Art Essays

Super Cooper

Published July 15, 2010

Despite a ludicrous survey conducted by the Australia Council that tells us 93 per cent of Australians are actively involved in the arts, the politicians are not fooled. They know that art is a minority pursuit, with no votes to be won or lost. One of the reasons for this stasis is the age-old connection between the arts community and the Labor Party.
Still dreaming of the arts-friendly attitudes espoused by Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating, the arts crowd gives its support to the ALP with Pavlovian consistency. But what has the government done to deserve such loyalty? Arts Minister, Peter Garrett, answered this question in The Australian a few months ago, by pointing to “the maintenance and continuation of funding.” In other words: “Be grateful for what you’ve got!” And yet, to give but one example, our major art museums are all massively under-funded, and any government money thrown their way is trumpeted as a benefaction rather than a right.
If the mining industry took the same laissez-faire approach as the arts industry, we would now have a Super Profits Tax in place and Kevin Rudd would still be Prime Minister. We might also have an ETS.
Unfortunately, the arts lobby cannot commission million dollar advertising campaigns. Neither can it rely on the support of Coalition politicians, who have no more interest in the arts than their counterparts on the government benches. Somewhere, somehow, the arts community needs a rallying point. For artists and art dealers, that point may have arrived, in the form of the Cooper Report into Superannuation, and its recommendation that the practise of buying art for Self-Managed Superannuation portfolios be discontinued. Works already purchased would need to be dispersed within five years.
For anybody involved in the visual arts industry this is a no-brainer: it is a consummate act of vandalism that will do enormous damage to an already fragile Australian art market. To dump all the art gathered in Super schemes onto the market would cause prices to tumble, and potentially start a chain reaction. Over the past few years, many commercial galleries have begun to depend on the sales made through Super schemes. The money has not simply benefited dealers; it has assisted artists, and the whole complex infrastructure of the art business. To terminate the scheme would be like sawing one leg off a table, on the basis that it only needs three to remain upright.
According to Michael Fox, of the Save Super Art campaign, the scheme accounts for only 0.1 percent of the total value of assets held in Self-Managed Super Funds in this country, but has a disproportionate value to the industry itself. Fox queries the “logic” behind Cooper’s argument that the commercial art business is insufficiently regulated. After the massive crises generated by the excesses of the (highly-regulated) finance industries, this is hard to stomach. When did a hiccup in the art market ever bring the economy to its knees?
It may be that a single crook, like Ronald Coles, who used the Super provisions to bolster a range of dishonest practises, has become the catalyst for closing down the entire scheme. Once again, if the same rule of thumb were applied to the finance sector, the stockmarket itself would have to be terminated.
Arriving hard in the heels of a flawed Resale Royalty scheme, arranged with the same haste and stubbornness as the home insulation debacle, the Super proposals represent a double whammy for an art market that is merely limping along. In the media we tend to hear only the good news, such as Australian Galleries’ six million dollar coup with a Jeffrey Smart show; or the record sale at auction of Sidney Nolan’s First-Class Marksman. The truth is that 2010 has been a flat year for art sales, with the once-booming market for Aboriginal art in a state of virtual collapse.
In the current climate it would make more sense for the government to be providing assistance and incentives, rather than turning the thumbscrews. Instead, Peter Garrett seems to be waging war on the commercial galleries while claiming to be a great supporter of art and artists. Unfortunately, it is artists who will suffer the consequences of this ignorant crusade.
This brings us back to the question, as to why Labor is habitually perceived as the party for the arts? During the Howard years “maintenance and continuation of funding” was pretty much the status quo. If the recommendations of the Cooper report are followed Labor will not even live up to this bottom-line commitment. It will be seen as the party that gratuitously tore the heart out of the Australian art market.
Published for the ABC Unleashed/The Drum, July 15, 2010