12 April 2023

Artists can't bank on Artbank, auditor finds

| Chris Johnson
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art in a gallery

Part of the Artbank collection. Photo: Artbank.

The Australian National Audit Office has found another poorly managed government program, and this time it impacts the arts.

Artbank, managed by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts, is a program designed to help Australian contemporary artists by collecting and leasing their work.

It’s a great concept – when it’s managed properly.

The ANAO has looked into the program and found it to be desperately ineffective, so much so that a third of the collection hasn’t been leased to anyone for seven years.

The audit report found procurement rules have been flouted, competitive processes ignored, and clarity on price-setting pretty much non-existent.

“The Artbank program’s approach to acquiring, managing and leasing Australian contemporary art has not been appropriate.,” the report states.

“The department’s approach to acquisitions under the Artbank program has not been in accordance with the Commonwealth Procurement Rules and has not demonstrated strong alignment with the targets established in the program’s collection plan designed to illustrate the department’s strategy to deliver against the program’s policy intent.

“Key shortcomings in the acquisition approach were: no open or competitive processes; value for money not being documented or demonstrated; and limited public reporting.

“Alignment with the program’s purpose and objectives was not evident due to deviations from the department’s collection plan for the Artbank program.”

The ANAO found the department’s management of the Artbank collection was insufficient to ensure its integrity.

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According to the report, conservation activities are not being consolidated, prioritised, committed or reviewed against a planned “wholistic” schedule.

“Records of deaccessioning, the formal removal of artworks from a collection, are unreliable,” it says.

“Approvals were obtained retrospectively for the deaccessioning of over 70 artworks from the collection, with the records for those approvals not identifying that the artworks had already been disposed of via sale over four years earlier.

“Where deaccessioning has been recorded appropriately, it has not been undertaken in a timely manner with the artworks continuing to add to the costs of the program … rather than being activated (through rental or sale) to continue to support contemporary Australian artists.”

The audit suggests the integrity of the collection has been placed at risk by the absence of a policy to guide the management of digital or time-based artworks.

Fifteen duplicate copies of 14 time-based digital works were created so those works could be rented 22 times to more than one client at a time.

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“Rental revenue has been in decline since 2017–18. The department’s documented target is to have at least 70 per cent of the Artbank collection out on rent,” the report states.

“The department has recognised that its performance has leased approximately 40 per cent of the collection, which is well below this target.

“Between 1 July 2015 and 30 June 2022, nearly 60 per cent of the collection was either not leased at all during the period (30 per cent) or had spent more time stored than rented (29 per cent).

“There was no recorded basis for how the pricing methodology for individual artworks was established.

“Given the extent of undocumented deviations from that methodology, it is not clear how the majority of rental prices (and discounts, where applicable) were ultimately set.

“Achievement of the full breadth of the program’s purpose has not been a focus, with no reporting to provide assurance that the department’s approach to leasing supports artists or the reputation of contemporary Australian art.”

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No surprises here. No-one bothers to see how things are going once they’re set in motion, unless people complain.

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