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"I?d rather take Methadone than Ken Done": Branding Sydney in the 1980s

Susie Khamis


From tourist bureaus and urban developers to the Bicentennial Authority and the ALP, there was a short period in the 1980s when the image of "Ken Done?s" Sydney was both economically viable and culturally resonant. His signature motif of the Sydney Harbour Bridge ? "a riot of dashing colours and blunt brush strokes" (Gibson and Connell 2001:292) ? became so widely reproduced that, in some circles, it came to signify more than just Done?s style. It became a metonym for Australia itself, portraying the brash optimism and hedonism of the 1980s. However, as a recent advertising campaign suggests, this image of Sydney had a finite appeal, convenient only to the extent that Done?s particular association with Sydney had currency. An examination of this period thus reveals two things: that Sydney exists as a concept as much as a place, and is therefore elastic enough to inspire any number of ideals and attributes; and that, in turn, these ideals and attributes compete in a marketplace of sorts, valued in accordance with market interests and connotative effects. This paper will apply these observations to a discussion of Done?s work, both how it constituted Sydney, and how it was then appropriated by those that had vested interests in the image(s) of Sydney. In short, this paper will consider this aspect of Done?s work in order to demonstrate the politics of image management.

See Australia (not just Sydney)

In 2004 the Australian Tourist Commission (ATC) launched "See Australia", a $360 million global tourism campaign. According to Federal Tourism minister Joe Hockey, the initiative was part of a major effort to re-brand Australia?s image, both domestically and overseas. Eschewing the postcard dioramas of old, particularly those that tended to foreground Sydney scenes to the virtual exclusion of anything else, this campaign flagged a rethinking of how Australia is marketed. After decades of a decidedly Sydney-centric approach, the campaign played with convention, and one of the results was an evolution of Sydney?s place within the ATC?s grand design.

Central to the initiative were six, one-minute television advertisements that featured prominent identities, including Delta Goodrem, Jonathan Coleman and Richie Benaud. As the first major venture of its kind in over a decade, the campaign had a lot banking on its success. In Australia, tourism is a $70 billion industry, accounts for around 5 per cent of the national GDP, and employs some 500 000 Australians. If nothing else, the advertisements aimed to reinvigorate this sector in the wake of both international catastrophes (like September 11, SARS and the Bali bombings), as well as what has been considered a protracted spell of industry complacency.

Of course, Sydney did appear in the campaign, in the form of Brett Whiteley?s The Jacaranda Tree (on Sydney Harbour), which morphed into a 30 second piece of animation for the advertisement. The voice-over was recorded in London by British talk-show host Michael Parkinson. Wendy Whiteley, the late artist?s former wife who controls the copyright to the painting, agreed to its use (gratis) once she was convinced the ATC was committed to "a more refined image" of Australia (Denis and Lee, 2004:2). So, as the first major attempt to re-brand Australia, the question becomes: more refined than what? Since branding is about allusions and associations, it is clear that Whiteley?s Lavender Bay view of Sydney suits the ATC?s contemporary image of Australian tourism. What this article will consider, then, is how and why Sydney artist Ken Done, who received an Order of Australia in 1992 for services to Art and Design as well as to the Tourist Industry, does not suit this image.

Tellingly, the ATC dubbed this project Brand Australia, coopting the broad, trans-cultural shift towards the branding of products, people and places. Branding involves marketing goods, services, experiences and identities in a way that prioritises elusive, intangible associations, rather than specific, graspable properties. The $4 million advertisements, to be screened over the next four years, were just one component of this vision. Brand Australia builds on trends in marketing and promotion, as well as the findings and recommendations of the Federal Government?s White Paper on Tourism, tabled in late 2003. While traditional selling concentrates on what a commodity is, branding focuses primarily on what a commodity means. In turn, the ATC consulted a range of organizations on what Australia meant to them, including Fosters, R. M. Williams, Penfolds and the Australia Council for the Arts. Their advice informed the See Australia campaign, and saw hackneyed images of beaches and barbeques replaced by the "more nuanced" contributions of Les Murray and Barbara Weir.

