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The politesse of current arts funding muffles artists’ voices

By Jane Rankin-Reid - posted Monday, 28 October 2002

The Report on the Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft Inquiry, is a detailed analysis of the health of Australia’s strongest artistic sector’s contribution to the nation’s cultural economies. The report was released on Friday September 9th 2002, and chaired by Rupert Myer.

Due to its recommendation of up to $15 million in increased Federal and State funding, the Report is already enjoying widespread endorsement across the arts sector’s managerial classes.

Its advocacy for tax relief for cultural gifts of up to 125%, and strategies for broadening understanding and acceptance of contemporary art’s presence in our society, are also warmly welcomed in the visual arts industry. However, there are a number of anomalies in the Report’s approach to visual arts commerce that place this year-long analysis, at odds with today’s free market economic realities.


On paper, between primary commercial gallery sales of new and established artists’ work, as well as ticketed and door counts for attendance’s to major visual arts exhibitions, the visual arts industry’s status as a value added growth opportunity highlights its potential to become a substantial contributor to the nation’s internal and export cultural economies.

Yet the Report reflects mistrust of the dynamics of the commercial marketplace. Recommendations that artists should be "protected" against "fly-by-night" galleries using sales percentages as operating capital, highlight the suspicious stand off between commercial and publicly employed visual arts experts. Yet, it does so without sufficiently clarifying the artist’s engagement with the commercial marketplace, which will always need to be cool-headed if not totally mercenary.

In spite of years of publicly assisted legal and financial advocacy, guiding Australian artists in how to deal with the art market promoted by the Australia Council and NAVA, many artists still fail to take simple commercial precautions, such as collecting consignment notes when delivering their work to galleries.

Does this tell us that publicly funded advocacy campaigns aren’t working? Or, is it carelessness born out of the blinding emotional relief that often occurs when a gallery welcomes an artist’s difficult ideas with open arms? Do public sector driven interpretations of how the visual art market should work, take this into account?

Others complain about galleries slow reimbursements for sales billed for sixty days, but at least some of those same galleries are generous in advances against unsold work as well as offering payment plans to collectors.

Australian commercial art galleries take as much as 10% less in commission fees than their international peers. But, they are expected to do the same amount of work on behalf of the artists they represent, to promote sales and widen critical exposure in today’s competitive world.


In this country, galleries serve the additionally important function of introducing the concept of buying contemporary art into our society, so must continually cultivate new collectors to buy their artists’ work.

In other words, galleries are paramount in building the visual arts market place in Australia. That’s a lot of cultural socializing, a lot of dressing up and being friendly – on behalf of financial stakes in the risky business of bold and dangerous new visual ideas!

As a curator for a private collection in the UK in the 1990s, the first time I bought a piece by British bad boy artist Damien Hirst it cost as little as 2,000 pounds. While it is worth many times that now, the point is Hirst had absolutely no guaranteed commercial standing at the time.

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About the Author

Jane Rankin-Reid is a former Mercury Sunday Tasmanian columnist, now a Principal Correspondent at Tehelka, India. Her most recent public appearance was with the Hobart Shouting Choir roaring the Australian national anthem at the Hobart Comedy Festival's gala evening at the Theatre Royal.

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