck a chord with so many audiences? These are the things we'll be talking about today. As we know, she's now director of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. And since she arrived in 2014, she's maintained the focus on 20th and 21st century art, but also presented landmark exhibitions of work by some of today's most important artists, notably Shirin Neshat, Yayoi Kusama and Laurie Anderson. Under her leadership, the Hirshhorn has also commissioned site specific artworks that respond to the museum's very unique and beautiful modern architecture, including Mark Bradford's longest ever painting spanning 300 feet, and the public have lapped it up.
Under her leadership the Hirshhorn welcomed over 1 million visitors in 2017 alone, and this was its highest annual attendance in nearly 30 years, doubling its visitation from three years before, which is really an astonishing achievement, I think. She's also authored and edited several books. She wrote a Ph.D. with a dissertation on contemporary Chinese art at the University of Western Sydney, and her books and catalogues in contemporary art have included Contemporary Art in Asia: A Critical Reader and she's also lectured at a host of august institutions of higher education, including Harvard, Yale and Columbia. And she's talking to us today. Now, Melissa, welcome. Lovely to have you today.
Melissa Chiu: Thank you, Julia.
Baird: Rather lengthy introduction. I could go on, but I just kept it concise, really. Well, I really wanted to outline, you know, just kind of in a nutshell, what your significance has been, particularly in the last few years. And before we get to the work that you've done, can you tell us how did this happen with you? You grew up in in Darwin, at what point were you drawn to art and did you realise this would be your life?
Chiu: Yes. It's always in some ways hard to think about beginnings. It was so long ago now. But yes, it's true that in Darwin I did become interested in art. In fact, if I remember, it was one of my mother's friends who was an art teacher who first really got me interested in drawing and painting. But it was in high school when I had to make a decision about where I wanted to study that I became even more interested in working in museums. And it was at that moment when I discovered you could be a curator, someone organises exhibitions and works with artists, that I began my studies in art history. You know, I often talk about familial background defining people. And that was also the case for me in that, and my sister will blush at this, but I have a twin sister who was a straight A perfect student, teachers just loved her, just so much, and I was kind of, you know, to be honest, more of the maybe B student. And art for me was that place where I could do well. And so you know, throughout school, I really enjoyed art more than anything else and so it was that decision. And in Australia the tertiary system, schooling system is a little different because it requires that you make your big career decision still at high school. In the US you're given a few more years in the general degree in order to then specialise. So we all had to make this decision and I decided to study art history and criticism with the idea of wanting to become a museum curator.
Baird: Can you remember one particular piece of art that really excited you or captured your imagination when you were a kid or a teenager?
Chiu: It was a work by Brett Whiteley at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. That wonderful self-portrait of him looking at himself in the mirror with the expanse of the Sydney Harbour behind him. And I still remember that work as really allowing me to think about the scale of art, that this was a grand gesture. And also to be thinking about the fact that I didn't, I think I knew even then that I didn't necessarily want to become an artist, but I did want to work in museums. And for me, it was like a process of even thinking about not the act of making art, but what was around the art. How was the museum creating a context for understanding that? So that kind of became more of my preoccupation as I went more often to museums and discovered a whole contemporary art world in Sydney.
Baird: Because it's such a, it's probably, as you've said, it's like such a particular and unique and actually rare position to be a curator. There are very few curators, you know, in the world.
Chiu: Yes, as I discovered! There were very few jobs, nobody told me that.
Baird: Well, you seem to have managed pretty well, irrespective of that. So tell us about how then you came to Sydney and then you went to New York?
Chiu: So I was educated in Sydney for high school and my university degrees. It was my family's decision to move to Sydney for high school for me and my sister's education. Then deciding on the degree that I would ultimately study was that important decision that a lot of teenagers have to make. And so I was fortunate to have studied at the University of Western Sydney. It was a fairly new degree at the time and it really gave me the freedom to be able to both study art history and have a studio practice which was very unusual at the time, so it made sure that you were fully engaged in the making of art, which has informed a lot of the work that I've done with artists in curation, meaning that I have something of an understanding of firstly how hard it is to make work that it is individual and will reach visitors in different ways. It gives you a great a sense of, I think, modesty in some work, that you know how hard it is to make things. You also know the processes that artists go through in terms of the technical application of paint or printmaking or other things. That really gave me a grounding in what I think ultimately I wanted to do.
