Saturday, November 28, 2009

Artists in Australia to benefit from resale royalty rights

Last Thursday the Australian Parliament passed resale royalty rights legislation for visual artists. The Arts Minister Peter Garrett described it as a "red letter day for Australia's visual artists". The introduction of such a law was an election commitment made by the Australian Labor Party during its 2007 campaign. It follows almost twenty five years of on-again off-again debate in Australia about the merits of resale royalty rights for visual artists.

Under the new law artists will receive a proportion of the proceeds when their works are re-sold. The system only applies to works first sold after the law's introduction, which is expected to occur by mid-2010. It is also limited to sales over $1,000. The royalty will be payable until seventy years after the death of the artist, as is the case with other forms of copyright. The rate will be five percent of the sale price although administration costs will also be deducted before the final payment is made to artist. The scheme will be administered by a central authority as is the case for copyright royalties in the music and publishing industries.

The new law will bring Australia into line with European Union member countries. It is expected to be particularly beneficial for Indigenous visual artists in Australia. It is in the Indigenous art market that some of the most extreme cases of price inflation that have failed to benefit the original creator have occurred. While the new legislation is not going to solve all of the financial problems facing visual artists in Australia, it may help some to keep the proverbial wolf from the door and allow them to spend more time on their creative practice.

Photo: Šrotíř David

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Good-bye noughties

Next month the first decade of the twentieth century ends. Yes, the days of the noughties are numbered. Ten years ago we were all getting ready for the millennium bug. The "experts" were predicting a computer meltdown at midnight on New Year's Eve 1999. What a fizzer that was! Remember? Probably not, it was such a non-event. Then there was SARS. And then Bird Flu. This year's armageddon is (or was meant to be) Swine Flu. Anybody like to hazard a guess at what it will be next year? Scaremongering is now big business and we all love nothing like a good scare. Happily the media is happy to oblige with another beat-up.

9/11 was also part of the noughties. Now that was big! Funny that none of our experts saw it coming. They were too busy whipping up artificial crises. Ditto the great financial meltdown. How many economists are there in the world? And how many saw that one coming? Why do economists still have jobs?

So how was it for you? The noughties, I mean. That time since the race narrowly escaped the millenium bug wipeout, almost ten years ago. I reckon the noughties were, all in all, not too bad. Technology delivered us some cool new ideas and gadgets: social networking, iPods, blogging, Google Earth. If the 90s was the Microsoft decade, the noughties belong to Google. In the arts, we saw the return of kid lit' with the boy wizard. The greatest film event was the Lord of the Rings. Musically I think it was an average ten years. A period of consolidation without any major new stylistic developments. Check out NME's top 100 for the decade here. We also saw contemporary visual art experience a great bubble of interest. Maybe the decade belonged to the visual arts. Everybody wanted a piece of the action. Prices soared before falling back again after the GFC hit. What the next decade brings, only fools would dare predict. Do you want to go first ...

Photo: Pavlunka

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Questions on going to Berlin

I am going to Berlin next month. My timing is good, because the German capital is flavour of the month in the media at the moment. The papers are full of reports about the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago this month and there have been plenty of TV documentaries on the city. I have been reading and watching with great interest and making notes-to-self on things to see and do.

But then I got thinking about how best to approach a visit to a city such as Berlin. There is much more to Berlin than just the Wall and the Third Reich. Is it "right" to visit the city with pretty much only those two historical events in mind?

As an aside, something that was largely forgotten in the celebrations surrounding the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the wall this week, was that 9 November was also the date of the November Pogrom in 1938 (also known by the Nazi term Kristallnacht) when 91 people were killed.

But back to the questions. How, in this case as tourists, should we value the relative importance of events in history? It would be easy to spend four or five days in Berlin viewing nothing but the wall, the Holocaust memorial, the Stasi musuem etc. etc. But wouldn't this skew our appreciation of history? What about the contemporary arts scene in Berlin? What about the Berlin of the nineteenth century? What about its art collections and galleries? What about following the footsteps of famous people who have lived in Berlin as you would in many other great cities. The list includes Edward Munch, Marlene Dietrich, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Weill, Felix Mendelssohn, Hegel and Humboldt to name but a few. And what about the great Berlin cabaret tradition?

There is more to Berlin than is currently meeting the eye courtesy of our slavish and simplistic media. For my guide, tune in next month.

Photo: Wolfgang Staudt

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Who needs a conductor?

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has recently had a very public falling-out with its now-departed Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, Oleg Caetani. As a result it seems that some members of the orchestra - or at least Robin Usher writing in The Age today - are wondering if they need a Chief Conductor at all. Robin Usher is right to point out that going sans artistic director would be a step outside the norm amongst orchestras around the world, but his list of great orchestra/conductor partnerships overlooks the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra that knows a thing or two about orchestral playing and does not have a Chief Conductor. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and The Chamber Orchestra of Europe are two other fine ensembles that prove you can more than get by without a Chief.

