Public art world fight raises some interesting questions
Stephen Feneley writes:
It's rare to see an ex-PR flack ask tough questions of an old employer, and rarer still that such bold behaviour should occur in the ethics-challenged art world.
Corrie Perkin, former media minder for the National Gallery of Victoria, has a pull-no-punches piece in The Oz today about NGV art curator Geoffrey Smith and his legal stoush with ex-boyfriend and leading Melbourne art dealer Robert Gould.
In a bitter post-separation fight that has kept Melbourne's gossip circuit abuzz, Smith and Gould are battling it out in the Victorian Supreme Court for control of a multi-million dollar art collection that the pair assembled during their 14-year relationship. This is a falling out of Vanity Fair proportions, as the Herald-Sun details here, with all sorts of allegations being hurled from either side.
But one bit of detail that captured Perkin's interest was Smith's claim that he "worked assiduously in building the reputation of Gould Galleries". Perkin comments:
The case has prompted discussion about whether it was appropriate for a curator to be so closely linked to a commercial business. More significantly, it raises questions about the relationships between curators in public galleries and their colleagues in the commercial sector. It also puts the spotlight on another problem facing institutions such as the NGV: how to deal with staff who may benefit financially from their professional position.The NGV told Perkin that it did not believe “any breach of any of the Victorian Government's or the NGV's ethical or work practice standards" had occurred. But the NGV doesn't have a great track record managing conflict of interest.
You may remember that Sally Smart, a trustee of the gallery, was included in the prestigious survey exhibition of contemporary art from Commonwealth countries, held in conjunction with this year's Commonwealth Games. As only five Australian artists were chosen for the exhibition, many observers felt that Smart's privileged position as a trustee should have precluded her from selection. The gallery denied there was a problem.
On 15 June, I emailed the National Gallery of Victoria with a query regarding Geoffrey Smith. I am still waiting for an answer but here is the message I sent:
Could you pass on this query to Geoffrey Smith for me please. Could he confirm whether or not he is the state gallery curator referred to by Chris Deutscher in the Sydney Morning Herald as having "screened" a work attributed to Sidney Nolan, Kelly with Rifle, which was offered for auction as lot 112 in the Deutscher-Menzies sale in Sydney last night.By way of background, the Nolan failed to attract any serious bids after doubts were raised about its authenticity. The auction house's owner, Rod Menzies, ended up buying the picture, forking out $18,000 of his own money in order to appease the vendor. A reliable source has identified Geoffrey Smith as the state curator who authenticated the picture for Deutscher-Menzies.
There was already some connection between Smith and the Nolan, as the picture had previously been sold through Gould's art gallery. Smith has claimed in court that he was closely involved in the business. My source says that Smith wasn't paid for his services in authenticating the picture but, instead, offered his advice on a "friendly basis".
If he was involved in any way in providing expert opinion to a commercial enterprise, it raises serious questions about transparency and conflict of interest.