The campaign emphasised history and culture, not cookie-cutter clichés. According to the ATC?s managing director, Ken Boundy, the advertisements were attuned to the needs of contemporary travellers: "People want more than just time off ? holidays are seen as an opportunity for self-development. These ads tap into this and present a picture of Australia that appeals to the heart, as well as the mind" (quoted in Morley, 2004:11). This stance accommodates and caters to a relatively recent trend in international tourism, the rise of what Jennifer Craik calls the "postmodern tourist", a seasoned traveller who is "a more sophisticated beast than her/his predecessor", and after a more holistic, enriching travel experience (2001:97-98). So, whereas previous campaigns spotlighted landmarks like Sydney?s Harbour Bridge and Opera House, the See Australia campaign, filmed in all the states and territories, spoke of food, wine, and poetry, and not always from the most obvious sources. Instead of Paul Hogan and Ken Done, for example, the campaign involved Michael Parkinson and Brett Whiteley.

The differences are considerable, between both Hogan and Parkinson, as well as Done and Whiteley. As this article will show, such identities can be analysed in terms of cultural significance, or the extent to which they symbolise and reflect larger developments and themes. Indeed, it will be argued here that the significance and success of Sydney artist Ken Done, in particular, belongs to a distinct moment in Australia?s recent history. The campaign?s use of Whiteley rather than Done suggests a more widespread reticence to embrace either the art of Done, much of which figured Sydney Harbour prominently and proudly, nor the image Done had created of Australia generally, and Sydney specifically.

Done?s Dilemma

Throughout the 1980s, Done?s signature style effectively sold Sydney to the rest of the world, with his designs migrating profitably from canvases and screen prints to tea-towels, bedspreads, pencil sharpeners, and much more. For over a decade, Done was closely identified with Sydney, if not Australian art. In many ways, his career trajectory can illustrate key themes in Sydney?s recent history, and the branding and subsequent re-branding of Sydney and Australia can be read off his cultural biography. From the brash and bold optimism of the 1980s to the quieter confidence of a global city, perceptions of Done have paralleled perceptions of (t)his city. So, as the ATC looks to reposition Sydney within its larger plan for Australian tourism, it becomes apparent that Done?s contribution has had its day. This article will track this decline, and consider its implications.

Just as The Jacaranda Tree celebrates Whiteley?s harbour view from Lavender Bay, the similarly privileged perspective from Chinaman?s Beach informs a lot of Done?s oeuvre. In the various catalogues, guides and exhibitions devoted to his work, the Sydney beach is by far the most recurring motif. Moreover, it is a motif that has generated considerable wealth for Done. Since the mid 1980s, Done has enjoyed the sort of fame, wealth and influence that eludes most living artists, particularly Australian ones. In 1987, Done could boast an annual turnover of $4 million, with 40 employees (Nicklin, 1987:56). By 1994, that had ballooned to $50 million per annum, with 160 employees. (Chenery, 1994:5) Still, the means by which Done eventually made BRW?s annual rich list are hardly conventional. Put simply, Done straddled the dangerous divide between art and commerce, treading the latter ever more noticeably as his profile grew.

To see how this connection soured, how Done?s version of Sydney eventually became almost antithetical to the image the current ATC aspires to, it is worth canvassing the attributes and ideals that Done had championed so publicly. In turn, it will be suggested that these connotations are no longer compatible with the picture the ATC hopes to draw of Australia generally, and Sydney specifically.

When Done entered the art world, his two decades in advertising inspired the perfect marketing kick. In 1980, Done held his first solo exhibition at the Art Director?s Gallery in North Sydney. To promote the event, Done painted a dozen Sydney Harbour T-shirts for the press. This cheerfully naïve rendering would become Done?s most famous contribution to Sydney art. With stunning prescience, the T-shirts effectively forged Done?s career-long marriage of merchandise and art. His work would later appear in exhibits, galleries and museums, with themes as diverse as Aboriginal land rights, filial love, and the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, it was the Sydney Harbour T-shirts that both stamped Done?s style onto the public imagination, and set Done apart ? seemingly irreversibly ? from the "proper" art scene.

