I’m From the Government, and I’m Here to Help…

What were they thinking? Truly?The news from the Government this week on measures relating to Aboriginal art was a mass of confusing, contradictory statements. A Friday trifecta of announcements regarding support for art centres, the long-awaited code of conduct, and the official promulgation of a resale royalty had me dazzled by day’s end. Although this may not be government foolishness on the scale of say, nominating Sarah Palin for Vice-President, it certainly deserves to be critiqued for its persistent ability to seize the wrong end of a stick.First came the report in the Centralian Advocate: “Minister calls for end to arts grants” (October 3, 2008). Sadly, this short and preposterous piece of reportage is the only word to have come out in the news media so far about the Charles Darwin Symposium “Mwarre anthurre”: Art works: communities thrive that was held in Alice Springs this past Wednesday, in between Desert Mob and the national Art at the Heart conference of Regional Arts Australia.

So here’s the word from Alison Anderson, the new NT Minister for Natural Resources, Environment and Heritage:

Art galleries [sic] in remote Aboriginal communities should not be relying on government “handouts”, a Territory minister said this week.

Minister for Central Australia Alison Anderson expressed concern that the current art centre model did not encourage resilience and self-reliance in communities.

She said: “We need to have access to the best education system in Australia so we can run our own art businesses and control it, and not rely on handouts from government.

“If we don’t control the terms on which our culture goes out, then that culture is no longer ours.”

Later on the article states “[Federal Arts Minister Peter] Garrett and NT Arts Minister Marion Scrymgour supported the current art centre model and Ms Anderson’s view.

I’m clearly missing something here, because it seems to me that supporting the current art centre model and agreeing with Minister Anderson that art centres should not be relying on “handouts” are pretty much diametrically opposed positions. Maybe it depends on what you call handouts. But I doubt that many white Australians would consider government subsidies for the School of the Air, the Flying Doctor Service, and secondary education “handouts.”

And although I’m still willing to believe in the Rudd government’s fundamental beneficence, such a statement seems to be about as politically naive a maneuver as having Noel Pearson call up John Howard to complain about receiving welfare payments. One might have the best intentions in the world when handing a politician a loaded gun, but is it really a smart thing to do?

Then there was the news that Garrett has run out of patience with NAVA’s attempt to define the code of conduct for those engaged in the sale of Indigenous art that had been promised for publication this month. He has now directed the Australia Council to complete the work (“Indigenous art code group sacked,” The Australian, October 3, 2008).

Given that the development and implementation of this code was so central to Indigenous Art – Securing the Future, aka the report of the Senate Inquiry into Australia’s Indigenous visual arts and craft sector, I thought it was time to sit down and scrutinize Rudd and Garrett’s August response to that report. I was in Alice Springs with only a very slow dial-up connection to the internet when this response was released on August 8, and although I noted it briefly at the time, I didn’t investigate or comment then.

Testimony before the Committee almost two years ago almost unanimously urged increases in funding to art centres and improvements to physical infrastructure, along with expedited procedures and reductions in paperwork. Several of the final recommendations of the Committee, as summarized in Securing the Future, did indeed advocate more money, including $25 million over five years for new program support and housing for employees.

What these recommendations received in response was not even a promise. The official wording was “subject to consideration in a future Budget process.” Or as W. C. Fields famously put it, “Go away, kid, ya bother me.”

When it came to measures to support economic independence for art centres, the Government’s effective response was “We agree that art centres should be self-supporting and to that end we pledge not one red cent.” CDEP? “We’re not sure what we’re doing.” If you have an ear for Ministerial language, and the stomach, you can plow through the following bullet point summary of some of the recommendations and responses.

  • The two most important funding considerations were embodied in Recommendation 4 (“…that the Commonwealth establish a new infrastructure fund to assist Indigenous art and craft…”) and Recommendation 6 (“…that the Commonwealth further expand funding under the existing NACIS scheme…”). On the latter point, the response noted $7.6 million in funding that had already been agreed to prior to the response–indeed that had been provided by the Howard government, and on former point, it remained completely silent.
  • There was “agreement in principle” to Recommendation 5, with the Government stating that “DEEWR and IBA will utilise and promote current programs to assist where appropriate to transition art centres to economic independence. This will include encouraging commercial art centre operations and developing employment outcomes, and working with other agencies where appropriate. It may also necessitate a review of current programs to fit with this purpose. The Government also recognises that tourism is a vehicle to assist in commercialising art centre operations.” ……………. Sorry, I nodded off somewhere in there.
  • Similarly, the Government response “noted” Recommendation 11, “…that the Commonwealth pursue the conversion of CDEP-funded positions in art centres into properly funded jobs, taking an approach similar to the 2007-08 Budget initiative in other portfolio areas; and that this initiative be independent of future NACIS program funding,” and promised to reform CDEP and to “turn CDEP positions into real jobs where possible.”
  • In fact, the only recommendation relating to finance that the Response flat-out agreed with was number 7, “…that the Commonwealth consult with stakeholders in the industry, particularly Desart and ANKAAA, on reforms to NACIS funding criteria, so that funding decisions are guided in part by the aim of ensuring operation of art centres in accordance with best practice principles. ” In its comments on this point the Government ominously noted “that the Office of Evaluation and Audit (Indigenous Programs) is evaluating the NACIS program. The outcomes of the evaluation may be relevant in relation to this recommendation and may have implications for other recommendations.” Somehow I’m not surprised that “best practice” and “audit” appear in the same (figurative) breath. Please continue to submit all paperwork securely fastened with red tape.
  • On the matter of the proposed Indigenous Art Code of Conduct discussed in Recommendation 28, the Government disagreed with recommendations that Austrade deal only with signatories to the code, pointing out that “Restricting assistance to those businesses that have agreed to any code of conduct is not consistent with the provision of the [Australian Trade Commission] Act.” Would the Code have any teeth? If it’s ever completed?