Baird: Did you feel that being Australian gave you a particularly unique perspective? I know when I worked in New York for a few years as a news magazine editor, my editor used to say to me, it's like you're more of an anthropologist, you've got more of a Margaret Mead kind of take on things because I could see things a bit at a distance. What about you?
Chiu: So when I first moved to New York, it was I think it was about two weeks before 911. So my introduction to New York, I think, was a fairly unique one of kind of a city in recovery from a major, tragic event. And I think I was surprised as an Australian and the sense of nationalism that came out of that moment and the fact that I was working in the Asia Society, which was an American organisation, but very Asia focused, and I think as an Australian it gave me, in some ways a somewhat different approach from both how most Americans are trained, but also an understanding of the world. I often think of Australia as a middle power and it also played a very important role within the Asia Pacific region and I kind of came of age at the moment of APEC and many other developments, and so that really helped my work at the Asia Society with the main goal of introducing Asian artists to American audiences. It's a very different point of view, I think being Australian in New York and in a way with the goal of introducing Asian artists to American audiences. So in some ways it was an unusual position.
Baird: So what's that been like? What have been some of the obstacles and opportunities of introducing Asian art to American audiences?
Chiu: I think one of the real challenges, initially at least, was that there is a degree of unfamiliarity with Asia and Asian art. And so a lot of the work that I did was to try to select in a way, the artists or art movements that could have possible relationships with American art history or American history. And so it's kind of trying to find those points of connection. And so that was in some ways the challenge of the work that I was doing for Asia Society. And the opportunities were that, when it hit the right chord or the right note within the US, there were moments of a real impact that you could see how an exhibition could change people's minds, could educate them, could bring them closer to something that before even seemed very far away.
Baird: Can you give us an example of that?
Chiu: So one example is an exhibition that I co-curated with an artist Zheng Shengtian. It was the first exhibition of art from China's Cultural Revolution, the period of 1966 to 1976. There had never been an exhibition of this subject before for a number of reasons. It was a very difficult period in China's history, often known as a black period that people really didn't want to talk about. But it was in my research for my Ph.D. on Chinese contemporary art that I discovered that many of those artists, who now are world famous, whether it's Cai Guo-Qiang or Xu Bing, or any of them from that generation, they always said to me, oh, if you want to really understand my work, you have to go back to the Cultural Revolution when we were growing up, they were our formative years. And so we together did this exhibition. And it was designed to be during the year of the Beijing Olympics, at which there was a heightened awareness of China, but also Chinese art and culture and history. There were many tribulations as to the Chinese government not wanting us to do the exhibition for various reasons, but we ended up doing it. And I'm very I'm very proud of that accomplishment because it was the first exhibition and helped a much better understanding of that formative moment that still continues to have an impact in China. That generation are all in important positions of power, and so they're defining in a way the 21st century, even today.
Baird: Amazing, so when you were talking about there's a lot of reasons for lack of diversity, right? There's history, there's ignorance, there's also assumptions and cultural prejudice. Do you find that you've had to directly overcome that and address it or expose it? Like, how do you manage that?
Chiu: So the issue of diversity is really front of people's minds today. It was through my own experiences in Sydney, also something that defined my own professional practice when I was coming of age looking for jobs in Sydney I did notice that there were no Asian Australians in leadership positions, no Asian Australians even in curatorial positions, not even in departments of Asia art.