Arguably, the extent to which Done "trademarked" Sydney Harbour, integrating its image into that of his own, can be largely attributed to his business acumen. For Done, the "Art to Wear" concept allowed for the progressive, liberating transcendence of barriers and distinctions, away from the elitism of gallery spaces to the egalitarianism of average households. Before long, Australian households did welcome this ostensibly down-to-earth approach and Done became one of the most recognised identities from the Australian art community, albeit one largely ignored (if not outright dismissed) by it.

Backing A Winner

From the early to mid "80s, Done?s sunny, nouveau-folk style made Australia seem hip" (Nicklin:59). The Ken Done brand was widely perceived as integral to the appeal and singularity of Sydney. In 1988, for example, the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority (SCRA) orchestrated a facelift for The Rocks, to boost the area?s tourist traffic. The Ken Done outlet, at 123-125 George Street, was one of the chief beneficiaries (Iffland, 1988:33) Clearly, authorities prioritised the brand within Sydney?s burgeoning tourist drive, and this move was only encouraged by Done?s numerous commercial ventures. Done?s art sustained an unabashedly commercial streak, with his designs decorating items as diverse as swimwear and beach-towels to umbrellas and calendars.

Against the chorus of complaints that questioned Done?s easy slide from art to enterprise, Done replied, "if Van Gogh were alive today he would probably have a line of sunflower hats" (quoted in Bagnall, 1993:29). From 1987, Judy Done, the artist?s wife, assumed control of the in-house product design. By Done?s own logic, his wife was simply finding new canvases for his original work, multiplying the exposure, but not undermining the art. As Done once explained, pointing to some bright frangipanis in one of his paintings, "This could be used as a piece of fabric to go on a piece of bathing suit. It?s something else. Right? Matisse used to do this, Dufy used to do this, Picasso used to do this. It?s just that sometimes Australians seem to have a problem handling that" (quoted in Adamson, 1994:6).

Celebration of A Nation

When Australia celebrated its Bicentenary in 1988, Done?s bright, simple designs could be seen just about everywhere. Indeed, Australians were first told of the "Celebration Of A Nation" in July 1987 through big budget advertising campaign, which urged Australians to "make it great in ?88". Like the See Australia campaign, these advertisements relied on famous personalities, including Bill Peach, Jeannie Little and Ken Done. Unlike the understated sophistication of the See Australia advertisements, though, the Bicentennial campaign relied on the type of jingoistic kitsch that Delta et al were asked to avoid. The Australian Bicentennial Authority (ABA) was cautious of politicising the event by either sidelining or highlighting marginal voices, so it adopted a strategy of "tactical pluralism", with Asian, Middle Eastern and Aboriginal faces in the advertisements (Willis, 1993:178) Whilst the campaign was not without its critics, with some calling it "Americanised caterwauling" and "utterly shallow", the ABA?s marketing director, Catherine Retter insisted it was nonetheless a popular success: "We produced cassette tapes and sheet music of the advertising jingle to meet public demand, particularly from school children, school bands and orchestras. It seemed to be the hit singalong on school excursions and holiday camps" (quoted in O?Brien, 1991:125).

At this juncture Done?s image peaked in Australia. With the ABA promoting the Bicentenary as a year-long party, Done?s feel-good designs provided a suitable backdrop. It was the point at which Done?s ascent met the national mood with perfect symmetry. In that year, for example, the department store Grace Bros listed "Ken Done accessories" among its top 15 best-selling items (alongside the Ryobi cordless screwdriver and Thomas the Tank Engine T-shirts). That is, Done?s designs, most of which foreground Sydney Harbour in some way, had a strong retail resonance. Clearly, Done?s style both contributed to and benefited from the mountain of Bicentennial memorabilia. In some cases, the ABA employed Done?s services for particular items and occasions; often, though, other designers drew liberally from the Done style. Either way, 1988 saw the almost panoramic influence of the Done brand.

