While the international success of Australian artists has become commonplace, it's much rarer to encounter a writer/curator making their mark in the rarefied circles of the international contemporary art scene. Which is what makes Sydney-born's Jonathan Turner Continental presence so noteworthy. Turner, working out of Rome and Amsterdam, has since the early 1980s curated more than 100 solo and group exhibitions in museums and galleries in Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, the U.S., Thailand, Macau, Australia, New Zealand. He recently won the prestigious Premio A.B.O., awarded annually to the most influential critic/curator in Italian contemporary art and beyond. Previous recipients have included Rome's current Mayor Walter Veltroni, artists Joseph Kosuth and Enzo Cucchi, English collector Alex Sainsbury, and Danilo Eccher, director of Rome's Museum of Contemporary Art.
"Although it is just an ugly piece of metal, it is in solid silver," Turner quipped in an interview with Australian Art Collector on his rooftop terrace in central Rome. "They even bottle a special wine for the event." The award is named for its patron, Achille Bonito Oliva, director of the 1993 Venice Biennale and best known for single-handedly promoting the influential Italian contemporary movements, Ipermanierismo (Hypermannerism) and transavanguardia, (Trans-avantgarde). Turner first worked with Oliva in Venice in '93 when Turner was on the selection committee of Aperto, the section at Venice dedicated to emerging international talent which that year featured a young Sydney artist, Hany Armanious. Turner considers Oliva "one of the most brilliant, fascinating, charming, and also irritating men you are likely to meet. He was extremely important figure in Italian and European contemporary art in the 1960s and 1970s and invented, the Italian version of neo-expressionism. He identified it, he put it together, and basically proposed a completely different view of what Italian art was considered at the time, which was the arte povera, championed by Germano Celant."
Turner triangulates his time between Rome, Sydney and Amsterdam: "I've put on Italian and Australian shows in Holland as well as Dutch shows in Italy and so on." The author of scores of artists' monographs, he writes widely on European contemporary art for titles like ART + Auction and Flash Art, and has been the Rome correspondent for US magazine Artnews for more than 20 years. In Rome he has been a driving force behind the annual contemporary art fair RIPA and has had a long relationship with Il Ponte Contemporanea, Rome's leading contemporary commercial gallery, where in 2005 Turner curated and an all-Australian group show that featured Tracey Moffatt, Maree Azzopardi, Paul Ferman and others. Turner has also curated shows in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, mainly the Nederlands, for Australians Patricia Piccinini, John McRae, William Yang. In Australia he is probably best known for bringing a touring exhibition of iconic French art photographers Pierre et Gilles to Sydney and Melbourne in 1995. "I work a lot with Roslyn Oxley, Martin Browne and Robin Gibson in Sydney and with Tolarno in Melbourne and Libby Edwards." In the summer of 2007 Turner returned to Australia to curate solo shows for Azzopardi and Ferman.
However it's his internationalist approach that earned him the ABO. "I only work with artists whose work I appreciate. There are a lot artists, both Australian and otherwise, who I've been working with for more than 20 years … I'm not Italian, but I also don't view myself or my work as being a national representative of anything. And again, even though I've lived in Rome for more than twenty years now, I've returned every year to Australia to work - and I feel 'at home' wherever I am."
In this era of the touring blockbuster, Turner believes the independent contemporary art scene has adjusted well by "moving beyond elitism and is thriving. I'm seeing more private philanthropists than I did before, and more collectors and patrons are taking up the role of developing artists that business used to occupy more. I used to work a lot more with business, I'm not now. The corporations that are breaking up collections that they have spent years putting together are very ill-advised."
Turner's criteria for working with collectors: "Anyone with passion is perfect. A good collector tends to have such a strong vision of what they want and like that it's a pleasure to work with them. A collector is never wrong, just like an artist is never wrong." His approach to curating revolves around the demands of the space: "I only organize shows when I know exactly where it is going to be seen. I don't attempt to helicopter a show in, and say here it is, fit it in however you can. Each show must be tailored to the space it will be shown in. You don't try to pander to a particular taste and neither would you pretend that you're so fabulous that people must accept it from on high."
Turner eschews any adoption of a general philosophy of curating: "It can be ad-hoc. Artists tend to need help. And if I think they have talent and I like their work, then if I can help them I do. I'm a bit like a one-man Ministry of Culture." Meanwhile, the art life beckons and our interview ends: "I have to rush, I am going at midday to see two newly restored paintings by Caravaggio, which will be nice for the soul, since both are owned privately, and neither I have seen before."
First published in
Australian Art Collector
No.40, April 2007