Chiu: And that really struck me. And that prompted the establishment of what we know as 4A the Asia Australia Art Center. And the idea behind that was to give opportunities to Asian Australians artists to be in conversation with Australian and Asian artists, but also to train the next generation of Asian Australian curators and museum directors. And so even from decades ago and my own experience, we were very focused on how we could be more inclusive. Knowing that larger institutions sometimes take a little longer to be responsive to what were very broad changes to Australian society. So I'm very happy that 4A continues and know it has actually helped a whole generation of curators and museum directors take their place into positions where they can now be a part of the conversation, where when I was graduating from university, that was certainly not the case.
Baird: Is it also about challenging conventional understandings of what art is when you bring diverse artists, female artists in? I host a television show that has a host of authorities and commentators on it and when we had to very specifically change our makeup so it was more diverse and we had more female voices, we had to challenge what was the authority? What gives someone authority to speak about something? Do you have to have done a degree in it? You need to have worked in an area? And really what does lived experience mean? So in a way, you're kind of redefining why or how someone should be speaking in the public sphere. I know it's very different when it comes to art, but in a way, have you had to challenge some of the traditional assumptions about what's important art?
Chiu: I think one of the really interesting projects going on right now in some ways is the rewriting of history taking place in different voices. And so in a way that's, you know, that's arguing for being a part of the conversation, having a seat at the table. And so that's in a way, the tangible work that I see as still being needed and still being carried out and it was certainly one of the interests that I had in exhibitions such as the Nam June Paik exhibition at the Asia Society, or even the Yayoi Kusama exhibition that was at the Hirshhorn. These were voices, in a way, in the New York art world that for various reasons were not part of the retelling of 20th century history. There were all sorts of reasons why. They were both Asian, but there were other reasons also why they weren't included and that was primarily because they didn't fit into the movement, the various different art movements, they didn't fit neatly into a category. And I think that's what we talk about in terms of exclusionary practices. We need to be much more open about what it means to be an artist, to create compelling work and I think that this is a real moment within the art world today that is much more inclusive, not just of women artists and non-binary artists, but also artists from different cultural backgrounds. So we do see right now a great sense of openness, much more so than ever before and so in that sense, it's an incredibly exciting moment.
Baird: How have you gone about the process of encouraging and championing female artists?
Chiu: So in some ways, this is a process that is, just really about the doing. And I say that because, you know, it really is about always looking at and from the difference between, I think, for the museum folks and being a museum director as opposed to a curator. Is that the museum director is looking at the program, the slate of exhibitions in a holistic way. So we're looking at, okay, how do we tell a story, a narrative, or even take the pulse of this moment through a successive number of exhibitions. And so for me, that's what I've been most interested in. How can we be as inclusive as possible? In terms of women artists, but others, I mean, I curated the exhibition of Shirin Neshat work. It was the first exhibition within the first year of me joining the Hirshhorn, and it was an important exhibition not just because she's Iranian-American, but also because she was a woman. She's a woman and there were very few exhibitions given over to the scale of her exhibition that had happened previously [at a] museum. So that was an important thing for us. Each museum and each institution has its own, in a way, blind spots, and so a process of looking at that and trying to do the work. It's not easy to do something you haven't done before, so it does sometimes require not just patience, but also kind of, having in some ways, you know we talk about this, in a way it's kind of influence management. It's bringing people along with change, takes time.
Baird: Right, but if you've had such great success with that, can you reflect a little on that, on what you've learned from the public's reaction and enthusiasm for some of the exhibitions that you've curated?
Chiu: So if I think back to our kind of ground breaking year when we reflected on it received 1.2 million visitors, and in that year, we presented Yayoi Kusama and Ai Weiwei. As chance happens they're both Asian artists, which is great, but they were also artists that I had a strong belief in both of what they had to say. Very different messages, very different ways of working but both artists, I think, really had something important to say at that moment in time.
Baird: And so what was that?
