23 April 1993

Art row leaves bitter taste on the palette

Reeling from recent controversy at Australia's oldest commercial art dealer, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney's art world has been besieged with calls to get its act together.
"We all think the art world has this patina of gentility about it. But it doesn't," leading arts lawyer Shane Simpson told Inside Sydney. "It's not about chardonnay - it's about getting paid."
Bought by Eileen Chanin in 1978, Macquarie Galleries has been embroiled in acrimonious claims and counter claims about the use of artists'proceeds - and the brouhaha has renewed calls for commercial galleries to adopt more conventional business practices.
Australian Commercial Galleries Association chairman Frank Watters, OAM, owner of Watters Gallery in Darlinghurst, is moving to address the problem.
"Anyone we thought was guilty of malpractice has been dropped from the association," explained Watters, who's in the process of reviewing the group's guidelines for membership.
While he wouldn't cite the offending galleries, he did maintain it was the artists' responsibility to hold their dealers to account.
"You had everyone bitching away. But when we set up an ethics committee, we couldn't get a single artist to file a complaint," he noted.
"And what you often find is there's no clear understanding between the artist and the gallery in the first place.
"But we are taking steps. I feel quite optimistic, and I wouldn't have said that a year ago."
Simpson, however, believes the only answer is legislation: "Self-regulation might boost the reputation of the industry.
"But there'd be no enforcement of any guidelines, and not every gallery is a member of the association."
Ian Collie, director of Sydney's Arts-Law Centre in Woolloomooloo, advocates use of trust accounts and written contracts, and is organising a public forum on the issue.
"There's no reason why an artist-gallery relationship should be any different to that of a solicitor-client or a real estate agent-landlord," he said.
"Moneys held by agents should be kept in trust and not be made available for cash flow."
As for contracts, Collie claimed the visual arts were the only branch of the arts not to embrace the written agreement.
"They are the norm in music, film, theatre, almost everywhere," he said. "But visual arts people still rely on the good old verbal contract."
However, Frank Watters disagrees: "Contracts just don't work in these situations.
"We've never had a contract with an artist in 30 years, and our record as an agent would be unparalleled."
Inside Sydney surveyed other Sydney members of the Australian Commercial Galleries Association on their attitudes to trust accounts and written contracts.
* Gisella Scheinberg OAM, director of Holdsworth Galleries, Woollahra: "I couldn't care less about trust accounts. I never use anybody else's money. I have plenty in the bank.
"I tell the artist my policy, but I don't believe in contracts. You can't tie down artists. It doesn't go with the artist mentality. Anyway, you can't sue them, they haven't got anything."
* Brian Hooper, manager of Coventry Gallery, Paddington: "All arrangements here are by verbal contract. As for people jumping around saying 'trust account, trust account' - they involve legal and commercial obligations which require extra expense.
"The artist has ultimate power in any artist-gallery relationship: they can withdraw."
* Lin Bloomfield, of Bloomfield Galleries, Paddington: "We're not selling washing machines. It's a very personal relationship between an artist and a gallery. I've been representing some artists for 20 years and I've never had a written contract.
"We do keep trust accounts, but I don't think they're necessary. Where the trust comes into it is between the artist and the gallery."
* Robin Gibson, Robin Gibson Gallery, Darlinghurst: "Half our artists are in the red. We advance them money and pay things in advance for them - such as framing and so on. I don't know how one would work this if one couldn't dip into the account to actually pay it.
"But I know if I didn't pay my artists in time, they'd be screaming. And I've seen what were otherwise good relationships come to grief over contracts. I'd rather take the risk that the artist will stick by me, as I'm prepared to stick by him."
* Roslyn Oxley, Roslyn Oxley Gallery: "We've set up trust accounts for artists mainly on commissions. But we make it our business to pay up front, and quickly, so we don't have much need for them. And often we extend money to the artist and they owe us.
"A lot of people pay off paintings, which complicates it further. We have had contracts, but there's no point in a contract if an artist doesn't want to work with you."
* Rex Irwin, Rex Irwin Gallery, Woollahra: "I don't use trust accounts and I will do what I've always done. Our reputation is still fine. I'm against regulation in principle.
"Making lots of rules and regulations won't help. It hasn't in any other business, has it? I don't believe you can teach people ethics.
"But let's not be too hard on the art world. I don't think greed is a disease peculiar to us.
"It's shake-out time from all that excess of the 1980s. And in the end we'll be left with the people who were there in the first place - because they're the ones that aren't in it for the money."
Caption: Illus: Frank Watters outside his gallery. Picture by DEAN SEWELL
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 22-4-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 2
Section: News and Features
Length: 1030
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald

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