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Art galleries are closing. But don't worry…

Last week the National Association of the Visual Arts (NAVA) celebrated its 30th anniversary championing the rights of artists with a morning tea with the Governor-General Quentin Bryce and the announcement of its vision for Australia in the next 30 years. NAVA’s indefatigable and long serving executive director Tamara Winikoff called for arts funding to be doubled from 0.084 per cent to 0.17 per cent of GDP by 2043, legislation to enshrine artists’ social and economic rights in law, and for the “inclusion of visual artists in everyday Australian life”. Some ideas include artist work and exhibition spaces in every major new residential or corporate development, and artist residencies in hospitals, schools and businesses.

It also, somewhat fancifully, calls for the introduction of regular arts news reports on all media platforms. We can’t wait to see Today Tonight‘s and A Current Affair’s take on the arts. It also would like fifty-one per cent of politicians at all levels of government “having a genuine commitment to the arts”. This might be hard to police, let alone measure what is genuine and what exactly is “the arts”. Would watching the latest Hobbit qualify? A more pragmatic, though no less optimistic, suggestion is that cultural attachés be assigned to Australian embassies worldwide to secure engagement with Australian artists.

Winikoff, in the Q and A below, argues that these aspirations are achievable. NAVA’s agenda for the future says we can aim high because we are building on a good base. It points to 2012 research which estimates that together creative industries contributed $31.1 billion to our GDP (in 2008 to 2009). It claims that 11 million people a year visit galleries and that over two million people are involved in visual arts activities a year, and just under two million participate in craft activity.

These are impressive figures but how many of the people trying to make a full-time living from the visual arts are doing so? This week the Australia Council released figures that found in  2012 “early career artists” were spending almost half of their time on their creative work but were only earning a third of their income from their work. Not that their creative work translates to much money. Artists receiving grants earned an average pre-tax income of $14,200 from their art. Those without grants were earning $11,700.

While a show like the wildly popular Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria is showing work by 400 living artists where will their work be seen when the show closes in March. Times are tough for private galleries showing new and innovative work in Australia. Fewer galleries mean fewer opportunities for artists to earn a living. Many artists remember the downturn of the late 1980s when galleries closed down and some of those artists never got representation again.

Last week the high profile Sydney gallery Breenspace announced it would close from this weekend. Its director Sally Breen in a statement said: “The decision to close is a difficult one for any gallery, particularly for its staff, and more especially for its artists and patrons. Such risk taking and innovation is not always well supported. It is particularly difficult to undertake in Australia. There are few government incentives for commercial galleries, which are among the smallest businesses in Australia, often only two or three person operations. This has a direct and deleterious effect upon artists who rely upon galleries to bring their work to the attention of collectors. The lack of depth and breadth of collecting practice and limited philanthropy compounds this difficulty, as does the expectation among a number of public and private collectors that art can be obtained at discounted prices and paid for over several months, or even years, putting tremendous commercial pressure on galleries and ultimately compromising artistic endeavour”.

The high profile Simryn Gill was a Breenspace artist but even her status as this year’s Australian representative at the Venice Biennale was not enough to keep collectors coming through the doors. In Melbourne Nellie Castan is closing down her South Yarra gallery, though she says she is not out of business but replacing it with Nellie Caston Projects which will concentrate on one off events to show Australian artists nationally and internationally. Meanwhile Helen Gory Galerie in Melbourne has moved into Diane Tanzer Gallery in Melbourne’s Fitzroy, partly as a cost saving measure and partly to initiate a joint gallery approach to develop “off-site projects, art fairs and international exhibitions’.’

Australian dealers and artists can only dream of the opportunities overseas where contemporary art is booming. The New Yorker profiled influential art dealer David Zwirner on December 2 in an article sub-tititled “Why are so many people paying so much money for art?”.

“This is an industry in its golden age,” Zwirner said. “When I opened, in 1993, we had a couple of hundred galleries and a few hundred collectors. And now we have, what, a couple of thousand galleries and a couple of thousand collectors. You want to grow a viable business in this climate. The wind is at your back.”