Chiu: Well, I think for Ai Weiwei, we showed portraits of prisoners of political conscience. And that was at a moment when there was so much debate about freedom of speech. And Ai Weiwei is an artist who I had met many years ago in China and so we had a relationship already. I showed his photographs of the time that he spent in New York in the 1980s and that exhibition happened right when he was imprisoned in China. And so we had had a whole relationship over the years that was based on my study in China and research. But when it came to what was important in Washington at that moment in the nation's capital and on the National Mall, it was about issues around freedom of speech. And so that was a really important and very topical exhibition. And then for Yayoi Kusama, so interesting that she had to really wait until she was in her eighties to get recognition. And I often say that you just have to survive. You just have to survive until you are an octogenarian and then you'll, you know, the world will be your oyster. You know, she was gaining attention for her work already but it was the decision to focus on her infinity mirrored rooms that I think kind of really had a huge impact and was the infinity mirrored rooms that I had always wanted to do a show of them when I was at Asia Society and we never quite got to it. And so she was one of the first artists I visited when I went to the Hirshhorn, and we talked about this infinity room focus, because, before, we have to understand that even though there's such a sensation now, and social media has helped, there was a time when they were always thought of as the side line to her practice and not really significant. It was really her infinity net paintings that everyone loved and thought were her most important contribution to art history.
Baird: Tell us why they are so important?
Chiu: Because the infinity mirrored rooms are what I think are an encapsulation of what art can be today. So when she did the first one in 1965 in New York, called Phalli's Field, it was part sculpture, part installation, part performance, she was immersed in it. And I think for that reason it was always thought of as kind of, you know, what is that work? I guess it's an installation, but then she's in it, she records herself in it. You know, it's kind of a little bit like Nam June Paik's work as well, it defied categorisation and so it didn't sit neatly. And so everybody really thought the infinity net paintings, gorgeous as they are, they are the art historical record. So when we did the Hirshhorn exhibition and then sent it around North America on tour, it was also right at a moment when visitors began to really engage in social media and so that kind of confluence of a fully immersive artwork that also reflects the viewer, the viewer is a part of the artwork because of the mirrors that aligned with social media made it a kind of, you know, a social media phenomenon. We had 93 million engagements with the work. You wouldn't have had that ten or fifteen years ago, that just wouldn't have been possible. So it is, you know, and these artists were speaking to their time, which is something that we talk a lot about at the Hirshhorn. Our mission is to reflect the art of our time. So it is about finding the artworks or artists who we think are saying something significant about the moment that we are living in.
Baird: How do you do that? What is that like? I know your instincts come into play here, but capturing a zeitgeist is, so many people who attempt to do that are inevitably just behind it. You know, it's kind of like when parents find out about TikTok and their teenagers have been on it for like ten years. How do you do that?
Chiu: So the interesting thing about museum work is that we plan years in advance. So we planned exhibitions three, sometimes five years in advance. So in some ways, we're forecasting, especially for modern contemporary art. We're always thinking, okay, what artist is doing compelling, interesting work that we think will be even more interesting. So you're right in that a degree of the work is intuitive, but it's also looking at what we think, you know, basically it's about trying to be a little bit ahead of the curve rather than on the curve because you can't do that in museum work. And so it is trying to be a little bit ahead. You know, the time that I spent in New York really taught me that. We were a mid-size institution within a very large competitive ecology. And so, I used to say to our senior team, like, what can we do that nobody else can do? And so that often meant that we did really difficult exhibitions that a lot of people might not even touch because that was so hard.
Baird: Like what?
