© Donald Richardson  January, 2007


Few will dispute the proposition that most visual artists have no idea how to make money.  It is only the fortunate - or diligent - few who, after many years of working in poverty, amass enough disposable income to be able to live as comfortably as the average real-estate salesman and to be able to make significant donations to our public galleries - as Margaret Olley and James Gleeson have recently.  But, the hard fact is - as many a survey has concluded - that most Australian artists live their entire lives in near-penury.  What is worse, they accept this as their lot.  Governments try, from time to time, to ameliorate this situation through agencies like the Australia Council and various grant-giving institutions, but they have no hope of moving the lumpen mass.
    The current government position in this country is to agree with Plato that artists must change their nature if they are to have a place in civilised society.  This could be achieved if they were encouraged - and assisted - to market their wares, like any respectable industrialist or businessman does.  There is, after all, a vibrant art market in which - if we are to believe what the dealers tell us - the demand vastly exceeds the supply.  And the techniques of selling have by now been well and truly established by the advertisers, realtors and super-markets.  All that is needed is to marry the two - creation and marketing - and all will be well.  Various schemes have been devised to do this, artists being instructed by marketing experts and other business people.  
    However, this strategy is unlikely to succeed as it is based on a complete misunderstanding of the principles of both the arts and marketing.  Whereas it might be possible to teach some artists how to market their wares, few will have the time to do so.  Marketing is a full-time specialist occupation: so is art.  Authors and performers engage agents to market their talents, and visual artists have commercial galleries to take on the marketing of their products.  In this way, each party pursues what he/she is good at and leaves the other to the other party - which is, after all, what all manufacturers of commodities do.  Since art became a commodity with the breakdown of the academy system in the later 18th century, this has been the way it has been.  It is difficult to see how this could change or be changed.
    This flawed thinking is an aspect of the commonly-held, simplistic, belief that art is 'an industry', but - actually - nothing could be further from the truth.  Artists in no way operate like industrialists do.  Industrialists only produce things for which they have ascertained that there is already an established market.  On the other hand, artists - if they are true artists - make things for which there cannot be an already-established market because no-one will have been able even to see the things they make before they have been made.  Just because artists use money does not make them industrialists.  Does this make families, religions and universities industrialists?
    Another aspect of this flawed thinking is the fact that the Australian Taxation Office only recognizes artists as 'professional' if they are - in the ATO's eyes - 'in business for profit' (as the relevant ruling, TR2005/1, states).  The operation of this ruling was challenged successfully in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in March, but the ATO seems not inclined to revise its stance: after all, it holds all the cards in its hand!
    The Federal government's current approach is to encourage US-style business patronage for the arts, and this has been formalized as 'partnerships' between artists and businesses.  Presumably, this is because business people are seen as more to be trusted to handle money than artists are.  For this purpose it has established the Australian Business Arts Foundation (AbaF), which announced its 2006 awards this week.  They went to businessmen and such organizations as the Australian Ballet, the Adelaide Bank Festival of the Arts, symphony orchestras and theatre companies.  While these well-meaning attempts to assist artists should not be sneered at, it will be obvious that there are not many 'mute, inglorious Miltons' in the list.  And there is little comfort for visual artists, the grants being mostly for the performance arts, no doubt because shows are entertaining and suitable for corporate outings.  
