Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Non of your damn business

Should we the public know how much Te Papa pays for the art it purchases? Te Papa obviously thinks so, when it suits. It has announced how much it forked out for the ‘priceless’ William Strutt, the full cost of the elements it purchased from Simon Denny’s Venice installation and Michael Parekowhai's piano. So we thought asking for a complete list of last year’s purchase prices would be uncontroversial. And to be fair Te Papa said it would get right onto it. After a month we got our reply. Did the email have a list of purchase prices? No.

The reason is kind of curious. Te Papa told us that although ‘Purchase prices of significant acquisitions have been recently released to the media and we will continue to proactively release purchase prices for high value art works’ (How proactive the releases were would probably raise a few eyebrows in the media). But on other (non significant?) works they will not release prices because, to quote:

1    Releasing this information would impact Te Papa's commercial activities and negotiations
2    It may also impact the commercial position of artists or dealers we purchase from.

So here's a question. Why are the highest value purchases the less sensitive commercially? And here's another one. Why does Te Papa prioritise the protection of commercial positions over public access to some transactions?

Confidentiality while a purchase is being negotiated is justified but once the purchase is finalised you have to wonder why any of the parties needed long term protection.

There's a clue to what's going on in a further comment in Te Papa's response: 'as reasons for providing artworks to galleries and museums are not always financially driven, we feel that providing this information for all artists may be detrimental to their future commercial negotiations.'

OK, there are two options here. Either Te Papa is getting some works cheap or it's paying too much. We'd lean in most cases to the former explanation. While there are obviously public benefits in making deals (it's exactly how some of the great collections have been built after all), keeping the details secret raises a wider ethical problem. Transparency around deal making is crucial for subsequent institutional decisions to be fairly evaluated. We're thinking of who is selected for exhibitions, the level of investment in publications and so on.  In other words, who gets what level of institutional resources. Cherry picking which deal you are prepared to make public based on your own ideas of what is best for the deal-makers undermines confidence in the independence of the institution.

Next year. We’ll keep at it and let you know how it goes.