Wednesday, October 04, 2006

NGV curatorgate saga settled?

Previous installments are here and here.

Predictably, Oz arts journo Corrie Perkin is today triumphant in claiming the resignation of Geoffrey Smith brings a satisfactory closure to “curatorgate”. Smith is front-ended as “embittered” by Perkin – a former PR boss at the NGV – while any collateral embitterment at the NGV seems to have evaporated overnight. Surprise, surprise.

Also unsurprising is that today Perkin has gone back to her old habit (penultimate URL) of failing to disclose her highly relevant, and recent, NGV role. When Smith went on the counter-attack a few weeks ago, Perkin did twice disclose her former NGV role: # and ##. Presumably, she felt it prudent to do so in defence, given that friends of hers in similar rich'n'arty circles to Steve Vizard (if not Vizard himself, who circumstantially is a Corrie Perkin buddy (penultimate URL)) were being put under the spotlight by Smith’s counter-attack. (In essence, Smith was arguing (i) that there were numerous other, non-Smith or Gould Galleries, seeming conflicts of interest at the NGV – involving Vizard, NGV trustees and more – none of which had lead to Smith’s fate of a NGV internal inquiry, and (ii) the NGV’s business with Gould Galleries was done at the most senior levels; i.e. without direction from Smith.)

For the record, the NGV purchased a grand total of four paintings from Gould Galleries (a major commercial gallery in Melbourne) between 1992 and 2005*. (The last, 2005 acquisition was one year after Smith and Robert Gould separated). To its discredit, the NGV has refused to identify the works or how much it paid for them (ibid), or who authorised their acquisition. The answers here would surely easily solve the most serious potential conflict of interest by Smith; that is, whether he directed his employer to buy artworks from “his” (co-owned, so he is claiming in a separate court case) private gallery.

To her discredit, Perkin today seems unconcerned about the ongoing mystery here. If for no other reason, having the NGV disclose the prices it pays, for what, and to what vendor/gallery in private sales (auction acquisitions are a matter of public record anyway) would seem to be a sensible insurance policy against future “curatorgates”. To her double discredit, last month Perkin warned against an early settlement of Smith v NGV “bury[ing]” “the gallery’s internal processes for acquiring art and putting on exhibitions” # – while today she is happy to be a participant in just such a burial.

Also for the record, the National Association of Visual Artists says three conflict of interest complaints involving the NGV (none of which involved Smith) have been made to it since 2003**. One of these almost certainly would be the inclusion of artist – and NGV trustee – Sally Smart as one of five artists chosen to represent Australia in the “Contemporary Commonwealth” exhibition, which coincided with the March 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, on face value a gross conflict of interest, but one which Perkin has mentioned only fleetingly***.

In terms of other, less serious potential conflicts of interest by Smith – such as using his accrued art-market expertise to steer Gould Galleries acquisitions (presumably not from the NGV) – who knows? What is plain is that this sub-category of “conflict” would be endemic among staff at at all public institutions: it logically extends to preclude dinner-party chit-chat (“Who’s ‘hot’ right now”), and so on. To prevent all such conflicts from arising, the NGV would have to forbid its entire staff from any outside socializing. At first glance, this step wouldn’t be that draconian, given low NGV wages – Smith’s salary, as a quite senior curator, was reported as $50k or so. But then again, Smith was far from the only person at the NGV living non-brown-cardigan-lifestyle on brown-cardigan wages. In other words, the NGV needs to get real.

Disclosure: Paul Watson lives a brown-cardigan-lifestyle on a sub-brown-cardigan income.

# Corrie Perkin, “Top art curator fights for professional life”
Australian, 2 September 2006

## Corrie Perkin, “Curator row set to hit bottom line”
Australian, 16 September 2006

* Karen Collier, “Curator in deal for ex-lover's art”
Herald-Sun, 11 July 2006

** “NGV complaints”
Arts Diary, Age 15 August 2006

*** Corrie Perkin, “Gallery probes love-art conflict”
Australian, 12 July 2006

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