    But this is to be expected: it is inherent in the concept of partnership.  The AbaF can only patronize artists who are already successful to some degree - that is, making a profit.  It can only heap prizes on those who are already, in some sense, 'winners'.  Business sense has replaced philanthropy - and conspired to keep the arts to safe forms and topics.  And, of course, money so invested is tax deductible, especially if it is classified as advertising.  Whatever, such patronage is good for a company's corporate image.
    The government, of course, has quietly added to the AbaF's budget the money it had earmarked to fund a resale royalty rights scheme for visual artists.  This scheme - which was intended to channel a small percentage of the enormous profits that are being made in the 'secondary' art market back to the creators or their heirs - was recommended to it by the 2002 Myer Committee report.  However, the government took the objections of the dealers and collectors more seriously, so a unique opportunity to assists artists was lost.
    The lamentable - and predictable - outcome of treating art as business or industry - and placing non-artists in control of arts institutions - has been revealingly exposed by the recent operations of the Royal Australian Mint.  Last December, as part of its programme of funding its legitimate function by selling non-currency coins to collectors, the Mint released four such coins - silver five-dollar pieces, the first batch of a proposed set of eight.  The ostensible purpose of the series - entitled 'Masterpieces in Silver' - was to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the introduction of decimal currency to the country in 1966.  While the obverse of all these coins carried the head of the monarch, the reverse of each was taken from a painting by an Australian artist.  These were Jeffrey Smart's Keswick Siding (1945) and Brett Whiteley's Self-portrait in the Studio (1976), both in the Art Gallery of NSW; Sidney Nolan's The Burke and Wills Expedition   (1948; in the Nolan Gallery, ACT) and Russell Drysdale's The Drover's Wife (1945; in the National Gallery of Australia).  According to its media release, the Mint's intention was to pay tribute to 'some of the nations (sic) most treasured artworks (sic)' and to 'accurately recreating the original masterpieces.'  
    But, there were curious and disappointing aspects of this venture.  While it is understandable that the Mint would wish to choose Australian themes for its coins, only the Nolan and (possibly) the Drysdale would be recognized as typically Australian subjects by anyone who was not really familiar with the history of our painting.  From the evidence of both the visual images themselves and the titles (which are included on the coins), the Whiteley, the Smart and (possibly) the Drysdale could have been painted anywhere.
    And - in choosing these images - the Mint presented its in-house designer with a formidable challenge: to translate flat paintings into relief sculptures and rectangular pictures into the circular coin form.  The latter was tackled in two ways: by using only details from the pictures (with the exception of the Nolan) and by surrounding these with abstract arrangements of vertical and horizontal lines - a clumsy and ineffectual ruse, one has to say.  But, the modeling of all these images can only be termed gross.  It turned Drysdale's delicate, drought-reduced trees into blunt stumps and Whiteley's willowy nude bust into a meaningless lump.  This lack of sensitivity is most evident in the representation of the faces, which will inevitably be compared unfavourably to the subtly-modeled head of the Queen on the obverse.  In the paintings, Whiteley's self-portrait is replete with existential anguish (it is, after all, a masterpiece which won the 1976 Archibald Prize) and the drover's wife is an icon of resignation; but, on the coins, both look simply vacuous.  Apparently the archetypal shapelessness of the drover's wife was too subtle for the modeler, who was moved to give her a waist-line and to emphasize unnecessarily the folds of her dress - liberties that should never have been permitted.  And the head is over-emphasized.