On another level, the light-hearted optimism of Done?s designs was a fitting reflection of the ABA?s apolitical stance. In the lead-up to the "party", the ABA had, under the leadership of Jim Kirk, virtually stifled critical and ideological debate within its organization; in turn, and not surprisingly, the ABA did not direct its energies towards encouraging Australians to reflect too deeply on the nation?s history (Spearritt, 1988:13). So, whilst the theme "Celebration of A Nation" was an open invitation to all Australians, it short-circuited complex, problematic questions of history, culture and identity. To muster support, the ABA called on those symbols that were not too closely identified with particular interest groups, of any persuasion ? like Done. As Peter Cochrane and David Goodman explain, "the incorporationist strategy of the ABA does not seek consensus, merely inclusion, does not seek statement, merely representation" (1988:44).

Effectively, Done?s bright designs of a happy and relaxed Sydney can be read as silk-screened interpretations of this vision. That is not to say that Done?s work did not deserve deep contemplation, nor that Done did not explore larger or more subtle questions. Rather, it is to suggest that the image Done had cultivated in the 1980s was one that harmonised quite effectively with the interests and assumptions of the "incorporationist" ABA. In 1985, for example, Done confessed to the The Bulletin, "Someone said to me ?Why don?t you paint the darker side of life?? But I like frangipanis. Optimism is not necessarily shallow" (quoted in Neller, 1985:57). A few years later, in 1988, this was exactly the sort of cheery confidence the ABA hoped to inspire and parade. In her overview of Done?s graphic design, arts curator Anne-Marie van de Ven saw this type of joyful parochialism in Done?s AUSTRALIA sculpture. This was Done?s contribution to the Australian Pavilion at World Expo 88, one of the ABA?s most ambitious projects. A fusion of readily identifiable signs, Done?s sculpture was a succinct summary of both his broad Australianism, as well as the ABA?s objectives, with its "Southern Cross, smiling sun, palm tree, water, and patterns borrowed from Aboriginal art" (1994:28-29).

Certainly, many of the cultural productions from the nation?s Bicentenary, including Done?s work, have since been heavily criticised. Often, as Graeme Turner notes in Making It National, this critique "laments an opportunity lost ? that of redressing international misconceptions of Australian culture" (1994:75). Whilst this is a valid point, for the sake of brevity and pertinence its implications will not be considered here. Suffice to say, though, that the success and significance of Ken Done need not be measured or interrogated against overarching conceptions of "true" representations or "better" pursuits (that is, that a "better" Australian artist would have used the Bicentenary to negotiate political or cultural concerns). Indeed, it will be argued here that the Done brand did, for a while, convey nationalist sentiments and political aspirations, to the extent that Done?s commercial success boosted both the nation?s mood and governments? objectives.

What is at stake is not so much the merit or purpose of Done?s work, which would necessarily summons value judgements and politicised perspectives. Rather, what needs to be seen are the criteria by which the Done brand was received, mediated and contextualised. What this does is shift the analytical focus away from questions of art and commerce to those of interest groups and localised concerns. In turn, what need to be seen is how these have either meshed or clashed with Done?s interests and concerns.

80s Opportunism

The Bicentennial year was the highest point of Done?s domestic appeal, sealing almost a decade of home-crowd support. On several fronts, it was the perfect moment for just such a brand. As has been extensively documented elsewhere, the 1980s saw a general rise in national consciousness, due to a range of trends and developments. From the major Australian sporting successes of 1983 (Davis Cup and America?s Cup), to successes in Australian television and cinema (such as The Man from Snowy River, Bodyline, Crocodile Dundee and Neighbours), and the international success of rock bands like Men At Work and INXS, the 1980s bracketed a list of Australian triumphs. In turn, the Celebration of A Nation drew from, as well as added to, Australians? growing interest in Australia itself (Alomes and Jones, 1991:386). Anything or anyone associated with this party was duly rewarded.

