It’s hard to move beyond the cliches about poor, morally superior artists struggling against the rich and powerful who exploit and profit from their talents.
The recent Biennale of Sydney artists versus Transfield ideological stoush was largely cast as a good (artists) versus evil (corporate) scenario despite the complexities and contradictions involved in (some) of the artists protesting against Transfield’s involvement in offshore detention camps. And today comes a protest exhibition in Sydney organised by 100 artists in opposition to Senator George Brandis flagging the federal government might scrap the 5% resale royalty scheme introduced by the former government in 2010.
Tamara Winikoff, who runs the artist lobby group the National Association of Visual Arts, said in a press release for the show at Boomalli Gallery in Leichhardt:
“While an enormous number of artists support the scheme, they have been the silent majority in the debate which has been dominated by powerful gallery owners and auction houses who begrudge sharing a small proportion (5%) of the profits with artists and are opposed to the requirement for greater accountability in their dealings.”
She tells Daily Review that auction houses “have no real commitment to artists themselves. They are interested in objects and their own profits.”
Brandis’ involvement adds a certain spice to this story. His recent anti-artist stand in the Transfield saga has cast him as one of the hooded-eyed, nasty guys in the ongoing battle between artists and the rest of the world.
But stories are never quite as black and white as they seem. Last year’s review of the scheme was scheduled by the previous government — not under Brandis’ watch — though its fate now is largely in his hands.
The resale royalty — or droit de suite — scheme was introduced after a long and painful gestation. Not only did it bring Australia into line with artist rights long accepted in other countries, it would also address the shocking situation of Aboriginal artists who have long been exploited by dealers who bought their work cheaply, then sold and resold it without the artist seeing a cent of the increased value.
Artists can opt in or out of the scheme. If they opt in, they can claim 5% of the sale price when an eligible artwork is resold commercially for $1000 or more. The right endures for 70 years after the artist’s death. NAVA argues this gives artists parity with writers and composers, who are paid when their work is reproduced.
But the scheme requires the seller to report all commercial resales for $1000 or more, whether or not a royalty is payable.
Some dealers and the auction houses have loudly complained that the scheme has driven business down, is costly to administer and hasn’t helped struggling artists at all. One colourful dealer called the royalty “yet another form of passive welfare. None of this money will ever go into community development or address indigenous disadvantage.”
Another dealer spoke to Daily Review on grounds of anonymity because he didn’t want to enter into the “poor artists versus greedy art traders” debate. He’s supportive of artists’ rights, acknowledging the large majority struggle to achieve even a low income — but he reckons the resale royalty scheme delivers few benefits to them.
“It has created a gloomy atmosphere in the art world: over the past 15 years we have seen the resale royalty copyright payments for catalogues (one of our largest expenses); restrictions on buying by super funds; and (very importantly) restrictions on exports of indigenous art produced for the commercial market,” he said. “These four components have been a disaster for the art trade and the effects are now impacting primary galleries and their artists.”
The dealers’ other major argument is that the scheme has mostly benefited “the widows” of our most valued artists whose husbands’ major work can sell at auction for over $1 million. “A vastly disproportionate amount of the money collected goes to a few already prosperous artists or their estates: Whiteley, Williams, Nolan, Blackman, Boyd, Brack, Olsen, Drysdale. The rich get richer,” said the dealer.
One of “the widows” tells Daily Review she hasn’t commented on the resale royalty scheme for fear of appearing self-interested. “I have the option of taking it or not, and I can see both sides of the argument [for its retention or removal].” she said.
“When I look at some of the prices for the works, I laugh. I see the price for [works] from the 1970s selling for $200 or $400, and now you see them selling for $80,000,” she said.
She says her guide to opting in was usually based on whether the work was being turned over quickly for speculative profit: “If someone is selling the picture and it’s only for a couple of thousand more, then I won’t take it [the royalty] because if someone is selling it then they clearly need to sell it.”
The argument that Aboriginal artists are not benefiting from the scheme is not borne out in the statistics of the Copyright Agency that administers the scheme. Since the scheme began in June 2010 until February this year it had generated royalties of more than $2.28 million in 8000 re-sales for 820 artists, with the lowest royalty being $50 and the highest $55,000. Most royalties are between $50 and $500; more than 65% of the artists receiving royalties are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Of the 50 artists who have received most money under the scheme, 26 are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, the agency says.
One of the artists exhibiting work at Boomalli from today is Melbourne painter Juan Ford (pictured, his You, Me and the flock). He says he’s only received the royalty once — $900 — and was grateful for that.
“When work is speculated on it’s good to know that you can reap a little bit from that speculation over which you have no control,” Ford told Daily Review. “This imposes some transparency on the market and the auction houses like it to be opaque.”
The Copyright Agency says the scheme has generated more than the $1.5 million it cost to fund it for three years. Winikoff argues it’s very early days in its life because a work has to have been sold twice since 2010 to be eligible for the royalty. She says it’s also addressing the issue of self-employed artists being able to make a living from a variety of sources, including sales of new work, copyright reproduction rights and the resale royalty.
Brandis’ pending decision is being closely watched. Will he cast himself as the good guy and come down on the side of struggling, if not impoverished, artists? Or will he favour the business people who run the art market?