 Brett Whiteley

the Whiteley coin;

Self-portrait in the Studio (1976) (detail)

  (See below for the Drysdale and Nolan coins)

    The clumsy rendering is less obvious in the Nolan, which is in his semi-naïve style, although Burke and Wills stare out frontally from the coin, their rifles held akimbo, recalling Punch and Judy.  The Smart, being a landscape without figures, suffered less in the translation and its linear qualities related better to the surrounding structure of lines and lettering - though probably only by chance.    
    To be fair, it is hard to see how anyone could translate the heavy pathos of the Drysdale and the Nolan and the complex play of imagery of the Whiteley into coin form.  The Whiteley painting is an extremely sophisticated reflection on reflexion, its subtlety and complexity depending almost entirely on its being flat.  And the artist himself is not actually represented in the picture apart from his two arms, one of which holds a mirror in which his face is reflected.  This is the actual self-portrait, the drawing he is represented as doing having been barely begun - and it has a piece of his own actual hair collaged on to it.  Surely this is territory into which angels would fear to tread?    
    Finally, the arbitrary arrangement of lines and captions, which relate formally to neither the pictures nor the circle of the coins, can only be described as aesthetically clueless.  Perhaps the Mint's defence for this aberration might have been that this is 'post-modernist', but - by 2005 - this style was positively passé.
    With the exception of the Nolan, the coins represented only details of the full works, but this was done without acknowledgement as such - which contravenes the moral rights of the artists as spelled out in the 2000 amendment to the Copyright Act, which proscribes derogatory treatment of an artist's work.  That a government body did this instead of setting a good example to the commercial world  - which frequently breaches the act - is reprehensible.      
    Given all this, it is relevant to question the very choice of these pictures as subjects by the Mint's management as well as the agreement of the owners of the pictures and the artists' heirs to cooperate.  Surely the Mint at least realizes that coin design is a matter for specialists.  There are many skilled metal designers in this country who would have created much more satisfactory coins than these.    
    Inquires about these indelicacies to the owners of the pictures yielded little enlightenment.  The Mint, the Whiteley Studio and the Nolan Gallery never even acknowledged emails.  So, too, initially, the National Gallery of Australia.  And neither the NGA nor the Art Gallery of NSW seemed too perturbed about the matter.  The Acting Rights and Permissions Coordinator of the NGA stated that 'the publication process for the coins produced by the Mint was followed in accordance with the NGA's terms and conditions of reproduction.'  However, these conditions include that 'works may not be cropped.without the prior, written approval of the Gallery.[and] applications for details.will only be considered upon receipt of a realistic mock-up'; also, 'before publication a hard copy.must be returned to the Gallery for approval.'  So the NGA must have colluded with the Mint's misuse of images under its control!  
    The NGA seemed to expect that using a detail only would have been acknowledged on the coins and it has 'notified [the Mint] of this omission.'  How this would put the horse back into the stable is unclear.  But the Project Officer: Curatorial Services of the Art Gallery of NSW acknowledged (after the event) that 'it is impossible to reproduce a rectangular artwork (sic) on a round coin' - surprise! surprise!  This gallery also stated that the representatives of Drysdale and Whiteley 'gave the Australian Mint permission to reproduce the works and were involved in the process of signing off on the design(s).'  And this was confirmed by the CEO of the Mint, who stated that not only did the Mint receive the 'overwhelming support' of copyright holders but also that 'all relevant parties cleared the final works.'  And the remarkable fact is that this seems to be true.  All the authorities responsible for the integrity of the artists concerned - all but one of whom (Jeffrey Smart) are deceased - 'signed off' on the designs.  This is in spite of the fact that the NGA, for example, clearly insists that reproductions of works in its care 'may not bein any way altered' and that captions indicating the name of the artist and the title of the work must be included.  As neither of these conditions are met by the coin which carries Drysdale's Drover's Wife - which is in the NGA collection - it can only be assumed that those responsible for giving permission to reproduce works are not qualified to do so - or else there is some other explanation: can it be that the questionable relationship that has recently been revealed between a curator of the National Gallery of Victoria and his commercial gallery-director former lover is a national genre?
    How can it be that all the owners and agents colluded in such disrespect for the work of some of our greatest artists?  Are two of our major government art galleries - as well as the Royal Australian Mint - being run by economic irrationalists who don't know much about art but don't care so long as they are making money?    
    While these 'masterpieces in silver' may have been worth the $195 asking price in silver content, it is hard to see that, in aesthetic terms, they are a paradigm for either Australian art or Australian coin design.  They are hardly 'a collection that stunningly commemorates the artists and their images', as the Mint's hype states.  It is so ironic that these coins were intended to commemorate the elegant and sensitive representation of our native fauna, magnificently adapted to the coin-form, which Stuart Devlin created for our original decimal coinage in 1966.
