Art and Money


Few will dispute the proposition that most visual artists have no idea how to make money.

It is only the fortunate or diligent few who, after many years of working in poverty, amass enough disposable income to be able to live as comfortably as a real estate salesperson and be able to make significant donations to our public galleries as Margaret Olley and James Gleeson have recently done. But, the hard fact is that most Australian artists live their entire lives in near-penury.

What is worse, they accept this as their lot. Governments try to ameliorate this situation through agencies like the Australia Council,  but they have no hope of moving the lumpen mass.

The current Government position is to agree with Plato that artists must change their nature if they are to have a place in society. This could be achieved if they marketed their wares like any businessperson does there is, after all, a vibrant art market in which, apparently, the demand vastly exceeds the supply and the technology of selling has been well and truly established. All that is needed is to marry the two: creation and marketing.

However, this strategy is unlikely to succeed as it is based on a complete misunderstanding of the principles of both the arts and marketing. Whereas it might be possible to teach some artists how to market their wares, few will have the time to do so.

Marketing is a full-time specialist occupation, as is art. Authors and performers engage agents to market their talents, and visual artists have commercial galleries to take on the marketing of their products. In this way, each party pursues what he/she is good at and leaves the other pursuit to the other party. This is what all manufacturers of commodities do. Since art became a commodity, with the breakdown of the academy system in the late 18th century, this has been the way it has been. It is difficult to see how this could change or be changed.

The Government’s flawed thinking is an aspect of the commonly-held, simplistic belief that art is ‘an industry.’ Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Artists in no way operate like industrialists do. Industrialists only produce things for which there is already an established market, whereas (‘true’) artists make things for which there cannot be an already-established market, because no one will have seen these things before they have been produced.

Another example of this flawed thinking is the fact that the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) only recognises artists as ‘professional’ if they are ‘in business for profit.’ This stance was challenged successfully in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in February, 2006, but the ATO seems disinclined to review it after all, it holds all the cards!

The Federal Government’s current approach is to encourage US-style business patronage for the arts in the form of ‘partnerships’ between artists and businesses. In 2000, it established the Australian Business Arts Foundation (AbaF), which handed out its 2006 awards mostly to collaborations between firms like Qantas, Australia Post and BankSA with the larger performing arts organizations.

While these well-meaning attempts to assist artists should not be denigrated, we should note that few ‘mute, inglorious Miltons’ benefited from the awards. Little went to visual artists, the grants being mostly for the performing arts no doubt, because shows are entertaining and suitable for corporate outings.

But all this is inherent in the concept of partnership: the AbaF can only patronise artists who are already successful to some degree. Business sense has replaced philanthropy and conspired to keep the arts to safe forms and safe topics.

And the Government has quietly added to the AbaF’s budget the money it had earmarked to fund a resale royalty rights scheme for visual artists. This scheme intended to channel a small percentage of the enormous profits that are being made in the ‘secondary’ art market back to the creators or their heirs was recommended by the 2002 Myer Committee report. However, the Government took the objections of the dealers, auctioneers and collectors more seriously, and a unique opportunity to assist artists evaporated.

Artists create precious objects and, thus, wealth out of common materials, and as such they are worthy of being considered a legitimate part of the economy. The problem is how to provide them with an income without perverting their valid functioning as artists.

The logical way is for the Government to allow artists to qualify for Work for the Dole (WFD). Artists are prepared to live frugally in order to be able to practise, and true artists could rarely be labelled ‘dole bludgers’ because most actually work longer hours and with greater dedication than those in other employment do.

But there would be a difficulty in distinguishing the genuine professional from the freeloader . Qualifications are not a reliable guide. Whereas most artists have tertiary qualifications, many graduates actually achieve little in the field. On the other hand, some artists gain professional recognition with few or no formal qualifications.

This problem could be overcome, however, by using the peer-assessment operating principle that has long been established in the Australia Council. It would be an extension of the government’s use of expert advice in many situations, but there should be a quid pro quo. Artists receiving the dole should be required to exhibit regularly and to allow Artbank the largely self-funded organisation which has for many years collected Australian works of art for decorating government facilities and for commercial lease to select one work per year for inclusion in its collection.

This choice could either be gratis or by purchase under strictly regulated conditions. To guard against prices being artificially inflated by commercial galleries or dealers, in the case of the latter, the prices could be negotiated at between 50 and 75 per cent of the gallery price. Artbank’s selection could be made by a peer group consisting of one permanent Artbank officer and two local peers, with each of the latter retiring after three years to minimise personal or stylistic bias.

This would require a permanent Artbank office in each State and Territory. However, with the exception of New South Wales, Victoria and, possibly, Queensland, this work could be done by one permanent officer assisted by volunteers or appropriately qualified officers seconded part-time from the States’ arts secretariat. In total, it would entail appointing only half a dozen additional staff to Artbank, and Artbank’s local office accommodation could be supplied by the State organisations.

What’s more, Artbank could establish a gallery in each State in which acquired works would be shown and offered for sale at gallery prices. This would cover some of Artbank’s expenses and also give valuable publicity to artists.

The cost of implementing such a scheme would not be as high as some schemes the Government already supports. Apparently, primary producers, who receive many thousands of dollars in drought relief and other loans, hardly ever pay the money back!

So why not give
it a go?

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