As arts bureaucrats, the boffins at the Australia Council
are lousy spin doctors. For tips on imaginative spin, I recommend they tune into the ABC at 9.00pm
tonight for Absolute Power, Stephen Fry’s hilarious p*sstake on the public
relations industry. They certainly need to improve on the pathetic effort they served up to me
yesterday.

Earlier this week I sent the national arts funding body a list of
questions concerning the selection of artists for next year’s Venice
Biennale (29 May, item 16). For the sake of transparency, I wanted to know whether any
members of the selection panel owned any work by any of the three
artists chosen to represent Australia. My questions were
straightforward but the Australia Council’s response was one of the
most shameless examples of obfuscation I’ve encountered in 29 years of
journalism.

I won’t bore you by repeating all my questions, but here are the ones
relating to the selection panel:

  • Do any members of the selection panel for the 2007 Venice Biennale own
    any works by any of the three artists selected to represent Australia next year?
  • Was there any protocol in place to ensure that members of the selection
    panel declared ownership of work by any of the selected artists?
  • If any of the selection panel do own work by any of the selected artists,
    when was that work purchased?

And here is the Australia Council’s response:

  • Members of the Venice Biennale selection panel were chosen by the
    Council as they are Australia’s leading visual arts curators and arts
    administrators with expertise in the promotion and positioning of Australian art
    within the international context of the Venice Biennale. The commissioner was
    chosen by the Council for his energetic support of contemporary art over many
    decades.
  • The selection criterion was “excellence and relevance in the
    international context of the Venice Biennale 2007”.
  • The selection panel met to evaluate the expressions of interest. Each and
    every application was carefully and thoroughly considered by the selection
    committee against the selection criterion only.
  • After careful consideration the panel agreed that there were three
    outstanding applications and decided unanimously to select those three artists.
  • All three selected artists are at different stages of their careers but
    are leading Australian artists with strong international reputations for
    innovative and creative work across a variety of disciplines and met the
    selection criterion.
  • All three have exhibited widely at a numerous prominent Australian
    public and commercial galleries.

As you can see, there wasn’t even the vaguest attempt to answer my
questions. When I protested that I had not been provided with a direct answer, I got
the following response: “The direct answer is that the selection was made against the selection
criterion only. Council has clear conflict of interest guidelines regarding
pecuniary interests and non-pecuniary interests.”

With the greatest respect, if this is the best the Australia Council
can do, one would have to conclude that its selection process has all the
transparency of a house brick. I have sent my questions to each member of the selection
panel but so far only Juliana Engberg has responded, saying that she is not at
liberty to comment on Australia Council matters.

Radio National’s daily arts program The Deep End did an extensive live
interview with John Kaldor, the Australian Commissioner for the Venice Biennale yesterday but politely
refrained from asking him whether he owned work by any of the selected artists.
Nevertheless, Kaldor did make the interesting revelation that he
decided three artists, instead of the usual one, would go to Venice, which seems
to conflict with the idea that it was the unanimous decision of the selection
panel to send more than one artist. Going by what Kaldor said yesterday, it
seems he had already determined that more than one artist would be chosen before
the selection process began.

Peter Fray

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