Why a new code of practice is important for the arts

In our uncertain, unethical times, a code by which artists and organisations can conduct business and their art practice is critical to valuing the arts and offering a firm foundation for effective policy change.
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The phrase ‘Code of Practice’ conjurs up images of a somewhat dusty, antiquated tome and, yet, the need for an effective Code of Practice for the visual arts sector is more pressing than ever.

Artists and organisations are dealing with greater circulation, greater diversity of practice, expanded art mediums, global markets, online practices and growing partnerships – complexities that have been great catalysts for change and growth across the sector. And yet our existing Code of Practice does not reflect these new ways of working.

Further complicating this professional landscape in which we operate, is a world that has become more questionable and unethical, including the trade of fakes and forgeries, and the rise of fake news and ‘alternative facts’.  

National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) CEO Esther Anatolitis writes: ‘Earlier this year the Grattan Institute released A Crisis of Trust, a timely examination of the rise of protest politics in Australia. The report found growing dissatisfaction, disillusionment, cultural anxiety, anger and distrust in our politicians. When we distrust, we disengage. And when we disengage, we cede more of our power to the very people we distrust.’

The Australia Council’s publication, The Companies code and the arts, was first published in 1984 and revised in 1989 under the firm KPMG and NAVA (which had just been formed in 1983). Anatolitis said it was a feeder document for the updated publication of the Code in 2001.

‘The Australia Council funded and launched NAVAs Code in 2001 as the evolution of the 1984 and 1989 work,’ she clarified. ‘The inaugural chair of NAVA was David Throsby, whose work was instrumental to those projects and of course to every Throsby Report since.’

How we conduct the business and practice of art in a clear, consistent and ethical manner clearly needs a facelift.

ArtsHub sat down with Anatolitis, on the eve of the organisation’s Canberra conference Future/Forward (14-15 August), at which the existing Code will be laid on the table for sector examination.

Anatolitis believes the current Code of Practice needs ‘a thorough going-over’, and that that process goes hand-in-hand with policy change.

She said: ‘Study after study shows us that artists’ working conditions are becoming more and more precarious; average incomes are falling; industry standard fees and payments are too often not observed; exposure as a form of payment continues to be offered; and the list continues. We urgently need standards that are applied and enforced ethically and with confidence in the work of artists.

‘The burden of ongoing self-justification that’s imposed on artists and arts workers risks remaining unproductive labour if we don’t question the politics behind it. Let’s begin at a more sophisticated starting point. Art creates the most intellectually and emotionally compelling experiences of our lives. Artists ask questions that politicians are too afraid to approach. Arts policy and funding express confidence in our most creative thinkers to frame our world and make our future,’ Anatolitis continued.

‘To build a confident, ethical and imaginative nation, we need artists supported by rock-solid standards to promote professional practice that’s ambitious and fair,’ she told ArtsHub.

What should a Code of Practice do?

Anatolitis believes that a Code of Practice should leave institutions in no doubt as to their responsibility, overcoming the power differential where artists feel they have no way to assert their rights or have those rights respected. Anatolitis reminds that in the current edition of the Code of Practice there no chapter in the Code on Artist Run Initiatives, for example.

The Code should protect artists by guiding the negotiations, transactions and exchanges that promote working conditions which are ambitious and fair.

‘It should be informed by artists and institutions so that it’s useful for everyone,’ she said. ‘Ultimately, a Code of Practice for the contemporary arts is as much a civic and cultural tool as it is a legal and ethical one: it builds a nation. It underpins our most adventurous thinking.’

Contemporary arts practice is evolving rapidly. ‘Today, the “visual” in the National Association for the Visual Art encompasses the full sophistication of expanded practice that our members are working on: live art, games, public art, screen, fashion, installation, community-engaged, site-specific and experimental practices as well as painting, photography, illustration, craft, design … To make sure that the Code is supporting ethical practice, we need to make sure that the Code reflects contemporary practice comprehensively,’ Anatolitis said. 

How can I help make my profession more ethical?

Anatolitis says that the first step for arts professionals is to acknowledge the position of power they’re in, and to exercise that power ethically – that is how we start to make change towards a better industry.

‘If you’re not sure, ask. Ask one another what sounds right. Ask artists what they need. Check in with the Code and ask NAVA for advice.’ 

She continued: ‘Do we all need to become activists to create a contemporary arts sector that’s ambitious and fair? Of course. We’ve chosen to work in a sector that’s far from politically inert. As artists or arts workers, we’re making and experiencing work that exists to shift everyday perspectives, displace transaction and consumption as the dominant public experience, and question underlying assumptions and values. We’ve already opted into a life that’s explicitly public.’  

So, yes: write letters, talk to MPs, quote the research, talk to new people, support independent media, create public programs, attend actions, design actions, use every means we have so that the Australian public conversation matches the courage of the artist. 

Anatolitis makes the point that for many years, we’ve been providing electorate information in our grant applications and yet, ‘We don’t tend to talk to MPs directly in Australia. We don’t have the USA’s civic engagement culture where we get on the phone or write letters to MPs to make our expectations clear. That’s why the Australia Council’s new Electorate Profiles is a game-changer.

‘It’s an explicitly political tool – political not in the partisan sense, but in the civic: it’s a tool designed to facilitate our participation in our democracy,’ she said.

Future/Forward has been strategically timed to coincide with the sitting of Parliament in Canberra (14-15 August). ‘The time of passive citizenship is long past. Not engaging is no longer an option,’ Anatolitis concluded.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina