Priscilla, Queen of the Desart

20 03 2013
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Still from ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ (image via rockymusic.org)

A little quiet on the Western Front this week, I’m afraid, as I prepare for my keynote at Desart’s annual conference in Alice Springs next week. Under consideration will be all things Aboriginal art market-related.

I promise to update as soon as possible after I get back. Yes, I could do something on my iThing while I’m up there, but I plan to spend as little time working on the small screen as possible.

 

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Creative Australia?

14 03 2013

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Because I’m disinclined to let you off with the ‘executive summary’, here’s a link to a pdf of the Gillard government’s new cultural policy in its entirety. While I’m on it…why is it always assumed that executives want nothing more than a digestible and condensed version of a complex document? It’s always struck me as akin to the mummy-bird regurgitating pre-digested worms for the baby bird. If I were an ‘executive’, I’d want to be the mummy-bird.

The Gillard government is summoning the shades of two great Labor leaders of years gone by and pioneers when it came to cultural policy. In the document, Julia Gillard writes: ‘It is now 40 years since the Australia Council for the Arts was formed and almost two decades since our first cultural policy, Creative Nation, was launched. Its successor, Creative Australia, continues the spirit of engagement with the arts embraced by my predecessors Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating.”

Yes – Gough Whitlam, who established the Australia Council, and whose government held its collective head high and bought Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles for the National Gallery of Australia in spite of general consensus at the time that “my five-year-old daughter could’a done that!”; and Paul Keating, whose Creative Nation is credited with inspiring Tony Blair to initiate the ‘Cool Britannia’ campaign (does that mean we can hold him personally responsible for Oasis and Patsy Kensit?). Shame Keating didn’t get some good copywriters on the job – Cool Britannia stuck. Creative Nation? Little too ‘blah’, unfortunately, although the principles it promoted were certainly worthy. And it does carry a fair deal of currency in the Australian arts sector.

So it’s no accident that the new arts policy doffs its cap to its predecessor – from Creative Nation we now have Creative Australia. Given the prognosis for the ruling party, any straw is worth grabbing at this point. Still. I really think they could have wrangled a name for the policy that was far catchier, and a little less public service.

But what about the details?

First thoughts…

The principal goal of the policy warms the cockles… to ‘recognise, respect and celebrate the centrality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures to the uniqueness of Australian identity’. This is a wonderful ideal. But money, meet mouth. To celebrate and recognise is all well and good. But the Aboriginal visual art sector is facing a fairly bleak horizon at the moment. Without significant investment in restructuring the industry, things ain’t looking great.

The emphasis on the inclusion of arts education in the Australian Curriculum is also very reassuring. As is the funding allocated to the establishment of an Indigenous Employment Strategy in collaboration with Screen Australia, and to assist contemporary musicians establish career pathways.

But the one impression I took away from my (admittedly fairly rapid) read of the policy, is that the visual arts don’t seem to get much of a look-in. Any time there is a list of art forms, visual art appears at the rear end of the queue; for example, from p. 14, under the heading ‘Creative Expression and the Role of the Artist’: ‘Whether it is through live, interactive or recorded media or whether it is through drama, documentaries, comedy, music, dance, design, visual art, writing or traditional cultural practices…’ I just picked this at random. The pattern recurs at such a frequency that it is difficult to dismiss it as an accident.

What does this mean? The document seems to be promoting ‘participation’, ‘audiences’ and ‘community’. I need to think more about this, and read the document again more closely, but my first impression is that the principal focus seems to be on our diverse cultural heritage, and the many layers of social fabric that comprise the delicious mille-feuille that is contemporary Australia.

But…and I hesitate to say this, because I do want to read it again more carefully… most of what I absorbed tells me that this is about using public money to give The Australian People (caps used advisedly) what they want. There is far less talk of innovation and excellence in this document than previous iterations, which makes me suspect it’s leaning in a far more populist and community-oriented direction.  The shift in emphasis concerns me. A great deal. When it comes to the arts end of town, quite often the most visionary work doesn’t find an audience when it’s made… and that’s what public funding for the arts has often been about. The People don’t always know best. And if an artform or particular artist has already attracted public acclaim or community support, they are in a better position to generate funds from their practice as a matter of course.

Luckily, Mr Whitlam didn’t take public sentiment to heart when he listened to his expert advisers and made the call on Blue Poles. Thanks to his audacity and vision, the Australian public now owns one of the acknowledged masterpieces made by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

As for the news that every federal MP will be given $23,500 a year to ‘help students pursue their artistic dreams’? Given how small the pot is already, this would seem to be a rather futile, misdirected and somewhat immoderate use of available funds – the total of $8.1 million for the project is 3.5% of the total amount of the policy package of $235 million ($75.3 million of which is going to the Australia Council). Take OzCo’s cash out, and 5% of available funds will be distributed willy-nilly by standing MPs to artistic causes they deem worthy. Grab for cash, anyone?

