Artists' royalties a controversial idea video

RORY O'SULLIVAN/Stuff.co.nz

Pre-Loved, Re-Loved aims to give artists a fair deal from second-hand sales. The exhibition at Devonport's Depot ArtSpace gallery runs until February 25.

Once upon a time there was an artist who lived in a garret.

He, or possibly she, was starving. So they sold some paintings for not very much money.

One day, an evil dealer got hold of that work and sold it again for thousands. The artist died. Going, going - gone, but never forgotten by the secondary art market.

CASE IN POINT: Michael Smither’s work Family in a Van originally sold for $400 in the early 1970s. It was for sale in ...
Michael Smither

CASE IN POINT: Michael Smither’s work Family in a Van originally sold for $400 in the early 1970s. It was for sale in 2012 for $200,000.

Every fairytale needs a hero and a villain. This week an Auckland art gallery is going into battle for the resurrection of the Artists Resale Royalties debate.

It's a scheme that was first mooted in 2007. Back then, the plan was to pay artists, or their surviving dependants, 5 per cent of any second-time round sales of their work. The idea got as far as a proposed bill to Parliament, but in March 2009, following a change in government and a select committee majority recommendation, the bill was dumped.

Now, Depot Artspace has emerged as the scheme's newest champion. In a widely circulated brochure promoting its exhibition Pre-loved, Re-loved, the Devonport-based community arts centre notes that since New Zealand abandoned the debate, 20 more countries have introduced resale royalties.

NOT KEEN: Otago-based artist Grahame Sydney says a sale is a sale and should be final.
MIKE CREAN/Fairfax NZ

NOT KEEN: Otago-based artist Grahame Sydney says a sale is a sale and should be final.

"Over this time too, the growth in the secondary arts market has mushroomed, with an increasing number of outlets turning over millions of dollars worth of sales. It's a cruel fact that none of this wealth accrues to the artists whose work is being sold."

Linda Blincko, Depot Artspace's creative co-ordinator, says there is a "vast infrastructure" that makes money from artists. "Artists shouldn't be at the bottom of that heap."

Whether they need the royalty or not, Blincko says they have a right to it, in the way that musicians, writers and other creative people do.

"This is a real support to this incredible cultural environment, that we really need to nurture in any way we can."

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Depot Artspace's new show will feature 79 works, including some to be sold at silent auction, with the gallery promising a 5 per cent royalty on anything that goes for more than $1000.

The catalogue runs from the likes of Barry Cleavin and Sylvia Siddell, to Peter Robinson, Marilyn Webb and Richard McWhannell. "What we're hoping is this exhibition will resurrect and invigorate the dialogue," says Blincko. "But it is quite an emotive topic. Some artists feel that there's an attitude amongst some politicians that this is artists putting their hands out, and there are some that don't want to be seen in that light. It's so personal, and it's so subjective."

She's not kidding.

"Greedy. Immensely greedy," says Grahame Sydney, Otago-based painter and photographer.

According to Sydney, a sale is a sale. "A firm, final contract between two parties - the implicit agreement being 'I will give you this thing I have made in return for this amount of money I have asked for, or we have mutually agreed is fair'. At that point, as with any sale, I relinquish my ownership rights to it.

"What say the value of a work drops from the purchase price? Would it not be fair then to ask the artist to pay the out-of-pocket owner 10 per cent of his loss? If you're going to grab some of the profit of something you no longer own, why not share the loss when that happens?"

The problem, says Sydney: "Artists have been persuaded by armies of sycophantic supporters that they are special. They are not. I don't buy it."

Artists resale royalty schemes have their origins in France, which introduced "droit de suite" (follow-up right) rules in 1920. Depot Artspace's brochure outlines pivotal moments in the debate's history, beginning with the 1889 complaint by the destitute family of a dead French realist, horrified by news a copper magnate had sold one of their relative's paintings for a record 553,000 francs.

Australians have had a scheme in place since 2010. When legislation was being introduced, Peter Garrett - the cabinet minister previously most famous as the voice of the band Midnight Oil - said it would "significantly increase the transparency of the art market . . . particularly important for indigenous artists, who have sadly continued to be exploited by some unscrupulous dealers".

Two years ago however, a review of the Australian scheme (yet to be completed) was announced. Critics said administration costs had outweighed economic benefits (Depot Artspace notes more than A$2.55m has been paid out).