Chiu: Well, so for example, and they were often at the Asia Society, interestingly enough, the contemporary art exhibitions were kind of easier to organise. It was the traditional art exhibitions that we had to work really hard. And that's what I kind of, you know, I started to really get into the complexity and difficulty required to do them so yeah, I mean, it's great, you know, how do we make our lives harder? I really, really enjoyed saying, okay, what is the impossible show? You know, and it ranged from reuniting traditional artworks that had been separated by war or various reasons. I mean, one of the most notable is probably the exhibition that I did with Pakistan, which was a huge feat of cultural diplomacy. I learned that, because I was working on an exhibition of contemporary art from Pakistan, while I was there, I saw the work of this Gandhara period, third century material, which was just incredibly beautiful, aesthetic, but also told the story of Pakistan being a very different place in ancient time, a centre of Buddhist learning and education and peace. And it was also shown the bridge between the East and the West. So these were sculptures in stone, gorgeously carved, but somehow somewhat Eastern and Indian in their influence, but also Western and Greco-Roman. And so they were these extraordinary treasures in Lahore and Karachi from museums there that I thought that never left the country, when I started to talk to the museums and so to try to get permission for those objects to leave the country, to tell a very different story of Pakistan's history to Americans that were only used to really seeing Pakistan through the media lens of terrorism in a post-9/11 world. And so right when we were about to have the exhibition, Osama bin Laden was assassinated and there were lots of infighting between state powers and federal powers and even though the galleries sat empty for some months, I persisted with the negotiations and we finally got those works to the US right at a moment when US and Pakistan were at an all-time diplomatic row and we had help from everyone in Pakistan at the highest political levels, at the U.N. in New York and we made it happen. And that was a such an extraordinary kind of cultural moment for Americans and also the Pakistanis who had helped. I still look back and think that was something that will probably never happen again. That really I mean, it was so hard.
Baird: Speaking of very complex challenges you like to set yourself.
Chiu: Well, you have to continue to grow in these jobs. So partly it was about also having a bigger goal. You know, this idea of how can art or an art exhibition help people to see the world differently? Help change people's minds. You know, these are the kind of bigger goals of the museum work.
Baird: So how do you think about that? Now, with reference to diplomatic tensions and Chinese art, for example, there's a lot of anxiety and trepidation and chest beating and misunderstandings about China at the moment, concerns about human rights abuses, but also often very two-dimensional characterisations of what it is to the history and culture of China. So how do you view that tension?
Chiu: Right now it feels somewhat for the first time as if we're truly in the 21st century. And in a way, COVID may well have been that marker in the same way that World War One and World War Two were the markers of the 20th century. You know, we are now in a fully digital world. We can do things like this, where we are interconnected, you know, and it just looks and feels very different. And I think it would be a mistake for us to think that things will just simply continue as they did in the 20th century. And part of that conversation is about understanding that things are changing geopolitically as well. And a lot of my work within art has been with China. In fact, whether it was during my Ph.D. on the Chinese contemporary art scene that emerged in, you know, in the 1980s. Whether it was taking a group of American museum directors to China to meet with their colleagues in a series of convenes, conversations and publications. And what was distinct about them was that there was a desire for conversation, there was desire to learn, there was a desire for conversation. And I think there is right now a real caution, on both of our sides, that is the inside and outside of China. There's a real caution because of us feeling like the status quo is not the status quo anymore. And so the hope is that all of that cultural dialogue that happened before, all of our connections with one another. The hope is that that is not lost because COVID, I think, has been a real rupture in the communications between those inside and outside China. And so I think with all of the work that's been done over the years, the hope is that it leads to more collaboration and more understanding. I think one of the things that was very apparent before was that many people in China feel like this is the moment for China, that this is the moment of great pride. As opposed to their feelings for the last hundred years or so, longer. So I think it is only by understanding their point of view that we will really come at greater collaboration and understanding. I think it's a difficult moment for diplomatic relations all around.
Baird: Very. Is this something that you're hoping to do through art?
Chiu: You know, I think art can always play a role in creating more understanding between different people and different cultures. So that would always be a hope. I've done so much work with Chinese artists over the decades and so I think the idea is that we want to do more, we want to see more, and hopefully we can build a better understanding that goes both ways, not just one way.
Baird: Because you would probably be very conscious of the some of the potential impacts for dissident artists, right?
Chiu: Yes. You know, I've worked a lot with artists who were in the 1980s and 1990s considered dissidents. And the interesting part about that was that they kind of became then incorporated into universities, art schools, galleries, museums. There was less of a us and them approach over the last few years. So now, however, I think it's becoming stricter. So we'll see, it's hard to know because the communication between China and the outside world has not been the same with COVID. Everyone has been in lockdown and so communication is also in lockdown.
