The thesaurus lacks the words to describe it. Audacious, breathtaking, brazen, bold — they all seem inadequate when it comes to characterising the latest legal manoeuvre by Geoffrey Smith and his lawyers in the curator’s quest to get his job back at the National Gallery of Victoria.

For background on why Smith has been suspended from his position as curator of Australian art, look here.

Late on Friday, an amended notice of motion was filed in the Federal Court, with Smith demanding access to a mother-load of documents that, if made public, would cast a harsh and potentially embarrassing spotlight on the inner workings of the gallery and its dealings with a whole swathe of influential figures in Melbourne’s business, philanthropic and cultural circles.

Smith wants the NGV to hand over a staggering amount of material relating to the borrowing and acquisition of artworks dating back to 1990 when he started work at the gallery. He is also demanding lists of the names of all trustees and members of the gallery’s foundation and fundraising sub-committees for the past sixteen years.

Writing in The Weekend Australian, the NGV’s former spinner, Corrie Perkin, provided an outline of the scope of material Smith is seeking:

  • Artworks owned by trustees and NGV employees, as well as their family members or associated entities and companies which were lent to exhibitions organised and/or held at the NGV from 1990 to the present. 
  • Artists employed by the NGV, including trustees, from 1990 to the present, and details of works exhibited and/or acquired by the NGV from those artists. 
  • Acquisitions made by the NGV from the Robert Lindsay Gallery (a commercial gallery once owned by deputy director Frances Lindsay’s husband) from 1999.
  • Artworks lent to the NGV from the Vizard Foundation. 
  • Correspondence between NGV staff and Robert Gould and/or Gould Galleries, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Deutscher-Menzies. 
  • Any work of art purchased by any NGV trustee during their trusteeship, from 1990 to the present.

Perkin listed the prominent figures whose names would feature in the documents, including members of the Myer, Besen and Grollo families, business leaders such as Hugh Morgan, Ron Walker, Peter Clemenger and ex-Channel 7 boss, Maureen Plavsic, artist Sally Smart, and veteran curator and museum director Maudie Palmer.

Perkin also named the president of the gallery’s council of trustees, Allan Myers, and his predecessors Steve Vizard and John Gough; the NGV’s former directors, James Mollison and Timothy Potts; and current executives, including director Gerard Vaughan and deputy director Frances Lindsay.

Justice Marshall will consider the motion in a hearing tomorrow morning, ahead of a trial scheduled for the end of the month.

There are a lot of very influential people who will be taking more than a passing interest in the outcome. Having been at the centre of harsh and intense scrutiny since this story broke two months ago, Smith is fighting back in a spectacular and potentially explosive way by turning the spotlight on the NGV and its powerful patrons.

The gallery is on the horns of an excruciating dilemma. If it presses ahead with the case, it risks being exposed to damaging and embarrassing scrutiny, not only of its own operations but also of its dealings with patrons. If it abandons the case, the gallery will stand accused of trying to conceal the truth, leading to pressure for an external inquiry, not just into the Smith matter but into the whole way the NGV manages conflict of interest.

Peter Fray

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