Here’s another conflict-of-interest tale involving another Melbourne cultural institution.

The man at the centre of this saga insists he has done nothing wrong and has accused Crikey of behaving unethically in pursuing the matter. Alessio Cavallaro is a senior curator at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Better known as ACMI, it’s the uber-groovy but trouble-plagued museum devoted to cinema and new media, located in Federation Square, right next door to that other trouble-plagued institution, the National Gallery of Victoria’s centre for Australian art.

Cavallaro is also the founder of Novamedia, an agency representing new media artists. Cavallaro has included several artists represented by Novamedia in exhibitions he has curated at ACMI. Cavallaro has been on paid stress leave for several months, but not, we believe, for reasons related to his connection to Novamedia. It’s understood he’s embroiled in a dispute with ACMI’s head of exhibitions Mike Stubbs. According to the influential contemporary cultural journal, Realtime magazine, Cavallaro founded the company in 2001, something that Cavallaro acknowledged to Crikey in a brief but tense phone call yesterday.

One prominent new media artist, who spoke to Crikey on condition of anonymity, described Cavallaro as “one of the good guys in the arts”. The artist, who is not represented by Novamedia, said Cavallaro had worked tirelessly and selflessly to advance the new media cause. “He hasn’t been self-serving and that has been his downfall.”

According to Novamedia’s website, the company was established to “support the development and promotion of new media art in Australia and elsewhere” and “provides expert advice to private collectors and public organisations on the most dynamic of the contemporary arts”. Included among its long list of clients and partners are ACMI, Film Victoria and Arts Victoria. Cavallaro founded Novamedia while he was on the public service payroll and he has included the agency’s artists in three ACMI events.

In Transfigure — a group show staged between May and September 2003 — Cavallaro included work by Stelarc and Justine Cooper, both listed as being members of the Novamedia stable. In October 2004, Cavallaro included John McCormack and the new media duo Granular Synthesis in an exhibition called sensuround. They are also listed as being part of Novamedia’s stable. In the same month, ACMI’s stand at the Melbourne Art Fair featured the work of another Novamedia artist, Tinna Gonsalves. The Novamedia website names Cavallaro’s long-time girlfriend Antoanetta Ivanova as director and does not make any mention of Cavallaro as having any role in the company, however his name features prominently in the CVs of the artists.

Ivanova is now based in Perth, where she is running an electronic arts festival, but sources have told Crikey that she remains in a relationship with Cavallaro. A landline number listed on the Novamedia website was answered by Cavallaro yesterday, although he denied having any involvement in the running of the company. “I was a co-founder but I have never received any money,” he told Crikey. “There is a difference between co-founding something and presuming therefore that I am in some way involved in the business of Novamedia.” Denying any conflict of interest, Cavallaro said my questions were “out of line and inappropriate”.

ACMI’s director Tony Sweeney, who only returned from the US last night, released a statement through his press office earlier this week in response to our questions about Cavallaro. It makes no mention of the curator or Novamedia:

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) has clear and stringent policies in place to ensure the integrity of its operations and staff. All staff in positions of authority are required to sign declarations of potential conflicts of interest and any such instances are fully explored and action agreed upon before going forward. ACMI ensures an open and transparent process is followed in the selection of artists for all its exhibitions. Artists are selected on merit and presented to ACMI’s Program Committee for discussion and final approval.

Late this morning, Sweeney sent a follow-up email, pointing out that he wasn’t running ACMI at the time of the exhibitions referred to above.

“I cannot comment properly on these specific matters until I have looked into the circumstances. After investigating these fully, we will issue further comment as appropriate.”