Baird: So art is very much about ideas and I think a lot of people listening to right now will be fascinated by your intuition about which ideas will be important in two, five, ten years time. Can you tell us what some of the ideas you're grappling with now?
Chiu: So your question is an interesting one because in some ways it's the idea itself that has become important.
Baird: Right. Okay.
Chiu: More so than the medium or the materials. I think of an artist like Marcel Duchamp. And it was 100 years ago that he had a little glass flask that he closed up and said that there was air inside and that was the artwork. Or another work known as a readymade called The Fountain, which was really a urinal. Those acts were so radical in their time that their impact is still being felt. But he is probably one of the most influential artists for this moment because he said that art is what I say it is. It is the idea. It is not the fact that somebody else made this work and I went to the supermarket and bought it. But that's not important that I didn't make it. It's important that I say that it's art and it is the idea that is central. And I think at this moment in time, that is at the crux of our understanding of not just where artists are today, but also I would hesitate to say, even society in the 21st century, it is the idea more than the tangible thing. And I often use this when we think of the transition from 20th to 21st century, often use this analogy of where once we stored our paper files in a filing cabinet with a lock you could go to any time. Now, when we work, we store our files in the cloud. We don't know where the cloud is, who really owns it and really how to get our stuff back when we need it. So in some ways that demonstrates this kind of shift in a way from the physical to the digital or the tangible to the intangible. And I think when we are looking at what it means to make art in this moment. It's not just about new technology, it's actually about how the idea comes about. It's more than the material that the artist uses to make the artwork in. And so these are kind of the big issues that we grapple with in the contemporary art world today.
Baird: Do you think that's going to become more the case? Where do we go from here with that concept?
Chiu: I always remember growing up, there was a big debate about video killing film. It was like, oh, nobody's ever going to want to go to the cinema again. Now you can stay at home and watch a video. I think for museums, we know that the real life experience, an encounter with an art object, becomes perhaps even more important as our lives become increasingly digital. So I think that's in a way the interest for museums and art. Art is that physical encounter, that physical, real life experience. Now, it's true to say that more and more of what we do in the contemporary art world does involve technology and might involve video art, it maybe even be NFTs, but we do know that art is as relevant today as it ever was before. I always remind people that actually it's art that survives. Art survives. If we think of the great ancient civilizations, it's really the art and architecture that survives that tells us about that society. And so when we think about that, it's an extraordinary moment to be in this kind of museum world in the contemporary art world, because we see artists create work that is not just responsive to our time, but also sometimes even predictive.
Baird: That idea of art and artists as futuristic as something we do, we don't really think about actually. So unfortunately, we're almost out of time. I could talk to you all day, but can you just say in honour of Betty Churcher and this oration, what do you have to say about the place that women artists have in the art world and how we're changing our thinking around that?
Chiu: So firstly I'd say that Betty Churcher was an extraordinary woman. She led the National Gallery at a moment where there were no other women in leadership positions of that type. To be the first, requires a lot. So I wanted to recognise that and her importance to the field. In terms of recognising women artists in our work, I think for us it's about creating both an historical appreciation, meaning for us to go back and to rewrite the art history that was exclusionary. That's one part of the project. The other part of the project is the present, the work that we need to do to recognise not just the voices of women but also others that have different points of view. We are at an extraordinary, kind of, open transparent moment, so how can we be a part of that? That's what I'm most interested in.
Baird: Oh, you're amazing. Dr. Chiu, thank you so much for talking to us today. We so appreciate it. All right, Dr. Melissa Chiu has left us with that fundamental question of how can we be part of it? How can we be part of supporting, encouraging, understanding, listening to the provocation of a diverse range of artists and the work they produce and what we hope will be a creative kind of blooming that's come out of the COVID era. I think it's astonishing to think about art being an idea. It's astonishing to think about art predicting a future. And I guess the question for so many of us is whether or not we're listening well enough.
And on that note, I just want to thank you for your time today. And thank you so much, Dr Chiu.