Geoffrey Smith’s position as curator of Australian art at the National Gallery of Victoria seems to be under something of a cloud, judging by the ominous wording of a statement the NGV has sent to Crikey.

Emailed to Crikey late on Friday evening, the Gallery’s statement represented a significant departure from the strong, albeit qualified, support it had shown the curator only two days earlier.

The NGV said it was now taking “very seriously” accusations of a conflict of interest between Smith’s publicly funded curator’s job and his involvement in a commercial gallery business. The gallery said that after receiving court documents in relation to the matter, it was undertaking “a careful review and assessment” of the situation.

Smith has been involved in a sensational legal battle with ex-boyfriend and prominent art dealer Robert Gould over control of a $7 million art collection they assembled during their 14-year partnership.

Reported in eye-popping detail by the Murdoch press, here and here, the dispute has also embroiled Smith’s new boyfriend Gary Singer, better known to Melburnians as the city’s Deputy Lord Mayor.

In affidavits filed in the Victorian Supreme Court, Smith claims he worked “assiduously” to build the reputation of Gould’s galleries in Sydney and Melbourne.

The NGV’s first statement on the Smith matter was issued last Wednesday in response to inquiries by The Australian. Choosing its words carefully, the gallery said that based on its “current knowledge, in regard to any relationship between Geoffrey Smith’s position as curator and his personal and financial dealings, there would not appear to be any breach of any of the Victorian Government’s or the NGV’s ethical or work practice standards. These include the Victorian Public Service Code of Conduct Conflict of Interest clause, and the NGV’s related policies.”

Not happy with that response, Crikey sent a list of questions asking the gallery to explain how Smith’s involvement in a commercial art business did not amount to a conflict of interest. This, in part, is the NGV’s response:

The NGV takes the issues raised in recent days very seriously. The Gallery indicated in its first statement that our information has to date been based on our knowledge of Mr Smith’s actions within the Gallery. We have now received the affidavit material and will be undertaking a careful review and assessment of all related matters.

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey