[intro]Australia’s Michael Reid Explains the Essential Role Private Collectors Play and Why the Government Must Be Sure Not to Hamper Them.[/intro]
The Australian art world is in the midst of the perfect storm. Interest rate rises in March and April, the Global Financial Crisis, the botched implementation of the resale royalties scheme; the further botched implementation of the resources tax (and the consequent biggest fall in the stock market in 18 months); the Cooper Review into Superannuation; the election campaign (when traditionally retail spending comes to halt); the end of financial year and the recent school holidays have all taken their toll. Happy days are not here again.
A large number of people are spooked by the sheer volume and mix of financial news, coming from different directions and at the same time. As a result of all this unexpected coming together of events they have shut down all non-core financial and social activities. God I would hate to be a restaurateur in this climate.
In terms of the Australian art market, private collectors are anxious. Irrespective of the merits of resale royalties (and I am on record as a supporter) and the Cooper Review into Superannuation (another area crying out for much closer scrutiny) the result is that private collectors feel under siege.
The endeavours of private collectors are vital to the future of our public galleries and their significance must be impressed upon the Treasury. While governments must do what they have to do, the method of implementation of their policies and their proper explanation are as important as the policies themselves. Governments need to be gentle and do no evil.
An unintended consequence of the resale royalties scheme and Cooper Review is that private collectors have toned down their collecting. The secondary market for art sales came to a near halt in early June following the commencement of the resale royalties scheme. At the time of writing, the late June round of Aboriginal art auctions (all secondary sales) have yet to take place. Although the auction consignments are on the whole pretty good, I do not expect them to fly. Of course the art market will improve but in the interim we must remember the very important role that private collectors play. Let us not forget (and please Government, try not to harm) their thoroughly good work.
Individuals, and not institutions, are at the cutting edge of all forms of art collecting. It is private collectors and not curators (who are few in number and very rare birds to spot in the collecting wild) who scour the contemporary art exhibited in commercial galleries. Whether in video art or mid 19th century European Symbolist pictures, it is always the obsessively focused and, more often than not, well-resourced private collector who drives visual change. There are very few major art museum exhibitions that do not significantly rely on loans of work from private collectors.
Better resourced than public art institutions, there are more than fifty private collectors in Australia who spend more each year on contemporary art than all the Australian art museums put together. This says a great deal more about the combined resources of our art museums than it does about collectors’ wealth, but you get the picture. The purchasing of artworks by private collectors (who subsequently often gift them to art museums) fuels the sales and acquisition engine-room of the Australian art market.
A very public example of the strength of the private buyer over the public art museum, was the 2006 auction of John Brack’s The Bar for $3,120,000 (against a presale estimate of $1,500,000-$2,000,000). Absolutely confident that they would be successful at the Sotheby’s auction, representatives of the National Gallery of Victoria had secured an undertaking that after the fall of the hammer they could whisk the painting away to a prearranged press conference with television cameras et al. Unfortunately the NGV were outbid big time, by not just one but two private clients. The NGV public relations coup souffléd and the painting went to a private collector in Tasmania. (As an interesting footnote, some years later the private collector sold the work to the NGV for their original purchase price.)
With better resources and unhindered by the purchasing delays associated with collective decision-making, private collectors can move very quickly. For every time that an art museum is in the purchasing swim – as with The Bar – there are literally hundreds of opportunities for good purchasing that art museums are unable to take simply because they can not act quickly enough. So, the very best artwork often goes to private collectors.
Private collectors buy works from across all fields of art. Unlike public institutions, they are not restricted by a requirement to tell the narrative of Australian art or plug a gap in its collection. Private collectors can divert their collecting journey along the many byways of aesthetics, collecting in depth the less fashionable or the more daring in art. It was two private collectors, who purchased both an analogue and digital print of Untitled 2007/2008 (the much-discussed Bill Henson nude of a girl) days before his controversial 2008 exhibition opened. (I know because I bought the prints on their behalf and it will be a long time before that particular work is viewed in a public art museum.)
The majority of all artworks housed in art museums are donated by, or facilitated with the help of the funds of, private and/or corporate collectors rather than paid for from the public purse. What an incredible thing it is for private collectors to house the very creative essence and soul of the nation, for the nation and at no cost to the nation. Please could those at the Treasury of this or any future government, give some consideration to private collectors here.