The arts seems to be much in the news of late. While not all of it is what we would prefer to hear, good things may come out of it, so let's be optimistic!
In the ABC TV's Four Corners program screened last week, two areas of concern were aired. The first was rather surprising: for the first time in Australia in my memory, procedures adopted by some auction houses came under revealing media scrutiny. In particular, the means by which artworks are bought and sold to 'ramp up' the value of selected artists' work were broadcast. While on the face of it this may seem like a good deal for artists in that it sets at a higher level the prices which can be commanded by those artists, there is concern that these prices may be overheating the real market value of the work and are unsustainable over any length of time. This is not necessarily very good for an artist's reputation when they are trying to achieve a steadily upward trajectory. There is also the matter of a lack of transparency for buyers. A disgruntled buyer is not likely to be a repeat customer. And then of course there is the additional problem that while a resale royalty still does not exist in Australia, the artists see nothing of the profits made on secondary sales, all of which go back to the seller and his or her intermediary (usually either the auction house or the commercial gallery managing the sale).
At the same time as these damaging allegations were being aired, it seemed evident that a group of auction houses was concerned enough to want to protect the sector's reputation and demonstrate an intention to self-regulate. Revealed on the TV program was a move by this group to lodge a complaint against Menzies Art Brands with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). They have also engaged Lawyers Minter Elliston to undertake the tasks of establishing an industry association and developing a code of conduct.
Why hasn't the whistle been blown before now? It seems obvious that for buyers, there is little incentive in that they stand to lose money on a dodgy transaction. Learning after the fact that the painting you have just bought is actually only going to be worth a third of what you have paid for it in a couple of years would not necessarily motivate you to rush to publicly complain. Rather, you might prefer to offload your mistake to some other hapless buyer. And what about the auction houses themselves? There may be many reasons why nothing has been done in the past and why this has been chosen as the moment to make the move, but it is not for me to speculate here. Suffice to say that NAVA welcomes the idea of any section of the industry setting and adhering to best practice standards, especially one that is so influential in the marketplace. NAVA is offering its experience with devising art industry codes to assist this process.
The other issue dealt with by the Four Corners program was the better-known but still condemned set of malpractices which are occurring in the processes of production and sale of some Indigenous art. Shock and horror is always good media fodder and this was no exception: what was implied was that some Indigenous artists are being kept in a state of semi-confinement to produce artwork for dealers. In addition, the value of the recompense they receive is highly questionable. An industry code is being seen as an antidote and NAVA is working hard to complete work on the Indigenous Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct (IAACCC) being produced in partnership with Desart and ANKAAA. The code has been devised according to the model used by the ACCC for other industries and will be trialled as a voluntary code for a couple of years. If this fails to make the desired impact, it will likely become a mandated code and come under the legal control of the ACCC. Meanwhile, Indigenous art continues to generate huge profits for just about everyone who can get their hands on some and on-sell it.
To domestic matters: NAVA has just returned from the Melbourne Art Fair, having sold heaps of the latest edition of its most popular publication, Money for Visual Artists: NAVA's guide to awards prizes and professional development opportunities for Australian visual arts, craft and design professionals. If you missed out, you can order your copy now either by going to Shop at www.visualarts.net.au or by ringing (02) 9368 1900. It was also a great opportunity to meet lots of our constituents and give them face-to-face advice on a whole heap of questions. Our next port of call will be Alice Springs in October when we hope to meet lots of the members of the Northern Territory visual arts community. For details see NAVA's website closer to the time.