Provenance, art and ethics: The ArtsHubbub episode 17 | ArtsHub Australia


Director of the National Gallery of Australia, Nick Mitzevich, believes that soon, the deaccessioning and repatriation of artworks from museum and gallery collections will no longer be considered ‘an exceptional act, but a common act’.

His reasoning? ‘The guidelines and the principles have changed, and we as museums must respond to it.’

In episode 17 of The ArtsHubbub, Mitzevich speaks at length about the ‘vortex of change’ we are living through, where museums and galleries around the world are rethinking their ethical position with regard to the cultural and religious objects held in their collections.

As he explains, this has ramifications for Indigenous Collections as well as other artefacts collected in our colonial past.

As Mitzevich explains, the NGA has researched and returned a number of artworks from its Indian collection deemed to have had questionable provenance in recent years. It has been a journey of shifting protocols and policies for the institution, at the heart of which sits new thinking around an ‘ethical lens’ – on top of a legal one – in the provenance question.

‘In the past, just collecting an object was important. And then talking about its intent. Now we’re doing that, plus we’re talking about its history, its context, how the work came to us, and making sure that we’re very transparent about those things,’ Mitzevich said.

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NICK MITZEVICH: What we’ve seen from the most progressive galleries and museums around the world is an acknowledgment that some of the things they hold, haven’t been ethically collected or sourced. 

GEORGE DUNFORD: Welcome to The ArtsHubbub, a regular look inside Australian arts and artists. I’m George Dunford.

In this episode, National Gallery of Australia Director Nick Mitzevich joins us for a conversation about the provenance of museum collections. We’ll talk through the issues about how art is sourced, who owns it, who it belongs to, and when it should be returned.

For colonial institutions like museums and galleries, many objects on display come from around the world, taken from other cultures. Te museums usually try to present these objects in cultural context, in many ways the legitimacy of their ownership is culturally – and legally – questionable. 

In 2014, ArtsHub’s Gina Fairley reported that several objects in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection had dubious provenance. The gallery had acquired objects, including the Seated Buddha, from Subash Kapoor – an art dealer who’s since been implicated in the trafficking of some 2,600 objects through his New York gallery.

This year, the NGA announced that it would return questionably acquired works from its Asian Art Collections worth some $3.3 million, to India. With the potential for more works to be returned to their home cultures in the future, we asked Nick to begin by explaining how the NGA defines provenance and repatriation.

NICK: Provenance is a very interesting word that describes the history of an object once it leaves the hands of the artist. And so the time between when the work is completed, and leaves the hands of the artist, to the time that we’re in right now, that time is described as the history of the work of art, or the provenance of the work of art.

Repatriation is when an object has been defined as not necessarily having the appropriate history that we deem acceptable, and then making the decision to return the object to the country of origin, to respect the country of origin’s culture. And that’s the premise of repatriation. So we then return the object to the country of origin so that country can assert what they believe is the appropriate care for that object.

Read: NGA repatriates 14 objects to India, valued at over $3M

GEORGE: Part of the challenge for institutions is economic. Artworks and artefacts can be extremely expensive, and when they turn out to not be from ethical sources, that can put a gallery or a museum in a difficult financial position. Is it possible to recoup those costs? In some cases, yes. The NGA were fortunate in pursuing a legal action against Subash Kapoor.

NICK:  In 2016, the National Gallery received a judgment in our favour, against Kapoor of nearly $8.6 million US, which is about $12 million Australian. And we’re still pursuing his assets, and we’ll continue to try to identify assets, so we can claim that judgment in our favour.

So the jury is out. Kapoor is standing, was waiting to stand trial in India, and there is an extradition for him, as well for a case in New York. And while this is going on, we are still pursuing assets on behalf of the Australian public. 

GEORGE: Just as the money has been hard to chase, it’s taken time to work through the process of returning the works to India.

NICK: I think there’s a number of steps in that journey. First, we had to acknowledge that there was a problem, and it took us a while to do that. Second was to then try to assemble all of the information that we could. Then the third step was to acknowledge that if we were moving down a completely documentary legal path, we would still never find the answers.

And then moving to the next step was an acknowledgment that with the balance of probabilities concept, we needed to then apply an ethical framework. So it was the journey that we went on that, that was really directed by trying to give an object certainty. And I think that’s been the critical path that the National Gallery’s gone on, that we’ve focused on giving work certainty. 

And I think it’s important to remember that the objects that we’re talking about are very culturally charged objects, they’re mainly religious objects. So to hold a religious object in a state of uncertainty is certainly not appropriate for a public institution. It’s not best practice for the institution and also for our respective culture. 

And so, this is how we’ve gone on that journey over eight years. And we’ve been led by the focus to give an object certainty. And we’ve also tried to move through things in a methodical way that isn’t “knee jerky”, that there is a process that we’re going through, and a process that we feel confidence in, so we can apply it to a whole range of issues as we continue to research our collection.

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NICK: I hope you can tell that we live and breathe provenance here. It is certainly part of our core business. When I started, it actually wasn’t. So, even in those short three years, we’ve seen how things have changed and developed. And who would have thought that, that we would launch a provenance project that looked at the ethical collecting of our Indigenous works. So, you know, we don’t want to just settle on our laurels and say, “oh, we’re just working through our Indian problems”. I think what that indicates is that we want to be proactive about the works that we’re custodians of.


GEORGE: The NGA is also looking at the provenance of its First Nations collections.

NICK: Well, we’ve recently launched a provenance project within the Indigenous collection. We’re less likely to find things that are stolen. And so the project’s focus is the ethical collecting of works. And so we are now systematically working through our collection, to make sure that the works that have come into our collection, have been ethically collected. And it’s, the…


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