ian milliss   the invisible artist     exhibition  +  documents  +  about 
archived photos
Sydney  Biennale: White Elephant or Red Herring: Comments from the Art Community 1979

Don’t moan, organise! (with apologies to Joe Hill)
Ian Burn and Ian Milliss

Artists in Australia have no voice. We have no collective representation, therefore we have no say in what goes on, how and why it is organized, who it is organized for, or anything else. This is one important reason why events like the Sydney Biennale can be foisted off onto the art community in ways which poorly reflect our interests or needs. Because artists are powerless, structures like that of the Biennale, which assume to define the situation in which we all work, can be imposed on us.

The dissatisfaction, the bad feelings, the seeming bad faith of the organizers, are all a consequence of our lack of collective representation. If there was such representation . . . then hassles over the aims and function of a show like the Biennale need not come up, they could be negotiated sensibly by consultation during its early stages of planning. There need be none of the sloppy dealings with individual artists which have gone on with the organization of this event.

We would argue very strongly that any suggestions for reforming or restructuring the Biennale must be premised on the existence of an artists' organization. It is the only basis from which a reformulation can be put forward which will take account of the various interests in all different sections of the art community. It is also the only basis on which we will be listened to and taken seriously.

But it isn't just because of the Biennale that we need some kind of organization. We need it in a much broader context. Outlined below are just a few of the many reasons why we need it!

1. Today the Government (Federal, State, Local) is the major employer of artists in Australia either through direct purchases, grants, artists-in-residence, funded group workshops or programs, art centres, etc., or indirectly through teaching, in art schools or other tertiary institutions, secondary and primary schools. Very few artists actually survive solely by sales of work to private collectors in Australia. The vast majority survive by working for or being funded by the Government, i.e. one employer. Yet we have no say in any of the decision-making; we have no recourse to action when conditions become unfair (except through unrelated organizations like the Teachers Federation).

2. Since the establishment of the Australia Council and the Visual Arts Board, there has been a growing art bureaucracy here. It does little to consult artists as to its aims and direction. When consultation does occur, it is generally with individual artists, and so can hardly be regarded as democratic or widely representative. Admittedly their task is made far more difficult because there is no artists' organisation through which interests and needs might be democratically expressed. Over the past couple of years, the VAB seems to have become even more rarified and less in touch with the art community. It is looking and behaving more like the multi-national corporations in the building where the VAB is located. This risk of losing touch is one which faces all bureaucratic organizations as they become established and expand: their decision-making tends to become self-reinforcing, more and more it reflects an unconscious (?) desire for self-perpetuation and preservation, at the same time becoming less and less responsive to the people it services. The VAB needs an artists' organization to keep pressure on it, to keep it responsive to the community, to contribute to the basis for its decision-making. The VAB needs an artists' organization as much as artists do.

3. There is a growing trend towards more involvement in the arts by local and foreign corporations. Such funding is inevitably conservative and discreetly supports values sympathetic to (or not antagonistic towards) their right-wing profit-motivated interests. An organization has already been set up in Australia specifically to encourage and organize such corporate involvement. It is modelled after the Business Committee for the Arts set up in the U.S. in 1967 largely by David Rockefeller to support art and cultural activities which are not antagonistic to Rockefeller-type interests, e.g. "From an economic standpoint, such involvement in the arts can mean direct and tangible benefits. It can provide a company with extensive publicity and advertising, a brighter public reputation, and an improved corporate image. It can build better customer relations, a readier acceptance of company products, and a superior appraisal of their quality. Promotion of the arts can improve the morale of employees and help attract qualified personnel" (David Rockefeller).

Such corporate sponsorship operates in the area of entrepreneurship. Hence it can play a very influential role in respect to what gets to be exhibited, how it is exhibited, how important it looks, and so on. They know very well what they are doing. As one of the persons behind the organization here put it: "The arts should remain apolitical. This is one way of seeing that they do." In other words, it can function to define the situation in which we are working, defining it not in terms.-of our work and interests, but in terms of their values and interests. The only way this involvement can be controlled and kept democratic in its operation is by a strong artists' organization keeping pressure on them.

4. Just looking back over the past five or so years, it is striking the number of ad hoc meetings, informal and temporary groups which have had to be set up by artists. These have always been in response to actions or decisions taken by cultural institutions, bureaucratic committees or boards, etc. These instances of ad hoc organizing have always suffered through the lack of formal means to communicate about meetings; it has generally been difficult to arouse support from other than local areas, despite the fact that very often what is being addressed affects artists elsewhere. Such actions, have, in general, been taken too late, and so have had little impact; after the action has been taken, any organization falls apart, there is no follow through, no record made, no informing of people in other centres, or anything else. So the next time some action is needed, we have to start from scratch once again. It makes absolutely no sense to continue this way.