Besides Bicentennial pride, Done also benefited from the internationalist tenor of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). In the 1980s the Australian economy was opened up to world market pressures. With the fall in world prices for raw materials, Australia?s fiscal vulnerabilities were highlighted by Treasurer Paul Keating. In 1986 he infamously warned the nation that it risked becoming a "banana republic" unless it improved its export record. Accordingly, the Federal Government backed the Advance Australia and Australian Made campaigns, which tried to mobilise support for local industries, manufacturers and designers. In these campaigns, the government reconfigured the economic openness of the deregulated economy as an entrepreneurial opportunity, and a metaphoric invitation to cultural openness. As David Goodman explains, Australia?s globalised economy was, in terms of bureaucratic rhetoric, the screen upon which a burgeoning Australian independence could be projected and glorified: "The floating of the Australian dollar in the mid 1980s was a key symbolic moment in this opening of the boundaries of the nation" (1992:193).

Obviously, labels that boasted a strong international appeal were particularly favoured in this context. In a 1986 sourcebook of some of these export successes, Made in Australia, it is clear from the "Introduction", written by the ALP?s Barry Jones, that certain brands were considered springboards to a more sophisticated and assured national identity. Jones writes, "Many of our producers have already reached this level of domestic and international confidence but many more can if Australia continues to foster its brains and dispel destructive feelings of mediocrity" (1996:9). Jones made the link between cultural maturity and economic buoyancy, and urged readers and manufacturers to do the same.

To illustrate the point, the sourcebook featured exemplars like Driza-bone coats, Jenny Kee knits, and Ken Done?s Sydney Harbour designs. In this way, Done?s success was seamlessly incorporated into the government?s attempt to push both Sydney and Australia as economically viable options in an increasingly deregulated marketplace. Done?s bright, bold statements seemed to enact and embody the confidence and self-sufficiency that Jones required of competitive Australians. As Mark Day suggests in Pulse of the Nation, "His sunny, simple, exuberant art seemed to radiate the essence of modern Australia" (1999:166). Like-minded, outward-looking Australians were encouraged to admire and emulate this sensibility. Effectively, government authorities were imbuing the Done brand with specific associations that were consistent with their agendas. The fact that Sydney was at the heart of these representations meant that it too was lassoed into this process ? or, at the very least, as it had been imagined by Done.

Sydney Take-away

While the Done brand peaked in Australia during the Bicentenary, then gradually weakened, its allure only grew in overseas markets. In Germany, Switzerland, and the US, for example, average-size Done paintings were selling between $18 000 and $40 000 (Adamson:6). However, Japan was (and still is) by far the most lucrative market for Done. His first exhibition there was in 1986, at Gallery Tamon in Tokyo. When Done?s eighth exhibition there toured in late 1991, around 100 000 people went to see it (Taylor, 1992:11). That same year, nascent beer company "Suntory" sold over 80 million cans of beer in just two months with the help of Done-designed packaging. And he has painted the cover of the popular Japanese magazine Hanako, which had a weekly readership of 1.5 million, for over a decade.

Undoubtedly, whatever offshore support Done enjoys is partly attributable to his shrewd and long-term appreciation of the tourist trade. To put it another way, there is clearly a link between the number of tourists exiting Sydney with Ken Done souvenirs, and the size and strength of his overseas fan base. It is not a coincidence that the extraordinary commercial success of Done?s merchandise can be traced alongside the rise of Sydney, between 1985 and 1990, as an international holiday destination. This point is worth considering, as it says much about both Done?s image as well as the image of Sydney.