“The accumulation of greater wealth in the hands of a smaller percentage of the world’s population has created immense fortunes with a limitless capacity to pursue a limited supply of art work,” wrote New Yorker journalist Nick Paumgarten. “The globalization of the art market—the interest in contemporary art among newly wealthy Asians, Latin Americans, Arabs, and Russians—has furnished it with scores of new buyers, and perhaps fresh supplies of greater fools. Once you have hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s hard to know where to put it all. Art is transportable, unregulated, glamorous, arcane, beautiful, difficult. It is easier to store than oil, more esoteric than diamonds, more durable than political influence.”

Or as Zwirner puts it more simply: “One of the reasons there’s so much talk about money is that it’s so much easier to talk about than the art.”

Australia and its contemporary artists are a long way from these centres of collectors, dealers and public gallery directors who influence or even dictate artistic tastes and trends.

But we can dream. As the NAVA statement envisions: “Our hope is that in 30 years, visual culture will be central to Australian life, and that Australia will be recognised internationally as one of the great arts nations. Such innovations would help to further raise Australia’s global reputation as a country which wholeheartedly encourages and supports artists, offering them innovative and ground-breaking opportunities, and seamlessly interweaves artists’ creativity and imagination into everyday Australian life.”

Tamara Winikoff Q and A:

The NAVA agenda sounds like a utopian vision. Do you really think these ambitions can be realised in our lifetime?

Far from being utopian, NAVA’s agenda is very achievable and practical. It has been carefully developed based on NAVA’s many years of first hand experience both at the coalface of our industry and in productive dealings with key decision makers. The reason that it may seem ambitious is that it does what all good policies should but rarely do, which is to address all the contributory factors which should be considered together. This includes the engagement by those in the political space nationally and internationally, funding bodies, the media, art education, the private sector and the interested community. The realization of this plan could transform Australia into one of the great art nations. We have all the talent and ambition of a New World Nation looking to reach cultural maturity.

If Australia hasnt even come close to the level of government and public support you would like to see, then doesnt that tell us something about ourselves? How much funding should the arts be given if there is a small section of the population interested in the arts?

The real level of arts engagement by Australians is going under the radar. It’s huge! Do you realize that one in five Australians is actively engaged in art and craft making and half our population attends an art gallery every year?  That’s more than go to the footy! So why does Australia only provide half the % of GDP in funding compared with our near neighbor New Zealand? It’s shaming!  If all three levels of Australian governments were to double their commitment, the proposals in NAVA’s agenda could be realized pretty much immediately and Australians would benefit from enriching experiences, a more innovative economy sustainable over the long term and social wellbeing outcomes for all the diverse sectors in the community.

But there are also other ways of investing. NAVA has proposed that in every major new development, artists should be provided with free or very low cost work & presentation space under a Percent for Art Space scheme to provide healthy, safe space for artists and make art readily accessible to communities locally. As the American academic Richard Florida has demonstrated, successful cities are those where there is a strong vibrant cultural life which draws investment and positioning by the business sector. It’s where people want to be.

Where does the ‘market’ fit into this plan? Are the arts only sustainable when on a drip feed from a kindly government?

For there to be a market, in the first instance art has to be made and shown. The cutting edge of cultural experimentation takes time to be accepted and understood, especially by the more conservative private sector buyers and investors. They need to have a tick of approval by the arts cognoscenti before they feel confident to commit themselves. So it is crucially important for governments to be supporting experimentation and exploration with the full knowledge that sometimes it will fail. But when it succeeds, it transforms our way of perceiving the world and our sense of who we are, both as individuals and as a nation.

Our arts colleges are churning out graduates. They can’t all get grants to live on – noone can live on a grant   where will they get the sort of income you would like to see them earn?