Still, I think Usher is right. The MSO should have a chief conductor. The difference between the MSO and most of the other Australian orchestras is the way artistic directors and chief conductors are appointed. Most of Europe's great orchestras are thoroughly democratic institutions and individual players have greater control over the destiny of the orchestra than do their colleagues in Australia. The Vienna Philharmonic, for example, has the legal status of an incorporated private association. The Managing Director is a member of the orchestra who leave his or her desk to attend rehearsals. The Chief Conductors of the great orchestras are hired and fired by democratic processes involving all members of the orchestra. This boosts the sense of belonging, collegiality and "ownership" amongst players.

It is curious that despite Australia's fabled egalitarian beginnings, in general organisations such as universities, orchestras and major corporations are becoming less collegial and democratic. There is certainly lots of the ubiquitous "consultation" going on but many people are now cynical about how genuine this, especially as opportunities for democratic decision making are quietly being whittled away. The MSO needs a chief conductor. One chosen democratically.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Art and politics before the Fall

The media are a buzz with stories about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of this historic event, the most important moment in the protracted end of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War in Europe was a political milestone that also had far-reaching implications for the arts.

Isolated from the West for over forty years, artists in the countries of the Communist Bloc developed their own artistic language. They lived under oppressive and dictatorial regimes that left little room for free expression or dissent. But while many artists produced compliant art in the service of the all-seeing state, others were able to subtly or secretly pursue more radical forms of expression in a game of cat and mouse with the authorities.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the "triumph" of the West, the work of most artists from the former East suffered the same fate as the political and economic system and was discarded to the bust bin of history or at best to the cabinet of curiosities we in the West use to convince ourselves that we know (and knew) best. Only now are the first exhibitions and film festivals starting to ask whether the art of the Eastern Bloc might have some merit, at the very least as historical documents. The German Historical Museum in Berlin (Deutsches Historisches Museum) is currently hosting the exhibition Art of Two Germanys / Cold War Cultures. The show features 350 works by various artists and writers from East and West Germany and contrasts the differing approaches in the two countries without indulging in simplistic conclusions. Hopefully it is just the beginning of a more extensive of a more sensitive and less jingoistic assessment about how art and politics mix.

Image: A.R. Penck, Der Übergang, 1963, Ludwig Collection, Aachen

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Obama names his arts team

President Obama has appointed the members of his Committee on Arts and the Humanities. Chaired by First Lady, Michelle Obama, the Committee is notable for its inclusion of high-profile Hollywood stars including Sarah Jessica Parker and Forest Whitaker. Cellist Yo Yo Ma also got the gig.

One of the tasks ahead for the Committee is to rehabilitate the USA's flagging cultural diplomacy program. Cultural diplomacy is the attempt to favourably influence public opinion in foreign countries through cultural exchange. It was a key element in US efforts to "win hearts and minds" during the superpower struggle of the Cold War. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 US cultural diplomacy has lost direction. Its primary agency, the US Information Agency, was wound up in 1993 and some commentators see this withdrawal from the field as partly to blame for the animosity toward the US way of life seen amongst disaffected youth in many parts of the world today.

Obama's cultural diplomacy program will focus on Mexico and China and one of the major sub-programs uses film as a tool for international cultural understanding. Under the title American Film Institute 20/20 the film program has since 2007 brought international guests to the US for workshops, conferences and screenings while showing the world another side to the US film industry. Let's hope that Sarah Jessica Parker and Forest Whitaker also see the benefits of film beyond the world of Hollywood!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Bring back the Spiegeltent

The Melbourne International Arts Festival wound up over a week ago. Maybe you didn't notice. Maybe you never noticed it had even started. This year was the first festival of new Director, Brett Sheehy. It was a much more "in door" festival than we become used to over recent years. This year's Festival had minimal street presence. In the last few years the Spiegeltent had helped get the festival out among the people and created a certain "buzz" around the city. Located on the Forecourt of the Victorian Arts Centre it was always a hive of activity from noon until late. Passersby could hardly fail to notice.

This year Callum Morton's sculpture/installation Valhalla occupied the same space. But it was never going to have the same social function as the Spiegeltent. The Tent also brought in audiences who would not otherwise attend mainstage Festival events. This year's Festival also seemed to have cut that crowd adrift.

The program seemed generally to move toward the more traditional, Euro-centric, arts-festival fare. Not that I am complaining about that. This is not about weighing up different artistic tastes. Its just an appeal to bring back - if not the Spiegeltent - some form of public gathering place for the life of the Festival. A good arts festival should be more than just a string of arts events!