However much detractors dismiss his art as derivative pastiche, it is hard to deny the degree to which it registers with many tourists. At the same time, however much Done dismisses this success as a secondary concern, it is hard to deny the degree to which he has exploited its local and international potential. In other words, there is a certain synchronicity at work. It has already been noted that Done?s store in The Rocks was one of the first to benefit from the SCRA?s Bicentennial "facelift" of the area. The Rocks had long been identified with the heritage and essence of Sydney, and this identification offered the Done store similarly favourable associations of "authenticity" and "originality", or at least as far as tourists were concerned. For his part, Done consistently streamlined operations in ways that furthered the tourist dollar. Again, as critics decried what they saw as cynical opportunism, fans, particularly tourists, snapped up what they considered portable art. That most of Done?s work prioritised Sydney Harbour was a fortuitous boon. In 1990, over 2.2 million foreigners visited Australia, and spent some $6.6 billion; Sydney was the main attraction for over 90 per cent of them (Dale, 1990:33).

Specifically, it was the dramatic increase in the number of Japanese tourists that delivered Done?s biggest windfall. In 1970, Australia welcomed a little over 11 000 Japanese visitors. By 1989, that number had grown to almost 350 000. Moreover, by then, the average Japanese tourist was spending almost $2000 during their brief stay in Australia, with two-thirds of it on shopping, rather than, say, food or accommodation, which accounted for most of the Americans? holiday expenditure (ibid). There was, then, a formidable market for Done?s merchandise. Around that time, the Ken Done store at The Rocks became a regular stop for the dozen or so tourist coaches that began to criss-cross the city. There, tour guides directed visitors to the "ideal" gifts (like $47 sweatshirts and $17 wash-bags), items that were luggage-friendly and recognisable. So, when Done spent a reported $7.5 million for a prime piece of Surfers Paradise real estate in December 1990, it was widely considered his Gold Coast counterpart to The Rocks store. (Cundon, 1990:1) With this open pursuit of Queensland?s Japanese tourists, Done fuelled critics? suspicions that business, not art, was his primary concern.

Irreconcilable Differences

It is on this confluence, with Ken Done merchandise becoming increasingly identified as the Ken Done art, that critics have focused most of their attention. While Done has, over the years, articulated an affinity with artists that generally command respect and recognition (such as Matisse, Monet, Bonnard, Milton Avery and David Hockney), it has done little to reverse elite opinion. When The Bulletin surveyed members of Australia?s art community on this issue in 1987, there was little doubt that Done the entrepreneur fared markedly better than Done the artist. For example, Daniel Thomas, director of the Gallery of South Australia at the time, confessed, "I don?t love his painting as much as I do his T-shirts and posters". Similarly, art critic Sandra McGrath conceded, "I want my paintings of Sydney Harbour to be by Brett Whiteley; I want my board shorts to be by Ken Done." And Brett Whiteley offered what would become one of the most repeated ? and scathing ? quotes: "I?d rather take methadone than Ken Done" (quoted in Nicklin, 1987:60).

Well before the See Australia campaign of 2004, Brett Whiteley and Ken Done could be seen to have authored Sydney Harbour in dramatically different ways. As much as Done dominated the popular imagination in the 1980s, Whiteley dominated Sydney?s art scene in the 1970s. Notwithstanding the drama and glamour of his personal extravagances, Whiteley?s stellar distinction of 1978 ? when the trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW awarded him the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes ? confirmed his place in Australian art history (McDonald, 2002:51). When Done was excluded from The Encyclopaedia of Australian Art a few years ago, his self-depreciating humour betrayed more than a hint of hurt pride: "It included some 1,200 artists. You might have thought I?d be squeezed in at around 1,199" (quoted in Huxley, 1996:1).

Even the Sydney connection has spawned dramatically different responses. According to gallery director Andrew Sayers, Whiteley?s best works revel in Sydney?s beauty, with rustling palms, sensuous bathers and bright frangipanis. For Sayers, "Whiteley?s paintings of the artist?s life in the harbour city represent the ultimate in lifestyle aspiration paintings" (2001:191). Done?s Sydney, on the other hand, is rarely seen as anything other than shop-floor fodder. For historian Peter Spearritt, Done?s Sydney suggests a paint-by-numbers approach, with one eye on the canvas, the other on clientele: "[Done] has turned Sydney into a sub-tropical paradise, but added more yellow when he gets to Cairns" (Spearritt, 1997:59). In other words, according to Spearritt, even Done?s signature icons lack the sincerity or specificity of true art.

