An Open Letter From John Kelly to the PM

Op-ed Aug 22, 2008 No Comments

1st of August 2008
Re: The Australia Council

Dear Prime Minister Rudd

Recently my work was invited to participate in the Guangzhou Triennial at the Guangdong Museum of Art in China. This is an important invitation coming from curators with international reputations. The organisers asked me to assist them in looking for funding as they have limited government support.

The Visual Arts Board (VAB) informed me that I was unable to apply directly to the Australia Council for support through the appropriate category (Out of Time). The reason given was that the VAB only allows one application by an individual artist per year. As I had not made any applications to the VAB this year I was surprised to be ruled ineligible. ‘Yes Minister’ came to mind when the VAB informed me that the unsuccessful application I submitted 16 months ago (April 2007) is considered by the VAB to be an application this year. Absurdly this restriction requires artists to know what future invitations will arrive to remain eligible.

I was also informed that the ‘problem’ of artists applying directly would soon be rectified – for as from, 1st of August 2008, the opportunity for individual artists to apply through ‘Out of Time’ in ‘Skills and Arts Development’ has been abolished.

What this means is that any Australian artist who receives an exceptional international opportunity that falls outside the strict closing date of the VAB will have no way of accessing direct support from the Australia Council for the Arts. In contrast a foreign organisation, even without the consent of the artist, can apply at any time for funds to exhibit Australian artists. That is; an organization can apply for funding using an Australian artist’s credibility, yet not be accountable to that artist in any way. It leaves the Australia artist vulnerable.

For example, in the late nineties the Australian Embassy in Paris awarded a grant to a foreign company involved in an exhibition of my work. That company distributed those funds amongst the commercial backers of the project. As the artist I had no control over the funds and it left me in a dependent position. Later, after I refused to work with them, that company sued me, in part for approaching the Australian Embassy.

It can also lead to embarrassment. In 2007 the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMAC) in Nice made an application to support the exhibition of my work. The then VAB manager encouraged the MAMAC to make this application by deeming it an exceptional opportunity and giving permission for it to proceed to the secondary stage of the process (this is rarely given). Although the application fulfilled the published criteria exceptionally well, as acknowledged by the manager, it was then rejected. Strangely it was not assessed against the published criteria as shown by the reason given for its failure. This reason was that when ‘benchmarked’ against previous successful applications the project did not compare favourably. This decision was difficult to explain to a national French museum when it was revealed that one of the ‘benchmark’ applications was a one night video projection in the foyer of a wedding-reception centre!

As you know, artists may not always make one feel comfortable, however they contribute to Australia’s cultural life in many ways. Imagine how grey the world would be without them. Or if fiscally minded, think about the hundreds of millions of dollars that flows through the secondary art market, a market created by the work of visual artists who on average earn less than the minimum wage. The capital gains tax (CGT) alone is a significant contribution to the government’s purse. Our museums are full of the generosity of previous generations of Australian artists and their work goes on contributing in perpetuity through the tax system (CGT and GST). Yet in return artists receive nothing from the secondary sales and get treated in the most appalling manner by the very organisation that was set up to support them. As the recent Four Corners program revealed, even ‘successful’ artists are vulnerable and open to exploitation.

At a time when we revel in the support we give our athletes, it is an indictment on your government that the Australia Council would prefer to create obstacles rather than directly support Australian artists. As an example of how absurd this is, could you imagine your government supporting foreign sporting organizations just because they invite Australian athletes to compete?

How has this culture arisen? Under the Howard government, the Australia Council willingly paid consultants such as Saatchi and Saatchi hundreds of thousands of dollars to think up absurd ideas such as ‘Branding the Arts’. Through this period the Australia Council lost the ability to communicate with artists, as revealed when I poetically responded to their call for feed-back. This pointed out to them that branding was in fact anti-art. One employee wrote back with – “hey fuckhead don’t send me this crap it’s not clever.” No apology was ever forthcoming, in fact quite the opposite; the then CEO described my poem as unsolicited junk or ‘spam’.

Recently through 2020, you have sought new ideas. The Australia Council’s role is not new, however it seems to have lost its way during the previous government’s tenure. I feel it needs to rethink its attitude towards international opportunities for visual artists and would like to ask for your assistance in making this happen. Luckily I have seen how other countries do things differently and would willingly donate this experience in exchange for an apology for their awful impersonation of Sir Humphrey and of course their rudeness, especially in referring to poetry as unsolicited junk.


John Kelly
August 1, 2008

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