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After two years of working remotely, National Australia Bank (NAB) staff recently returned to bare office walls as the bank prepares to sell its corporate art collection.

According to the bank’s chief operating officer, Les Matheson, collection is no longer “at the heart of our role as a bank”. And over the next 12 months, NAB will sell its portfolio of 2,500 works, including paintings by Jeffrey Smart, John Olsen and Howard Arkley, to two auction houses, Deutscher and Hackett and Leonard Joel.

But it was the bank’s decision to use the proceeds to supplement its grant program for communities affected by climate change that raised eyebrows.

On Instagram, prominent Australian artist Ben Quilty highlighted the irony of ‘one of the greatest financial enablers of fossil fuel development’ by announcing that he was ‘proudly redirecting’ funds to help those affected by disasters. natural. “That’s a bit much,” he posted.

For those with an eye on the bank, the perceived gains from the auction are offset by the losses.

With a valuation of A$10 million (US$7.2 million), the auction sale will attract a minimum tax rate of 27.9% under Australian tax law, not to mention house fees. auction. Had NAB continued to donate the collection to a cultural institution under the Australian Federal Government’s cultural donations program, they could have earned A$10 million in tax credits.

Despite the obvious shortcomings, Matheson, who joined NAB in January 2021 from the Royal Bank of Scotland, recounts The arts journal he believes an auction is the “fairest method” to sell the collection.

The auction also marks the end of almost 50 years of support for Australian artists through acquisitions, at a time when many are struggling.

For artist Lesley Dumbrell, whose painting Chinook was bought by the bank in 1975, the acquisition “meant a lot” and marked a turning point after he failed to sell anything at his first two solo exhibitions.

by John Olsen dark abyss (1976)

According to former curator of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), Robert Lindsay, the National Bank of Australasia, as it was known until its merger with the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney in 1983, “really wanted to be an organization avant-garde”. acquired “contemporary art to say that we are looking to the future”.

In 1982, the bank’s managers were so proud of their collection that they organized The seventieslarge surveying exhibition at the NGV.

By then, Lindsay recalls, bank staff had become so attached to the art collection that they made former bank manager Arthur Grimwade promise that the works would be returned.

But tastes change. And just as NAB’s trustees once acquired contemporary art to portray themselves as forward-thinking, in 2022 the bank may drop its art collection in an effort to shed the recent past.

In 2019, following the Australian Government’s Royal Commission on the Banking Industry, NAB was found to have overcharged 200,000 of its customers and ordered to pay compensation to the tune of A$2 billion. It was a painful chapter for the bank which also saw two former directors fall on their swords after public admissions of wrongdoing by the bank.

Seventy-three high-profile works from the National Australia Bank Art Collection will be auctioned from 7 p.m. (AEST) on Tuesday February 22 at Deutscher and Hackett, and another 131 works will be auctioned from 6 p.m. (AEST) on Wednesday, February 23, at Léonard Joël.