It’s been almost two months since the first revelations about the extra-curricular activities of National Gallery of Victoria curator Geoffrey Smith. But in all that time Arts Minister Mary Delahunty has done little more than play spectator to the drama.

The minister’s reluctance to get involved has not gone unnoticed by many prominent art world figures who, from the outset of this saga, have privately questioned the NGV’s ability to deal with the matter itself. As is so often the case in the ever-so-fearful visual arts community, few people have been willing to put their names to their concerns, so today’s piece in The Oz quoting eminent academic Dr Nancy Underhill represents something of a breakthrough.

Dr Underhill, the former head of art history at Queensland University and a past chair of the Museums Association of Australia, has written to Mary Delahunty asking her to launch an external investigation into the conflict-of-interest allegations at the NGV.

The gallery was forced to suspend an internal inquiry into Smith’s conduct after the curator went to the Federal Court claiming that he had been denied natural justice and that the investigation breached his employment contract.

Smith was stood down in July after a preliminary investigation by the NGV’s head of finance Liz Grainger found that he had a case to answer over his involvement in the art business of his ex-partner Robert Gould. The investigation was launched after Smith’s admission in a Supreme Court affidavit that he had “worked assiduously” to build the reputation of Gould Galleries.

Dr Underhill told The Oz’s Corrie Perkin:

“I firmly believe that no institution can investigate itself over such a matter because the people who run the investigation are involved and need to give evidence.
“There is also the matter of a suggestion of in-house cover-up — whether it be so or not — and therefore I would like to think the NGV would want an outside committee in order to ensure its reputation for professional conduct is maintained.”

Underhill confirmed to Crikey yesterday that she sent the letter to Delahunty earlier this month but had so far received no response. The minister’s office tells us that a reply has been sent acknowledging receipt of Underhill’s letter, but no further comment could be made or any further action taken while the matter is before the Federal Court. Justice Marshall has ordered mediation between Smith and the NGV, which is supposed to be completed over the next week. If mediation fails, the matter will go to trial before the judge at the end of September.

While it’s convenient for the Government to use the Federal Court case as an excuse for not acting, it’s worth noting that Smith didn’t launch his legal action until more than a month after the story first broke.
There was plenty of opportunity before Smith went to court for the Government to take the matter out of the NGV’s hands and allow an external body such as the Ombudsman’s office to investigate. The conflict-of-interest and transparency issues bedevilling the NGV extend beyond the Smith case. Only an external investigation has any hope of casting light on what is without doubt a very big and complex mess.