There was one other notable instance wherein the Government was not in agreement with the Senate’s recommendations. The Senate Committee advised against institutingdroite de suite, the so-called “resale royalty.” The report cited the lack of evidence to support significant benefits to the majority of artists, “in particular to Indigenous artists.”

And so for the hat trick, Friday also brought news, perhaps somewhat misleadingly reported, concerning the Government’s intentions regarding the resale royalty. Reuters reported it as if it were a done deal (“Aboriginal artists gain royalties for resold art,” October 3, 2008). Sky News made it clear that there is at this moment only a proposal for legislation to be submitted to Parliament sometime in the future. From there, however they confused the issue further in their presentation of the important reactions of Robin Ayres (Executive Director of Arts Law Australia) to the news (“Arts royalty scheme ‘riddled with flaws,'” October 3, 2008). 

‘It’s a great first step to have resale rights recognised in Australia,’ Ms Ayres said.

‘But we are disappointed because the scheme is a little complex and it may not deliver a new income stream for artists for some time.

‘There may be a considerable gap between the legislation coming in and artists actually receiving some sort of benefit from resale rights.’

Ms Ayres said the scheme’s complexity may allow loopholes that could enable auction houses to get out of paying resale.

She called on the government to adopt the UK model, which delivers payment on the first resale.

One of Ms Ayres’s chief concerns, which she raised in her submission to the Senate Inquiry but which Sky News did not note, was the large number of Indigenous people who die intestate. Again, it is not clear what will happen to royalties accruing to such artists.

ABC Radio sounded equally confused, quoting Desart’s John Oster as saying that the scheme will not affect the art market, but also that “there is a financial return to artists now in the same way that there has been a financial return to musicians and other arts people” (“5pc royalty deal to help artists,” October 3, 2008).

The straight facts, such as they are, can be found in the DEWHA Arts and Culture website’s statement on Resale royalty rights for visual artists. The Government plans to introduce legislation in Parliament that, if enacted, will affect all items acquired and resold (not sold for the first time) on or after July 1, 2009. To see just how confusing this legislation is likely to be, I urge you to consult the two-page PDF available from DEHWA, “Australia’s new Resale Royalty Scheme: How will it work?” Here is its definition of resale:

The scheme will include all resales involving art market professionals, public institutions or organisations, and all resales subsequent to the first transfer of ownership, regardless of whether the first transfer was made by sale, gift or any other means.

The first clause of this definition suggests that private sales, say from one collector to another, are not affected. The second clause (“all resales subsequent to the first transfer of ownership”) introduces some ambiguity. When is a sale not a sale? When it is a gift. Perhaps the legislation will clarify such matters. 

The examples that are offered in an attempt to provide such clarity also noted, parenthetically, that the five per cent will be paid to the artist or the artist’s estate less administration costs. Well, we knew that all along. But it looks different when you see, in print, that purchase of a canvas for $16,000 generates a payment of $800 less administration costs. (And don’t forget the issue of artists who die intestate.)

It will be most interesting, indeed to see how this plays out in the marketplace. Presumably works from art centres placed on consignment with galleries or dealers will not be subject to the royalty. Where it might make a difference is in the handling of recent works sent to auction houses. It has never been clear to me exactly who is selling a work painted within the last twelve months when it comes up at auction with no provenance beyond its point of origin. I’ve always presumed that such works are from the inventories of commercial galleries and thus will be subject to the resale royalty. Will auction houses indicate this in their catalogs?

Indeed, the effect on the auction industry will be particularly fascinating to monitor. Given that the major houses already add over 20% on each purchase, will an additional 5% deter collectors? Perhaps, especially at the top end of the scale, where the benefits to artists would be greatest. Or perhaps, as one wag has already suggested, Aboriginal art sales will all take place in New Zealand in the future. After all, the May 2007 introduction in Victoria of stricter cultural heritage controls on the sale of Indigenous artifacts led both Sotheby’s and Mossgreen to move their annual Aboriginal art auctions to Sydney this year (“Indigenous art sales stymied by heritage laws, say auction houses,” The Age, April 14, 2008).

If one considers a continuum of commerce from the producer to the purchaser, from the art center to the auction house, the Government seems far more interested in attending to the marketplace than to the means of production. Perhaps, in principle, that is a good thing. But I have argued for years now that what the Aboriginal art market needs most is a level playing field. Although I’m loathe to argue for Indigenous exceptionalism, it remains a fact that the artist starving in an urban garret has more options in terms of alternate or supplemental participation in the economy, and is probably exercising them, than the artist in the western deserts or the outstations of Cape York.

Is Minister Anderson’s call for less government engagement with art centres the vision of the future? If so, perhaps I should be less sanguine about the future of the movement that is my wont. An existing Code of Conduct has not deterred ambitious carpetbaggers, some of whom boasted of their accomplishments and their fame on the Four Corners “Art for Art’s Sake” broadcast on July 28, 2008. I am not opposed to the resale royalty per se; honestly, I don’t yet have an opinion. But I am concerned if the royalty turns out to be the full extent to which the Government feels obligated to engage with the Indigenous art economy.

Mostly, though, I am disappointed because I fear that Friday’s announcements mark the end of the story of the Senate Inquiry. And thus, despite all the hard work, all the hours that went into submission, and testimony, and cross-examination, despite all the good work of the Committee, Indigenous Art – Securing the Future turns out in the end to be a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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