Hard News by Russell Brown


Art and the Big Guy

It would be nice if gallery owner John Gow could stop referring to the proposed artists' resale royalty as a "tax". It isn't: taxes are rendered to the government. Is it an artificial construct? Of course - as are performance royalty schemes for songwriters, and, indeed, the idea of copyright itself.

The idea that half of receipts from such a scheme would be gobbled up in administration, as further claimed by Gow, is a bit hard to credit. APRA operates a large and highly technical performance rights collection scheme on behalf of its songwriter members, and returns 87 cents in the dollar to those members (who may well include Gow's business partner, former rocker Gary Langsford). A resale royalty scheme would be smaller, and thus have certain fixed costs to cover, but would also be far less complex.

This sort of scheme is not unusual in world terms. It has been near-universal in Europe for years, and, more recently, in Ireland, Britain and California. Altogether, about 50 countries operate such a scheme.

The claim that such a scheme would depress or damage the market in art, or drive sales elsewhere, is very hard to sustain. The British scheme turned a year old in February this year. The result?

London’s contemporary art business is stronger than ever. "Sales have been as healthy as they were before the law came into effect," said Glenn Scott-Wright, director of London’s Victoria Miro Gallery. "Clients haven’t indicated that they were unwilling to buy because of the royalty. In fact, there hasn’t really been much discussion of the law at all."

British auctioneers have reported similar results. Pilar Ordovas, head of Christie’s contemporary art department in London, stated that 2006 brought "the best sales ever in contemporary art in our history." As far as paying royalties on sales, she said, "Nobody seems to be concerned."

Perhaps the most interesting part of the report quoted above is the swift emergence of competitive pressure on collection costs. The emergence of a rival collecting society in Britain pushed commissions down from 25% to 15% within the year. That should provide a steer.

It is not, of course, straightforward: should royalties accrue for a conventional copyright period - 50 years after the artist's death - or only to living artists? Should they be applied on a sliding scale as resale values increase? These and other questions are posed in the MCH discussion paper. Gow and other dealers would be well advised to just read it and respond before declaring the sky to be falling.

And, lacking for the moment a tidy segue involving Anton Oliver, I'll just push on into the day's other item of business: the Big Guy is leaving. Carl Hayman, the best front-rower in world rugby, and the rock on which the current All Black side is founded, seems certain to leave for a three-year contract with the English club Newcastle after this year's Rugby World Cup.

Some people will presumably be distraught. I'm not too happy myself, but I can understand why relatively young players want to take the OE option. There is, of course, the lure of nearly a million dollars a year. Rugby players' careers are not long, and such an opportunity to provide for the future must be quite compelling.

The other appeal must surely be just to do something different. Most of us don't commit the best years of our lives to just the one thing; still less to the long season, constant physical impact and the sheer immersiveness of being a modern All Black. You can invoke the mana of the jersey, but the All Blacks of a generation ago had jobs and lives outside the game.

If they make the World Cup final, this year's team will play 16 test matches (this after beginning the year with two months' hard conditioning work), and Hayman will likely start more of those matches than any other player. It could have taken you three or four years to rack up that many tests in the 1970s, and you wouldn't have had Super 14 on the side. Whatever the claims of English rugby, turning out for Newcastle will be a breeze by comparison.

It's probable that other players - Luke McAlister? - will follow Hayman into short-term contracts. They may well come back, and we may well see a cycle of top players coming and going between world cups. The obvious problem is the hollowing out of our domestic rugby; the loss not just of stardom but experience. Already, Sky's Super 14 viewing figures are down - how much more might they erode if the public perceives that it is watching a bunch of second-raters?

I can't say I'd do anything different from Hayman in his position. Maybe it'll work out: we discovered that letting coaches head off for a year or two was an absolute boon. But whatever happens, there are interesting times ahead for rugby; both the business and the game so many of us love.

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