    After this unethical and aesthetically degrading handling of the work of Australian artists was exposed in articles in The Adelaide Review ('Australian art gets tossed about', 9 December, 2005) and Australasian Coin and Banknote magazine, the Mint - thankfully - decided not to proceed with the rest of the series.  Whether this decision was made internally or as a result of resistance from the curatorial institutions is unknown, but one would hope that these institutions realized their error and refused to cooperate further.  However, all parties are - perhaps, understandably considering the amount of egg that must be on some peoples' faces - silent on the matter.
    But the use by the Mint of paintings by Australian artists as coin reverses (although not works in public collections) has returned this year in another guise: the 'Great Australian Artist' series, which is - according to the publicity - 'a continuation of the Kangaroo Series'.  A representation of a kangaroo with a joey by Rolf Harris, the first in this new series, has just been released.  Two others are to follow, but the identity of the artists is, at present, a close secret.
    The presumed relationship between great Australian artists and the kangaroo as a subject is an intriguing one because no instance comes readily to mind.  But, the Mint chose Harris because of his song, 'Tie me Kangaroo Down' - which was performed by a children's choir at the launch of the coin in Canberra.  However, the rationality of this decision is curious, for - as  most will know - the song is not about a kangaroo at all, but about a stockman whose mate skinned him and 'tanned his hide after he died, Clyde.'  In fact, the chorus uses the kangaroo as a bawdy metaphor for something human rather than macropodal.  Surely someone in the Mint checked this out?  It would not be surprising if some of the female choristers had a sly smile - or even tittered - as they sang.
    However, it may be questioned how 'great' an Australian artist Harris is: he is not included in any authoritative book on Australian art and his work is not represented in any important public gallery.  In this respect, he is like the late Pro Hart, who was a popular success but whose work was not considered to be of sufficient quality to be included in major public collections.  Perhaps one of Hart's pictures will be on the next coin (although he is more noted for his representation of ants than kangaroos!).
    But, in spite of this, there is no objection in principle to Harris designing a coin - so long as it is appropriate as coin-design.  However, a glance at the illustration will indicate that what has resulted is a poor adaptation of a poor picture.  The subject is a poorly-drawn and mawkishly anthropomorphic representation of a donkey-headed kangaroo mother and her offspring, embracing!  This is a gross misrepresentation of kangaroo behaviour: the only times two kangaroos face each other is during mating and when males fight!  Joeys relate to their mothers' bodies via the pouch, not the fore-legs or the head, as humans do.  In art-historical terms, it is a marsupial 'mother and child' - even, perhaps, a 'Virgin and Child'!
    And - as with the previous series - the coin's form is very defective.  Although neither Harris nor the Mint will release a copy of Harris's painting, the Mint declares the coin to be true to what it describes as 'a stunning and realistic image.'  But, none of the lines or shapes relate in any way to the circular form, which seems not to have been considered by the artist at all.  Thus, adaptation would have been difficult, and - in an interview on ABC radio on 5th September - Harris's manager, his brother, Bruce, alluded to this.  But, both Harris and the Mint skate over it, the latter (which is handling all enquiries) declaring that both are 'delighted with the result'.  
    The Mint's attitude in commissioning this coin in this way is puzzling.  There must have been a considerable reason for its abandoning the previous series because, until quite recently, it was trumpeting its continuation in glowing terms.  Yet, it is persisting with the same method again.  Is this insensitivity, ignorance or arrogance, one wonders.  Whatever, the hype continues as before!
    Obviously, the Mint's administrators share the common inability to distinguish between art and design; but it takes little reflection to realize that - while both artists and designers operate creatively - designers have to make their creations work (i.e., they must be functional); and artist don't.  For example, a coin does not have a 'way up', as a painting does.  To contrast Harris's design with one that sits in complete comfort on a coin, we need only compare it with the currently-issued $1 coin - a beautifully-adapted image of a mob of kangaroos which depicts not only their character and grace but, amazingly in such a confined space, also gives a convincing impression of the Australian landscape.  This should not surprise us as it was designed by the great Stuart Devlin.  
    One wonders why the Mint dabbles in 'art' when it has Devlin in its employ; but, obviously, this project is a money-generating stunt for both the Mint and the artist - whose signature, 'Rolf', is more prominent than the discreet marks coin-designers usually use.  Regrettably, we are led to the conclusion that our major art institutions - and the Mint - are run by bureaucrats who, while they may know how to make money, know nothing about designing it - and nothing about art.


the Drysdale $5 coin

the Nolan $5 coin


The Rolf Harris $1 coin