The year of Australia's corporate art sell off? Major pension fund latest to liquidate collection

Tim Stone, The Art Newspaper, 6 July 2022

This year is shaping up as the year corporate Australia distances itself from art in a big way, with the Construction and Building Unions Superannuation fund (CBUS) poised to sell off its Australian art collection at Deutscher and Hackett’s Melbourne auction house across July and August.

The auction comes hot on the heels of National Australia Bank’s fire sale of 2,500 works for A$10m (US$7m) in February. With CBUS expected to receive A$9m (US$6.3m) from around 300 works, it’s an indication of the quality and depth of a collection that includes paintings by Margaret Preston, Fred Williams, Sidney Nolan and Jeffrey Smart.

While the auction will give collectors access to works that are hard to come by from some of the country’s most bankable artists, the biggest losers will undoubtedly be the Australian regional galleries who have benefited from the long-term loans coming out of the collection’s stockroom.

Since its inception, the CBUS Collection of Australian Art has provided those galleries with access to art of the calibre only found in state and national collections through an arrangement brokered by its founder, the late Joseph Brown.

“He insisted that [the Collection] wasn’t locked away,” Brown’s nephew Norman Rosenblatt, also an art collector, tells The Art Newspaper. “These [regional] galleries haven’t got the money to buy the paintings,” he says.

Geelong Gallery, Bendigo Art Gallery and Benalla Art Gallery have bolstered their permanent collections with long-term loans of between ten and 20 works each. While others have borrowed works on an ad hoc basis to support curated exhibitions.

For 15 years the collection has been managed by Latrobe Regional Gallery (LRG) in Morwell, nearly two hours east of Melbourne. According to its director Bec Cole, CBUS appointed LRG because the gallery shared a “connection” to the industries the fund services, namely coal-powered energy production and other heavy industries in the region. Pre-pandemic there was “a lot of [CBUS] member engagement with the collection”, Cole says.