But I reserve my right to withdraw this statement if you see me lining up at my local member’s office to share of the Gillard-given bounty.





Would you like a little culture with that?

12 03 2013

 

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Otto Pliny, ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ (image via http://www.artvalue.com)

Cue drum roll…..

The day has dawned. Minister for the Arts, Simon Crean, will unveil the Labor government’s National Cultural Policy at the National Press Club today (I’m hoping he teases us, and reveals the details slowly… enticingly… think ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’).

We haven’t had one of these since Paul Keating’s much-vaunted ‘Creative Nation’ in 1994 – a cultural policy that (ominously for the current government) didn’t survive Keating’s ignominious ousting in 1996. In the lead-up to the release, Mr Crean has trotted out those well-worn public service buzzwords: ‘consultation’, ‘stakeholders’, and ‘arts constituency’. Do you think they’ll manage to squeeze a ‘paradigm’ and a ‘benchmark’ or two in there? One thing’s for sure – given the government’s obsession with holding onto a surplus in the upcoming budget, any spending they plan to do on the arts will certainly have to be smart. And creative.

If you can’t wait, or can’t be bothered trying to find the journalistic wash-up in tomorrow’s papers, the launch is to be televised and can be viewed live from 12.30pm (EST) today… link here.





And the ballroom dancers went around… and around… and around again. A lesson in reading auction figures.

6 03 2013
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John Brack, ‘Backs and Fronts’ (image via http://www.aasd.com.au)

Hello, old friend. Nice to see you again.

It’s good to know some things never change. As regular as clockwork… John Brack’s Backs and Fronts is back on the auction podium for the fourth time in nine years. Wouldn’t be the first, and certainly won’t be the last rapid-fire repeat customer in the Australian art auction world. But I’ve grown particularly fond of this one over the years. Not to mention, those pirouetting figures offer a lovely analogy for the way this painting keeps spinning back and forth through the auction market.

I had a glance back over the painting’s auction record, and it reminded me of an object (or, perhaps ‘abject’) lesson to take on board when looking at reported prices. Thankfully, the Australian Art Sales Digest now publishes hammer prices (the price that the auctioneer calls out at the fall of hammer), not just prices realised (hammer price plus buyer’s premium), which thankfully makes the following exercise much easier.

When many people look at auction prices, (such as the prices for Backs and Fronts over the years laid out in the table below), they simply compare the prices in each column. So, for example, you’d be thinking… “hmm… The painting sold for $1,700,000 in 2007, then $1,800,000 in 2010. Given the whole GFC/collapse of the art market thingy, that’s not too shabby in terms of a return, really, is it? At least they didn’t lose any money.”

Sale date Hammer price Price incl. premium
25/11/1997 (Christie’s) $215,000 $239,000
10/3/2004 (Deutscher-Menzies) $392,290 $470,750
13/6/2007 (Deutscher-Menzies) $1,700,000 $2,040,000
24/6/2010 (Menzies) $1,800,000 $2,160,000
21/3/2013 (Menzies) (yet to be offered) estimate: $1,400,000-1,800,000

Above figures from Australian Art Sales Digest: www.aasd.com.au

But herein lies the problem with that approach. The question you should really be asking is: “what did it cost the buyer to acquire the painting, and what did they recoup when it was sold?” To work that out, you need to first look in the ‘price including premium column’ – that is the total amount the buyer would have had to pay to acquire the artwork. So in 2007, for example, the buyer ponied up $2,040,000 to get their mitts on Backs and Fronts. Then, you need to look at the ‘hammer price’ in 2010 – $1,800,000 – and subtract a good chunk of that amount to account for estimated selling costs (commission, insurance, illustration and cataloguing fees). Let’s make that a round (and fairly modest) 15%.

So when the person who bought the painting in 2007 sold it in 2010 the net amount heading their way would be ($1,800,000 – 15%) = $1,530,000.

Instead of what appears to be a slight rise in value from $1,700,000 to $1,800,000, we now have a fairly dramatic loss – $2,040,000 outlay becomes $1,530,000.

Not so rosy now. And that doesn’t even take into account the effects of adjusting for inflation.

So what does that tell us about the upcoming reappearance of our spinning ladies and gents at auction? Well, the low-end of the 2013 estimate is $1,400,000. That means the reserve price must be equal to, or fall below, $1,400,000. Let’s take the 15% selling costs from that figure… that gives us $1,190,000 ($1,400,000 – 15%). That is the net amount the seller will pocket if the painting sells at its reserve (conservative, because it presumes a reserve at $1,400,000 – it could be lower).

