The Developer, the Dealer, the University and the Art Stars: Buxton Contemporary
I love rich people. Mostly for their money. Also, I love watching the Arts Industries highly choreographed flattery as they attempt to manage the rich people out of their money. Another thing I love about rich people is they clump. Locate one, you locate a swarm. It was with this in mind that I hustled myself up an invite to the grand opening of Melbourne’s latest public private partnership art museum, Buxton Contemporary. I knew there’d be more High Net Worth individuals in attendance, than at Sorrento Beach over Easter. And there were. I was all dolled up and out the door faster than you can say Anna Nicole Smith.
Michael Buxton has made a motsa developing and building housing for people who need somewhere to live. He’s used this success to amass a collection of contemporary Australasian art beginning by collecting Arkley, Booth, Mike Parr, Peter Tyndall and Billy Henson and he’s gifted it back to us all. Diversity must not have been a thing back in the mid 90’s.
Buxton Contemporary is an act of philanthropic largesse that is reminiscent of the lauded Guggenheim and J P Getty museums. Anna Schwartz is our answer to Larry Gagosian, minus a few galleries and the Lear jet. Almost a third of the artists in this collection are represented by Anna Schwartz who was its first art consultant. It brings to mind the collections Emily Floyd work- ‘A strategy to infiltrate the homes of the bourgeoisie’ (2005). Who you know has always Trumped what you know. http://michaelbuxtoncollection.com.au
At the grand opening of the new museum building there was no Welcome to Country, a startling omission given its at an Institution purporting to be of higher learning. The VCA is situated on the unceded land of the Boon Wurrung and the Woi Wurrung peoples of the Kulin Nations. ‘Post colonialism’ is a theory invented by Universities, but can resemble more of an illusory academic idea given real evidence of change is so scant.
Buxton Contemporary at the Victorian College of the Arts mashes together three of Australian societies most dysfunctional industries: our education industry, our housing industry and our arts industry. It’s hard to tell which of these Industries is most fucked up, but having somewhere to live is high on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs so that probably makes the property sector winner of the most fucked up system in Australia. Plus it’s hard to get yourself educated or make art if you don’t have somewhere you can afford to live. Australians have a $1.7 trillion mortgage debt. If this housing bubble bursts artists will be the first to know given art resides in the luxury/status market.
Education was always a key response to systemic inequality. You used to be able to learn your way out of poverty, but now you increase your poverty by trying to learn your way out of it. Forcing Universities to function as a business in which users pay, rather than seeing education as a fundamental investment a smart society makes in it’s future, successive Governments have redefined what education is. But I still like going back to my alma mater the Victorian College of the Arts, and seeing how much it hasn’t changed in the 20 years since I attended.
All artists ever want is to be in an art show and get paid for it. Nobody remembers the names of the artists who weren’t in with the Medicis. What happens in and around who gets in the art show, well that’s a comedy routine of Shakespearean proportion. Artists exist in a reputational economy but no-one really knows how you get that reputation. You’ve got to get all the leading industry professionals on side. But don’t worry, there’s only 3 of them.
Universities are in the business of selling students art dreams: like there’s this exciting art career to be had. But all the art star jobs have been taken already and probably by your supervisor out at Monash. Every now and then a genius wunderkid will break through, functioning more as a token foil to keep the illusion that anything is possible if you’re talented enough alive. Really though art schools are an over-populated chorus line of optimistic and ambitious extras forever auditioning and hoping, one day to get plucked from obscurity and infiltrate the museums.
Back in the old days artists used to train to be artists in colleges like Prahran. Gradually these art colleges were subsumed by Universities who have a canny knack of selling artists up the chain of command onto an MFA or PhD. Academic tenure is a great idea in that it’s one of the only ways an artist can get paid, but those jobs are all filled now too, and increasingly casualised.
What does it mean to have successfully institutionalized a generation of artists? Many an artist has had their exciting creative potential thwarted by their thesis. A little bit of theory in the wrong hands can be very dangerous. And now we must endure a new trend: the University system in which artists have sought guidance are attacking art and closing art departments because of fiscal austerity measures and prime real estate. The closure of the Sydney College of the Arts? How bad is that!
You know Buxton Contemporary at the VCA provides an almost perfect debate topic. On the affirmative you can argue philanthropic cultural gifts are and have always been a necessary part of any healthy society. On the negative, one could argue that it represents a privatization of public space, taste and assets. A decent argument can be forged for either side depending on your mood, your ethics and when your next period is due.
Acts of altruism seldom come without strings. Managing stakeholder relations between arts benefactors and cash strapped public institutions is a growth area within the creative industry. All the generosity can come crashing down. We saw this last year in the storm around the Australian Pavilion at Venice Biennale and what is most commonly referred to as the dummy spit of Simon Mordant and the Balnaves over what entitlements their cash should afford them. The Australian Pavilion at Venice is one of many scrub fires burning on a number of fronts in and around Australian art. These skirmishes are not about art, they are about the relationship of money to power. Money is to power what fine wine is to cheese.
As a tax minimization strategy, acquiring art and gifting it to the state for tax breaks is a more creative choice than dealing with armies of accountants in the Cayman Islands. Philanthropic largesse looks like a whole lot of fun to me. Everybody wins except the artists who didn’t make the show or the collection. The real value in the Buxton Collection is that hopefully some other bored rich dudes will read about Michael’s more interesting life through art and they’ll play follow the leader. They too will get addicted to buying art and meeting and supporting we crazy Boho artists who make it (I mean made it). That’s how you make a market, more buyers, more collections, more art galleries, more exhibitions. Turns out collecting art is really good business practice.
‘The Cultural Gifts Program means such gifts are exempt from capital gains tax, and the donor receives a market-value tax deduction that can be written off over five years. In the case of $10 million of art, art consultant Michael Fox says, the Buxton donation could be worth as much as $4.7 million in tax relief. And if the collection cost Buxton less than that much to buy, he might even make a profit.’
You see it’s the difference between the cost of the art when purchased from the dealers compared to the market valuation of the gift. That’s where the value adding happens. So Buxton Contemporary is a sweet little value adding exercise to the value of artists and artworks in the collection, and for their commercial dealers. Now they’re all worth more.
Contemporary Art is like the worst house on the best street. Sure we’re all looking a bit tired and neglected round the edges and there’s noxious vines creeping in and threatening our very foundations. But with a fresh lick of paint and a re-stumping, it could all come up roses. There are investment opportunities aplenty for canny investors and if we knock down some walls there could be room here for the whole family.