National Australia Bank to sell off its $7.2m contemporary art collection next week

Tim Stone, The Art Newspaper, 19 February 2022

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

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

But it is the bank's decision to use the proceeds to top up its grant programme for communities affected by climate change that has raised eyebrows.

On Instagram, the prominent Australian artist Ben Quilty pointed out the irony of “one of the biggest financial facilitators of fossil fuel developments” announcing it was “proudly redirecting” funds to help those affected by natural disasters. “This is a bit much” he posted.

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

With a valuation of Aus$10m (US$7.2m), divesting at auction will attract a minimum tax rate of 27.9% under Australian tax law, not to mention the auction houses' fees. Had NAB pursued donating the collection to a cultural institution under the Federal Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program they stood to gain Aus$10m in tax credits.

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

The auction also marks an end to almost 50 years of supporting Australian artists through acquisition, at a time when many are struggling.

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

According to former National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) curator Robert Lindsay, the National Bank of Australasia, as it was known until it merged with the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney in 1983, “very much wanted to be a forward-thinking organisation” it acquired “contemporary art to say we are focused on the future.”