The survey was part of a research project funded by the Australian Research Council. It was administered to a nationally representative sample of 1,202 Australians in the first half of 2015. This number has been boosted by a boost sample for Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Italian, Lebanese and Chinese Australians.
The survey asked a wide range of questions about the tastes of Australian and foreign artists. It also included questions that probed preferences for art and museums of different types. The survey also included similar questions about the tastes of television shows and media personalities, music, literature, sports, and heritage pursuits.
The survey examines these cultural activities and tastes as part of a larger inquiry that explores how social patterns have changed in Australia since the 1994 landmark cultural policy statement Creative Nation.
In this wider context, Roberts’ works unite more tastes than those of other Australian painters. However, the majority of Australians are unaware of his work, and the tastes and preferences of those who like it reflect the usual divisions in Australian society: age, education level, social class, ethnicity, etc.
Tom Roberts, 1888-1890. The National Gallery of Art.
Tom Roberts is a name that everyone knows.
They are more likely to have heard of Ken Done, Sidney Nolan, Albert Namatjira, and Brett Whiteley than Tom Roberts (Table 1). Table 1 shows that they are more likely to know Ken Done, Sidney Nolan, Albert Namatjira, and Brett Whiteley.
Roberts is more familiar to women, with 41% of them having heard of him compared to only 32% of the men. Women and men are more or less equally fond of his work.
The age of those who know Roberts is more divisive. Only 13% of people under 25 have heard of him, while 60% of over 60s do. Only 25% of those under 25 who are familiar with Roberts’ work like it, while 85% of over-60s do.
Roberts’ popularity is also divided by Australians according to their level of education. Roberts is not well-known among Australians with only secondary education – only 20% of them – but he’s more popular with those who have university degrees and postgraduate qualifications (52%).
Roberts is only known by 29% of people who identify themselves as working class, 39% of middle class and 48% upper middle class.
Break away! Tom Roberts 1891. The National Gallery of Art.
Roberts’ works are liked by most people, regardless of their education level and class identity. However, it is less popular with those who identify themselves as being working-class.
If you’re Lebanese or Chinese, Roberts may not have been on your radar. Only 13% and 11%, respectively, of Chinese Australians and Lebanese Australians were aware of Roberts. Of those, only 10% and 7% had seen his work.
Only 8% had heard about Roberts, and none of them had seen his work or liked it. Italian Australians are more likely to have heard of Roberts (26%) as well as seen his work (16%).
The sample of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was a significant portion of 28%, and 20% of them had seen his work and liked it.
What does it mean?
The survey results alone cannot explain the differences in tastes. Our findings are consistent with the broader trends in Australia and around the world of people with higher education and social class participating in more visual arts.
Roberts’ relative lack of popularity amongst the ethnic groups we surveyed could be due to a lack familiarity of his work by newer Australians, or perhaps a disinterest for an artist that, while he may have been an iconic painter, was also a painter who fought and fought for White Australia.
Roberts was a prominent member of the Heidelberg School in the late 19th century. He also played an important role in making bush attractive to white Australians by controversially painting Aboriginals and their culture away from it.
The survey found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders prefer Namatjira’s work. Roberts, meanwhile, is only slightly behind in terms of popularity (77.3% to 76.7%) as the artist who has been most admired by those who have seen the work.
Tom Roberts, 1888. Holiday sketch at Coogee. The National Gallery of Australia.
Roberts’s choice to celebrate a major rehang at the NGA is a good one. It’s still a great choice, as his work is not met with much negativity by those who see it, unlike that of some other Australian icons, such as Whiteley and Nolan.
Whitely, Nolan and Done were disliked by 23% of respondents and 11% by the other participants.
It is less obvious how Roberts’ choice is a good one at a moment when Australia’s national institutions are supposed to reflect the increasing complexity of its multiculturalism.
How the exhibition is curated and how it relates to the new arrangement in the Australian collection will be key. There are reasons to be optimistic, given the important role that the NGA played in redefining Australian Art through its recognition and celebration of Indigenous art.
Roberts, although not my favorite painter, is interesting and I am looking forward to the new light that this exhibition will shed on Roberts’ role in Australian visual culture.