Two new shows can’t paper over the cracks of ABC TV’s coverage of the arts

For too long, it’s looked as though the ABC has been afraid of the arts. Over the years, Aunty has marginalised and axed arts programs, shunting them off its main channel or consigning them to obscure timeslots, like 10pm Tuesdays. Early in 2021, The Mix, which ran unheralded for seven years on ABC News, was quietly retired.

The short-lived Art Nation was terminated in 2011 and we’re now a long way from the days when magazine-style overviews such as Express and Review occupied prime-time slots, and when Sunday Afternoon offered hours of interviews, documentaries, films and feature stories. More recently, whenever the ABC has produced arts programs, its discomfort has been evident. One indication of a lack of confidence has been the push to insert comedians at any opportunity. It’s as if the operative thinking is that, unless attention to books, film, theatre, visual arts, opera and music comes with a few laughs, no one will be interested.

Arts coverage is seen as an eat-your-veggies undertaking that viewers must be baited into consuming. So with Anh Do, Aunty struck gold: a comedian who can paint and interview. Bingo, win-win for Anh’s Brush With Fame.

Arts coverage is seen as an eat-your-veggies undertaking that viewers must be baited into consuming. So with Anh Do (pictured with Archie Roach), Aunty struck gold; a comedian who can paint.Credit:ABC

With that in mind, remember Critical Mass, Vulture, Mondo Thingo or Screen Time? There’s a good reason why you might not: they were deservedly brief embarrassments as the ABC attempted to apply an upbeat spin to an area it has been reluctant to tackle without gimmickry. Meanwhile, proven programs with dedicated audiences – The Book Club, At the Movies – were axed and not replaced.

It’s an unedifying history. The national broadcaster should have a flagship arts program as prominent and enduring to this vital area as Four Corners is to its current-affairs line-up.

May saw the launch of the magazine-style Art Works (ABC Plus, Wednesday, 8.30pm), hosted by Nabila Benson. Now comes the three-part Finding the Archibald (ABC, Tuesday, 8.30pm), presented by Rachel Griffiths, which suggests, among other things, that actresses might have become the new comedians. An upcoming book show will be hosted by Claudia Karvan; another on country music will be presented by Justine Clarke.

The series about “the Archie” arrives in the popular prize’s centenary year. Producer, writer and director Griffiths endeavours to establish her cred as host by telling us that she is the daughter of an art teacher and the wife of a painter, as well as “an actor who’s spent her whole life trying to understand the human condition”.

Apparently, a survey of the Archibald’s history and consideration of what it might reflect about our country isn’t sufficient: the production requires some tricking up. So Griffiths embarks on a mission to select a single portrait that she believes “captures the changing face of Australia and will stand the test of time”.

She interviews a range of artists who have submitted portraits to the prize, as well as people who have posed for them, and ponders the question of what makes a great portrait. She also poses for one herself.

Meanwhile, the series also follows Natalie Wilson as she curates an exhibition of 100 portraits to accompany the NSW Art Gallery’s display of this year’s entrants. Her search involves thousands of emails sent in an effort to locate past Archibald entries. Fortunately, Sherlock Griffiths is on hand to help her find the one of Molly Meldrum, which is hanging in the first place that anyone might look for it: his house.

Actor and presenter Rachel Griffiths, Nick Stathopoulos and Deng Adut in Finding The Archibald.Credit:ABC

Despite the extraneous bells and whistles, Finding the Archibald is an illuminating study, although it would benefit from fewer shots of the host striding purposefully towards her next interview, a linking device that’s a frequent irritation in ABC non-fiction productions.

Tucked away on a digital channel and produced on a more modest budget, Art Works is a magazine-style show featuring segments about a variety of local practitioners. It’s been green-lighted for 35 episodes, which indicates a degree of commitment from Aunty. The program showcases an array of creative talent, with a focus on Indigenous, ethnic minority and female artists.

Benson, who favours striking turquoise lipstick and imposing earrings, is a warmly appreciative interviewer, and the most successful segments see her with artists, discussing their methods and influences. Among the notable stories have been a profile of Australian-South Sudanese photographer Atong Atem, a chat with filmmaker Josef Gatti and science consultant Dr Niraj Lal about Phenomena, their series of short films, and an account of a light show on the sails of the Sydney Opera House featuring the work of Indigenous female artists.

The ABC has commissioned 35 half-hour episodes of Art Works, presented by Namila Benson, which is tucked away on Wednesday nights on TV Plus.Credit:ABC

Art Works is less satisfying when it endeavours to jazz up its segments. Like sending a couple on a blind date to the Museum of Contemporary Art and following their progress, suggesting that the MCA on its own isn’t worth a story. Or engaging queer activist, stylist and content creator Deni Todorovic to cover the Mary Quant exhibition at the Bendigo Art Gallery. The segment became an opportunity for Todorovic to discuss their coming out as non-binary and to enthuse about which clothes on display they’d happily take home. Less time was spent considering Quant’s revolutionary impact on fashion, the styles that she pioneered for women and the freedom they represented, or the quality of the exhibition itself.

Overall, it’s heartening to see the ABC continuing to try to venture into what it has regarded as problematic territory. Our country is blessed with a wealth of talented practitioners across an array of disciplines. They need and deserve a national TV spotlight. Rather than regarding the area with apprehension, the ABC should be enthusiastically embracing it.

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