The kind of skills developed by young people in art school is what is increasingly valued across the board: in the public sector; in business; and in industry. Companies are becoming more interested in the qualities of entrepreneurism, innovation, agility and adaptability, resourcefulness and lateral thinking than in specific narrowly focused vocational skills. Australia can’t continue to rely on what lies under our feet as our economic base. We have to learn to better use our intelligence. And it’s very stimulating to be challenged to come up with new ideas and to express these ideas effectively. This is what arts people are trained to do. It’s why NAVA has highlighted the importance of developing new exciting opportunities for Australian artists & designers within the creative industries and beyond, including all aspects of design and design thinking, gaming, robotics, 3D printing, the audio-visual industries including animation, website design and online visual communication and new areas of technology that we don’t even know about yet.

In Australia commercial galleries are closing because the market for art and new work in particular is so minute. What does NAVA see as the solution to this?

The Australian art market is constrained by our having a small population. That is why NAVA has proposed some new measures to encourage art buying including tax incentives for the purchase of work by living Australian artists and the introduction around the country of a scheme like ‘Collect’ in Tasmania which offers interest free incremental part payments. This has generated sales in just one state of around $5 million. But we also are looking further afield and proposing new initiatives in the international arena  – see 7 below.

The rest of the developed – and even some of the developing world – is experiencing an art boom with huge prices paid for new work. Australia is missing out. Is it all to do with our small population or are there other reasons?

This is news to me.

Why do so few international collectors and institutions seek out new Australian work?

This is not true of work by contemporary Indigenous artists which is of great international interest. However, for the rest it is a matter of familiarity with our place, its culture and the forms of expression of that culture. We have warmly welcomed the current federal government’s interest in reviving its earlier initiative – the International Cultural Council – though we think it should operate at arm’s length from government. One of the good things it did first time around was to bring overseas art curators, writers and critics here to get to know and understand us a bit better, meet Australian artists and see their work. More of this is needed. In addition we have proposed that all Australian embassies should have cultural attachés to engage in cultural diplomacy, not just to foster trade but to secure engagement with Australian art and artists and to build international exchange relationships, especially in our region.

Is there any evidence to suggest that our showing at Venice every two years flows through to benefit the rest of the contemporary market?

It would be useful for the flow on effect to be researched by the Australia Council not only from the Venice Biennale but from all the other art and craft exhibitions, fairs and events where Australian artists are represented. In NAVA’s view it is likely that there will be a strong case for much greater investment by federal and state governments and more comprehensive engagement. Many of the small to medium visual arts and craft/design organisations are brokering very innovative international connections but this is very financially challenging and needs a boost. It is one of the areas we have suggested needs close analysis ahead of the decision about renewal of the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy (VACS) funding commitment in 2015.

Around the world we are seeing a rapid change in the language of communication from words to images, through the use of various electronic devices like the mobile phone and camera, but as a form of expression this is relatively unsophisticated. With our addiction to technology, Australia could play a lead role if our visual and media arts, craft and design were given a boost. If all the components of NAVA’s National Visual Arts Agenda were to be developed in tandem, then at last we would be a grown up visual cultural at home and away.

4 responses to “Art galleries are closing. But don't worry…

  1. NAVA is an example of one of the organisations that should be de-funded with the money being allocated instead to artists and galleries.

  2. Excellent questions Raymond Gill. Scott, you are right – the Gravy Train is OVER. I have noticed that many visual artists, and some musicians don’t seem to realise that they are in a market and that relevance is achieved through the creation of a seminal work. Many artists are too entitled for their own good.

  3. Well the vapid line from the Government Art representative Tamara Winikoff says it. When asked about the boom in Contemporay art internationally Winikoff just says: “This is news to me.” a lot of people on the public payroll should stop asking government to bail them out and start asking really hard questions about WHY the whole sector is evaporating here. So many people in power and/ spokesman positions just mouth platitudes to offend no one, well not to offend their govt paymasters.

    Just take off your blinkers guys! The games up. The Gravey Train is over!

    1. Scott – your recent interview and posts about this have been great. I am really happy to see an artist ask some tough questions. This is a debate that needs to be had. Australia punches above its weight in the film industry but why not visual arts? Is NIDA that much better than COFA? Well actually based on the recent grad exhibition lets not answer that one …


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