Meaning? The person who spent $2,160,000 for Backs and Fronts in 2010 (the price including premium paid that year) is now happy to sell it for $1,190,000.

(Apologies for the shouty caps that follow…)

That’s right… THEY PAID $2,160,000 AND ARE HAPPY TO SELL IT FOR $1,190,000.

Really?

Try spinning that.





A Warhol for Every Wall

28 02 2013
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Andy Warhol, ‘I love your kiss forever’ (image via onlineonly.christies.co

In what can best be described as the modern art-world equivalent of a garage sale, Christie’s is currently running an online auction of work by Andy Warhol (link to the catalogue… here).

As would be expected, Christie’s has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist, and the very pretty micro-site features ‘Warholian Questionnaires’ with the usual suspects – ‘voice-of-her-generation’ poster-girl of the moment, Lena Dunham (creator, writer and star of Girls), Maxwell Ryan – founder of the Apartment Therapy website and author of the Big Book of Small, Cool Spaces and an online designer eyeglasses retailer.

Sounds like a hipster checklist. Warhol would have approved.

As for the art on offer, it’s an odd selection. The overwhelming impression is that they are clearing out the leftovers from the archive. Have a look yourself. Estimates for some works start at US$800, but many are likely to go a fair bit higher. At the time of writing, I love your kiss forever (pictured above) is up to US$26,000… (do you think it’s a coincidence that sounds like a Tracy Emin title? I think not). Lots of photos, but also some screenprints, a sculpture (yes – a can of Campbells chicken soup) and what are described as “paintings”. I use the quotation marks there because the six “paintings” are not what you would call typical. The auction runs till March 5.

Christie’s has formalised a relationship with the Andy Warhol Foundation, and the proceeds from this sale are to go towards the Foundation’s projects.





“Fair Crack of the Whip, Sport!”

27 02 2013
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AIS alumnus Lleyton Hewitt (image via heraldsun.com.au)

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AIS alumnus Michael Clarke (image via adelaidenow.com.au)

Interesting opinion piece in The Age today by Australian artist Ben Quilty (link… here). In response to the recent raft of sporting-world scandals, he raises the question of why it is that sportsmen and women at the Australian Institute of Sport are exempt from the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) that applies to tertiary education in Australia (note: a couple of alumni pictured above).

The refreshing angle in Ben’s article is that he isn’t whingeing about how hard-up the visual arts are in terms of public funding. Nor does he suggest that artists should be exempt from the HECS fees they accumulate while studying, or from paying taxes on the windfalls that occasionally come their way during the course of their career (prizes, bursaries, scholarships). But he does challenge the fact that, unlike any other students, the privileged few who make it into Australia’s elite sporting academy are exempt from HECS fees.

Now, the argument of course is that people who commit their lives to amateur sport rarely if ever generate huge sums of money through their chosen discipline, and that there are tangible benefits to the Australian community when they achieve sporting greatness (think national pride, international profile, etc.) If there’s a benefit to us, the argument is that we should pay. And so we do – as taxpayers we fund the Institute of Sport, and those who attend it do so at the taxpayers’ expense.

But as Ben points out, should we treat the contributions made to our society by our petulant and ill-disciplined men’s swimming team any differently from the contributions made by everybody from nurses to teachers, paramedics and police officers? Not to mention artists of all ilk? Because they all had to pay for their education. And in all instances, if their post-graduation salaries do not lift above a pre-ordained level, the debt they accumulate while studying is deferred until such time as graduates are generating enough income to repay the debt.

Let’s face it. No doubt at all, it must be financially challenging for hurdlers and hammer-throwers after they retire. But not all the AIS graduates are in penury (witness: images above).

The exemption granted to our elite athletes just doesn’t seem fair. Interestingly (depressingly?) enough, the only politician Ben mentions as entertaining the idea about the need for HECS equity is Malcolm Turnbull.

Besides which, amateur sportsmen and women don’t have the corner on the “oh, poor me – we don’t make any money out of what we do for a living” schtick. David Throsby’s review of the economic circumstances of practising artists was called Don’t Give Up Your Day Job for a reason.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a ‘down on sport’ spiel. Some of my best friends are sports-people. Heh.





The White stuff.

24 02 2013
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Image: White Night Melbourne via weekendnotes.com

What makes us human? We do something like this just for the sake of it, and love it… just because.

Last night, 300,000 Melburnians flooded into the CBD and embraced the inaugural ‘White Night’ arts festival.

I’m a rusted-on cynic. It’s rare for me to experience a flush of unconditional pride in my city and the people who live in it. But, today? Yeah. I love every last, crazy, one of you.

Bring on White Night 2014.