There’s nothing like a bit of public ridicule to shame a bureaucracy into surrendering its secrets, even if the secrets finally being revealed are so innocuous one wonders why they were secret in the first place. Crikey’s nagging of the Australia Council’s over its appalling attitude to accountability is starting to reap rewards.

I had been trying since early August to find out how much the arts-funding body spent renovating the Australian Pavilion in Venice in the lead up to that city’s last visual arts biennale in 2005. While this might have seemed a pretty harmless piece of information, OzCo’s point-blank refusal to offer it up spoke volumes about the organisation’s attitude to transparency, particularly in relation to its highly contentious handling of the selection process for Australia’s representation for next year’s Venice Biennale.

I needed to know how much was spent on renovations in 2005 in order to calculate how much extra money Ozco intends to spend on its expanded program for the 2007 event. Only one artist, Ricky Swallow, represented Australia in 2005. Next year three Australian artists – Callum Morton, Daniel von Sturmer and Susan Norrie – are going to Venice. In additon to the pavilion, where von Sturmer’s work will be shown, another two exhibition spaces have to be hired for Morton and Norrie.

OzCo insists it will be able to stage the three separate exhibitions for $1.6 million, roughly the same amount it spent in 2005 on just one exhibition. Asked to explain how this could be possible, OzCo’s PR flaks told me that the 2005 budget included the renovation costs. When I asked how much was spent on the renovations, I got this astoundingly smug response: “We’ve answered all your questions on the matter to the level of detail we feel is appropriate.”

That screw-you message hit my in-box on August 2, and I was still seething over it five weeks later when I interviewed Jennifer Bott just before she stepped down as OzCo CEO. She promised to look into the matter. A week later I finally got my answer.

I can finally report that $313,981 was spent fixing up the pavilion. On the strength of OzCo’s belated response, it would appear that an extra $300,000 is being budgeted to mount the two additional shows in Venice next year.

It remains a mystery why the OzCo was so determined to conceal this information.

Peter Fray

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