Maggie Greeson, Artists Alliance executive director, says it's a cop out to put the scheme in the "too hard" basket. "Whenever this subject comes up, people say 'it's complicated'. This seems to be one reason for not doing this, and I think it's a pretty poor one. If you're going to have a system, then anyone with a bit of sense would make it uncomplicated."

She says it's economically tough to be an artist. And she's tired of hearing detractors of the royalties scheme liken art to other commodities, like houses.

"If the work has gone up in price, then that is because of the artist's endeavours, rather than anything that has happened to that actual work . . . when a house price goes up, it's probably because there's a posh school in the neighbourhood, or someone's added a few extra bathrooms. It's an entirely different kettle of fish."

Income streams for artists are not always obvious or direct, says Greeson. "And this is another potential income stream, but it should be part of a bigger discussion. How much money is in the visual arts sector and how does it all go around?"

Nigel Brown, Southland-based artist, supported the introduction of a New Zealand scheme in 2007, and says he'd do so again. "The 5 per cent is not just financial, it's about recognition and respect."

He estimates that over the past decade, around 100 of his paintings have come up for auction. Over the same period, he's produced two or three new shows of around 20 paintings each, annually.

"You're competing with all your past work," says Brown. "You never thought, in your lifetime, you would have this backlog of stuff popping up."

The royalties scheme, as originally proposed would have placed an obligation on "all auction houses, galleries, dealers and any other intermediary involved in the business of dealing with works of art".

In reality, this country's secondary market is dominated by auction houses.

Art+Object's last "important paintings and contemporary art" sale, held in November, generated around $1.1m worth of transactions.

Co-owner Ben Plumbly says the auction house is not "blanket opposed" to a royalties scheme - but has previously made submissions against it, because of the "administrative nightmare".

"At that point in time, they were going to make the resale royalty applicable to the sale of any painting or object with a fee of over $500. The administrative costs would have killed our business within a year, I reckon."

He says those who stand to benefit most from a royalties scheme "are not the people who need it".

"It doesn't fix the problem, it exacerbates it, in that the arts market becomes more lopsided, more one-sided and those artists who stay at the top of the tree just become wealthier."

Big sales make big headlines, acknowledges Plumbly. "But we could talk about the other 98 per cent of our sales that just aren't that glamorous - someone buying a work from a gallery for $4000, and reselling it for just $1500, because that artist has disappeared off the radar or decided not to practise any more."

In the early 1970s, Wellington art collectors Les and Milly Paris bought a painting of a family in a van. They paid gallery owner Peter McLeavey $400 for the work.

The artist Michael Smither recalls that, after the dealer's commission was deducted, he received around $300 from the sale. In 2012, that work went on the market for just the second time in its life. Selling price? $200,000.

But Smither is a pragmatist. He has, infamously, initiated a private royalty scheme. Today, anyone who buys direct from him signs up to return 5 per cent of any secondary sales price. He says he's had "two or three" payouts from the "20 or 30" arrangements he's made. But his scheme, he says "is totally like an honesty box".

"The contract is a perfectly legal thing, but following it up is extremely time-consuming and lawyer-involving.

"In the end, I thought to myself what do I want to be? A bloody policeman or an artist? And I decided I'd just get on with being an artist and make my things and leave it to the universe to work out."

He supports the introduction of a formal royalties scheme but says the forces against it are enormous - because art has become a commodity and auction houses "in particular" have changed the way people consider art.

"A lot of people have been buying art as an asset or an investment, and that's OK, but my life was based on the idea that people bought a work of art because they really liked it."

Hawke's Bay artist Dick Frizzell says he feels "rather chuffed when I see an old work of mine out there doing the business".

He does not, however, want a royalty payment from it. "I would hate to think I needed to rely on the secondary market for income. I think the artist should back him or herself - or get a real job."

Frizzell has, he says "eaten a lot of shit sandwiches" to get where he is today. "And at 71, I'm having a ball. Maybe I'm just lucky to be so adaptable, but I recognise that art is a dogfight, driven and shaped by attrition and bluff.

"The very weirdness of it weeds out the delusional and the dopey very quickly. If you don't figure this out you really aren't any use to the dialectic.

"The image of the young genius nailing the zeitgeist and then running out of steam and ending up alone and starving in a bedsit somewhere is entirely mythic!"

 - Sunday Star Times

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