The Australia Council for the Arts claims to have strict procedures to guard against conflict of interest, but it’s a hollow boast. Crikey can reveal today that this taxpayer-funded outfit has no rule obliging its cultural gatekeepers to declare whether they own any work by artists to whom they’re awarding money and gigs.

I have been trying for some time now to get a straight answer as to whether any members of the selection panel for next year’s Venice Biennale own work by any of three artists chosen to represent Australia. I have received various vague responses but, until now, there has been nothing even remotely approaching a straight answer.

Finally, last night, the Australia Council conceded the following: “It is not within Australia Council for the Arts assessment procedures for any visual arts activity to ask whether individual selectors – board members, peers or panel members – own any works of any of the artists which they as a group assess.”

So there it is folks. The nation’s premier arts funding body doesn’t have the most basic pecuniary interest test for people it appoints to dispense grace and favour to visual artists.

Awarding an artist a place in an international event as prestigious as the Venice Biennale is all but guaranteed to boost the value of the artist’s work. Whether or not the people awarding the gig own any work by the artist would be a screamingly obvious question to ask by the Australia Council.

The Australia Council’s new chairman, James Strong, as a renowned upholder of good corporate governance, should be taking a hard look at this. And while he’s at it, he should also look into the fact that the Australia Council locked itself into to a much bigger commitment in Venice next year without having secured much of the funding.

The Australia Council puts the budget at around $1.6 million. It’s vague on how much taxpayer is being committed but a significant proportion of the budget still has to be raised from private sources, a job that’s been left to veteran art collector John Kaldor in his role as commissioner for Venice.

Senior figures in the public gallery complain that they are now facing direct competition from the Australia Council as Kaldor chases handouts from a limited pool of visual arts patrons and sponsors.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey