Australian Government’s Secret Art Fire Sale Spurs Outrage

Jeffrey Smart, Study for 'City Bus Station' 1985). Photo: courtesy Fine Australian Paintings, Sotheby's Australia, Melbourne.

Word is out in Australia that Artbank, the government’s art leasing company, has quietly sold off a clutch of paintings worth a collective AU $1.6 million (US$1.49 million), and the country’s art community is not happy, reports the Australian.

Sydney gallery owner Evan Hughes spoke out against the sale, arguing in an interview with the Australian that “works owned by Artbank are public property and any sales of publicly owned art should only be sold with the ­utmost care and scrutiny—if at all.”

The 34-year-old organization is a division of Australia’s Arts Ministry and raises its own funding by renting artworks to government agencies, businesses, and private individuals. Artbank’s only board member, National Art School director Michael Snelling, was not consulted before the organization made the decision to sell paintings by Jeffrey Smart, John Coburn, Margaret Olley, John Brack, and William Robinson.

Artbank director Tony Stephens assures critics that profits from the sale will be put toward purchasing new works by the nation’s living artists, as Artbank’s mission intends.

Hughes is in favor of founding an advisory council that could help hold Artbank accountable.  “The art market is so unregulated, boards and councils are the only form of oversight we have.” While Hughes has been invited to join just such a group, his appointment has not yet been confirmed.

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