Yes, art still matters…

24 02 2016

… it’s just that I haven’t had a great deal of spare time to write about it. Art, that is. Or not here, at least.

Flagellants

I am sorry.

Self-flagellating as we speak. What can I say? I have no really compelling reasons to explain my absence from this sadly neglected blog other than to say I have been very, very busy. With this. And this. And a little bit of this.

But the demise of the Melbourne Art Fair was too big an event to ignore. If you’re interested, head over to The Conversation to read my perspectives on the situation.





Have you been missing me?

9 05 2013
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Guido Reni, ‘The Penitent St Peter’.

Sincere apologies.

It’s been very, very busy.

In a good way.

My inactivity is unforgivable. As a small offering to compensate for my absence, here’s a link to a feature article I wrote on the market in Aboriginal art for The Age on the weekend…. click here.  





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.

 





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.





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.





“Aren’t I Aboriginal enough for you?”

20 11 2012

ImageThe title of this post recalls a comment by the brilliant artist, administrator and activist, Bronwyn Bancroft, at a conference I organised a while ago. When someone in the audience took issue with the fact that we hadn’t included an artist from a remote community in the line-up of three speakers chatting about the Aboriginal art market, Bronwyn stood up and said exactly that: “Aren’t I Aboriginal enough for you?”

It would be hilariously funny if it didn’t lay bare a deeply troubling truth.

And now it seems that the unsettling equation that underpins the Aboriginal art market manifests elsewhere. You know the one – the formula goes a little like this:

Indigenous Australian + remote central Australian lifestyle = authentic.

Tony Abbott, the leader of the Opposition, has declared Ken Wyatt, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Hasluck in Western Australia, a little too urban for his liking.

Wyatt is a descendant of the Yamatji, Wongi and Nyoongar nations, and was born at Roelands Mission farm. His mother was one of the Stolen Generation. But that’s not quite enough for Mr Abbott. You see, according to Abbott’s dogma, to qualify as an “authentic representative of the ancient cultures of central Australia”, you need to live in “central Australia”.

So there you have it.

Move away from a traditional, desert-based lifestyle, and you no longer qualify as an “authentic” Aboriginal person.

I’ve written elsewhere about the iffy fixation with ‘authentic’ Aboriginality in the art market and what it means for the sustainability of the Aboriginal art industry. The premise is so fundamentally wrong, based as it is on an obsolete Western obsession with ethnographic classification and the romantic vision of the ‘noble savage’.

If we accept Mr Abbott’s edict, does that mean that he is not an ‘authentic’ Catholic because he doesn’t live in the Vatican City? OK – specious analogy. But, still. Sorry. The whole thing makes me more than a little cranky.

The upside for Mr Abbott? He demonstrates an enviable capacity to run with both feet planted firmly in his mouth.

(Footnote for those of you outside Australia: Mr Abbott is also “that man” lambasted by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in her much circulated misogyny speech.)

(PS: the link above is to my article, Joining the Dots: the Sustainability of the Aboriginal Art Market, as it was reproduced in an earlier post. The full article was published in UNESCO’s journal, Diogenes, in August 2011, but you have to pony up some cold, hard folding stuff to read it on the Sage website. The link to my blog post is free, and has the same info, but it doesn’t look as pretty as the full pdf. If you do want to read it in its final form, the link to the pdf via Sage Journals can be found here.)

(image: via news.com.au)





The Art of Subterfuge

1 11 2012

ImageCould this be the moment we’ve all been anticipating? The art world equivalent of Toto drawing back the curtain to reveal the grey-haired little man pulling the Wizard of Oz’s levers? In the US, a seemingly unremarkable quibble over an unpaid auction bill has resulted in a much larger and portentous altercation over whether or not auction houses should be compelled to reveal their vendors.

The case is covered in detail by Terry Ingram in an article published on the Australian Art Sales Digest, and the implications are quite gob-smacking. It all came about because a buyer decided he no longer wished to cough up the cash to pay for a purchase he made at auction in Chester, New York. The saleroom, William J. Jenack, took the dealer to court and a ruling was made in Jenack’s favour and the buyer was ordered to pay the amount outstanding. But In a wickedly ingenious move, the buyer successfully appealed on the grounds that Jenack did not have the documents required to compel payment, namely a legally recognised contract that must, by definition, include the names of the seller and the buyer.

In an industry that thrives and survives thanks to the veils of secrecy that shroud transactions, this is an extraordinary finding. Any wonder that Christie’s is now fighting cheek-by-jowl with Jenack in an attempt to overturn the ruling. I’m sure it wouldn’t take too long for the biggest players to work out how to get around it, but if vendors’ identities were forcibly revealed to the market, it would certainly make practices like ramping and money-laundering more complicated.

Not to worry. This is all in its infancy, legally-speaking, and I have no doubt that, just like the good Wizard of Oz, Sotheby’s, Christie’s et al have a magical balloon stored out the back for use in such emergencies.

(Image: social-tribe.com)