While Whiteley?s work enjoys renewed interest and praise in the wake of his drug-related death in 1992, both popularly and critically, Done?s image in Australia remains fatally compromised by its mass-market connotations. Indeed, in recent years, the name "Ken Done" has become something of a synonym for a type of commercial success that has been deemed disproportionate to any real artistic merit. For example, Bryce Courtney, James Morrison and Jimmy Pike have all "suffered" this ignoble comparison. Courtney has been labelled the "Ken Done of literature", Morrison the "Ken Done of jazz", and Pike the "Ken Done of Aboriginal art". In other words, in some circles, it is hard to overstate the degree to which the Done brand generates disdain and derision. When Art Monthly featured a Ken Done print on its cover in November 1995, a number of readers actually cancelled their subscriptions (Huxley, op cit).

A Bruised Brand

Essentially, the breezy, hedonistic images for which Done first became famous have undercut his more recent attempts to be taken more seriously. Those early Sydney Harbour designs now suggest a certain facility that cruelly negates whatever freshness and vibrancy they may have once communicated. What seemed right for the Celebration of A Nation is no longer how influential sectors want the world to See Australia. Once it moved onto T-shirts, sunglasses and bedspreads, Done?s art was stung by the fickleness of fashion. Indeed, even as Done?s work was being feted in the 1980s, astute observers warned of its ultimate disposability. In as early as 1985, for example, Edmond Capon, director of the Art Gallery of NSW, spoke favourably of Done?s work, which he praised for its evocative immediacy. At the same time, though, Capon warned of its ultimate obsolescence: "I don?t know how long it will endure. It?s an art that reflects the flavour of the day in a very material way, so it?s arguable that it doesn?t have the sustaining power of more emotionally profound art" (Neller, 1985:58).

The fact that Done prioritised Sydney Harbour in his work suggests that his portraits of the city have not survived the new millennium, or at least not in terms of cultural currency. Done branded Sydney in ways consonant with the aggressive tourist drives of the late 80s and early 90s. His 80s art projected such a strong image that it was literally coopted by Sydney?s tourism bureaus. In the mid 80s, Done was commissioned by the NSW Department of Leisure, Sport and Tourism to design travel guides, flyers, and posters, as well as the department?s letterhead ? a crisp Sydney skyline and yellow sun. According to the department?s (then) manager of advertising and promotions, Joseph Parkes, "there was a strong indication that the public were grabbing Ken Done with a vengeance? Ken?s art jumps up and grabs you by the lapels and shouts ?Holiday!?"(ibid). Almost twenty years later, as the ATC tries to re-brand Sydney for 2004, it must distance itself from the "Done era"

Of course, Done is not the first Australian artist to be so closely identified with simple images of Sydney beach life, or images that have been used to sell Sydney and Australia. In 1929, for example, the newly-formed Australian National Travel Association (ANTA) commissioned Australia?s most innovative poster artists, including Percy Trompf, James Northfield and Gert Sellheim. To reach an international marketplace that knew relatively little about Australia, ANTA called for striking images and simple slogans. After a few decades, these images, such as Trompf?s "Bondi Beach" posters, have become some of the most reproduced and iconic images in Australian art history (Spearritt, 1991:5).

Trompf, in particular, is widely regarded a master of poster art. In his overview of Australian representations of beach culture, historian Geoffrey Dutton considered Trompf alongside the likes of Max Dupain, Charles Conder and Sydney Nolan (whilst Done did not appear at all). Dutton notes that, as ANTA?s employee, Trompf?s main objective was to "invite action"; nonetheless, Dutton contends that "[the] beaches of Port Phillip Bay never enjoyed more enticing sunlight than they did in Trompf?s Days of Freedom" (1985:101). Ironically, this particular poster was used to promote railways ("Go down to the Seaside ? by train"), but has been inadvertently remembered as an elegant portrait of the beach. The works of Trompf et al have been generally recognised and applauded on aesthetic grounds, irrespective of whatever other affiliations they may have profiteered from.