5. In the art world we are constantly pitted against one another, competing against each other for grants, sales, prizes, positions, etc. This encourages an unnatural suspicion and distrust of motives between people in the art community. Events like the Biennale exploit this situation: the Director negotiates directly with each individual artist, and each artist has to make his or her own private deal for expenses, space, representation, catalogue and anything else. Nobody knows what anyone else has negotiated. Bad feelings arise when it is realized that some artists have gotten a better deal than others. And there is always a lot of defensiveness on the part of the invited artists in terms of their relations to artists who are not invited. All this makes for a very unhealthy situation. If the Director of the Biennale was able to negotiate with an artists' organization some basic conditions for artists' participation in the event, everyone would know what was going on and what to expect. The participants might then feel some solidarity with others in the show, and feel they had some level of support from the art community.

One could list many more reasons why we need some kind of artists' organization. For example, it could help overcome the isolation and geographical distance between centres in Australia. But the need for it seems to be staring us in the face. Artists in many other countries have formed such representative organizations and we should examine these in detail. Below we will give a run-down on just one of these.

Canadian artists have a union called Canadian Artists' Representation - Le Front des Artistes Canadiens (CARFAC) to represent their interests. The organization has just recently celebrated its tenth year of operation.

What does CARFAC do for Canadian artists?

Here is a list of its major activities and achievements:

1. It acts as a lobby group in keeping the needs of visual artists in the minds of the public governing bodies. As much as it can, it stops artists being ripped off by galleries, collectors, government agencies, entrepreneurs, etc.

2. It puts out a quarterly newspaper which functions as an open forum for the art community, reports on grants and other activities of the Canada Council, reports on local, regional, national and international activities, and is a major source of information on art schools, university programs, jobs available, competitions, etc. The newspaper has a circulation of 8,000.

3. It acts as an educational watchdog in co-ordination with other organizations regarding Canadian content in curricula, etc. (How many Australian art schools or universities even have courses on Australian art?)

4. It is involved in the formation of public policy as regards federal agencies.

5. It has worked to implement a schedule of rental fees for artists, whenever their work is exhibited in any publicly funded gallery. The fee varies in accord with how many artists are included in the particular show, how many works of each artist, whether an international, national, regional exhibition, whether touring or not. The top figure is $4,620 for one-person show in an international exhibition like a Biennale. The bottom figure is $20 per work for a regional juried show, non-touring.

If the Sydney Biennale happened in Canada, each artist whose work was included would be paid a rental fee of $200, over and above all expenses necessary for their work.

6. It has formulated a standard Artist/ Gallery Exhibition Contract and an Artist/ Public Commission Contract.

7. It has recently published a Taxation Guide for artists.

8. It is presently preparing a brief for further revision of the Copyright Law.

9. In some situations, it has forced the Canada Council to give more of its money to working artists.

10. It has been successful in getting artists represented on some gallery boards.

How is it Organized?

CARFAC is made up of members from all regions of Canada. Each region is autonomous and has an elected representative to the National Council of CARFAC which meets annually. The National Council elects an executive of three people to carry out the business. It functions through a central office, presently located in Winnipeg, and employs a secretary full-time. They are in the process of appointing a national director to co-ordinate activities between national and regional executives and to implement policies and directives of the National Council. Each province (state) maintains its own offices, executive and handles its own finances.

How is CARFAC financed?

It is financed mainly through a grant from the Canada Council. Additional money is occasion-

ally available through the Secretary of State Dept. Plus the national organization receives annual membership fees from each region on a per capita basis. And the newspaper sells advertising space.

What problems has it run into? There appear to be two highly contentious decisions that CARFAC has made recently, which have been somewhat decisive in the organization:

(i) only Canadian citizens or those eligible for citizenship can become members; and (ii) they established guidelines for membership based on what may be considered a 'professional artist'. He or she must satisfy one of the following criteria - earns a living through art; has a diploma (etc) in fine art; teaches art in a school of art or applied art; exhibits frequently in group or individual shows; is recognized as an artist by a consensus of opinion among other professional artists (even if possessing none of the other qualifications). Criticisms of this range from those who feel it doesn't maintain a 'proper standard' of professionalism to those who feel it is still too stringent.

Overall, the structure they have set up seems fairly democratic, allows for strong regional representation, and seems to work. However it has been rather conservative in the demands it has made and in the range of activities it has initiated, but it is still very basic stuff relating to many artists' livelihoods. Perhaps some of us would have difficulty accepting the idea of criteria for membership. It is certain that most of us would flinch at the citizenship criterion. (In Canada's case, it is obviously a response, if a questionable one, to their proximity to the U.S.)

Moreover, they do not appear to directly address issues like sexism within the art world. (In fact, in detailing their criteria for 'professionalism', they used the male pronoun throughout). This is something which needs to be confronted in quite specific ways within such an organization. Apparently, it isn't done in CARFAC.

Perhaps there are other problems with the Canadian model too. But it does seem to have successfully overcome some of the basic structural and organizational problems of representation for artists, and so is important to study from this point-of-view.

We feel it is time to start thinking in concrete terms about our situation.

lan Burn & lan Milliss