Done, on the other hand, experiences the inverse treatment. In December 1994, Sydney?s Powerhouse Museum held a massive retrospective titled "Ken Done: The Art of Design". As could be expected, it was a generous tribute to his success. Yet, there was still an unmistakable incongruity that did not pass without notice. The celebration was of Done?s design success, and showcased things like golf balls, salt shakers and drink coasters, each of which had undergone the Done treatment. As Terence Measham (the Museum?s director at the time) remarked at the exhibition?s opening, "he is a brilliant marketer" (Chenery, 1994:5).

When it is acknowledged, Done?s design talent is almost always seen as a predominantly commercial triumph, commendable in market terms, but artistically insignificant. In his review of this exhibition for The Sydney Morning Herald, John McDonald admitted a similar ambivalence. McDonald wrote:

He is an artist who wants too much to be liked and is perhaps too willing to give the public the happy, leisure-time images they prefer. Ken Done the designer will always command a corner of the Powerhouse Museum, but as an artist, it is hard to imagine that his work will ever receive the recognition he craves. (McDonald, 1994:5)

This discursive distinction, between a museum and a gallery, haunts Done most of all: while the former commemorates key historical moments, the other hosts exceptional artistic works.


For a few years in the 1980s, Ken Done clearly exhibited a populist tendency, busily extending his work in ways that were both conceptually accessible and highly profitable. However, this support was contingent on several other factors. Done?s success in this decade was fuelled by the fortuitous compatibility of his graphic style ? the naïve, sunny depictions of Sydney Harbour and beach culture ? and the aims and interests of specific organizations. From the state?s tourist bureaus, to the ABA, to the ALP, Done?s market was effectively piggybacked and propelled by those that could somehow coordinate their concerns with it. In turn, Done "the artist" was essentially betrayed by Done "the brand": in terms of Australians? recollection of it, the art became a cultural footnote to the era, rather than a valuable contribution to it.

With characteristic insouciance, Done once remarked, "When people review your work well, you always think the critics have perfect taste and judgement. Nasty things, they clearly have no idea about art and wouldn?t know a good painting if it fell off the wall and hit them on the head" (quoted in Jackson, 2001:17). Yet, on this point, there remains a suspicious disjuncture between what he says and what he does. Despite the veneer of indifference, Done has moved to enhance his name in the eyes of the art establishment, buying full-page advertisements for his own work in international art magazines, and pulling his merchandise out of general retail outlets. To this end, though, his duty-free baggage still works against him.

When the ATC picked its gallery of identities to encourage the world to See Australia in 2004, then, it was not just selecting famous faces; it was selecting people whose "meanings" coincided with those meanings the ATC hoped to associate with the new, improved and "more sophisticated" Australia. So, in its pursuit of the postmodern traveller, the ATC sidestepped Done and chose Brett Whiteley instead. As this article has argued, Done?s image was built on more than just his art; it owes much to over two decades of contrivance and coincidence. At one point, this was a successful convergence, as the image of Done conveniently overlapped with the image others wanted to associate with Sydney and Australia. Twenty years later, though, and the Done brand appears trapped in a tense marriage. It remains closely identified with a Sydney of sorts, but the union has since ceased to reap mutual rewards.


Adamson, Judy (1994) "Trouble in Paradise ? But for Ken it?s the Done Thing" in The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 December 1994, p. 6

Alomes, Stephen and Jones, Catherine (1991) Australian Nationalism: A Documentary History, Angus & Robertson: Sydney

Bagnall, Diana (1993) "The Done Exclusion Zone" in The Bulletin, 12 January 1993, p. 29

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