John Cartwright: An encouraging artist

Last Friday evening Perth artist John Cartwright lost hundreds of his paintings in a devastating fire that ravaged his Inglewood studio. 

John Cartwright - Suburbia
John Cartwright – Suburbia

How hard is it for an artist to lose a body of work to fire, particularly an artist of John Cartwright’s age and stature in Australian Art? In his confusion and distress at the enormity of the loss John was quoted as saying that he may retire. He may do that, but I hope he doesn’t as he still has so much to offer.

It was in 1971 that he burst onto the local art scene with an exhibition at the Churchill Gallery in Subiaco. John Hansen was the owner of the gallery and the framing business that was attached. Exhibitions would be held in the upstairs gallery with access by the narrow stairwell to the side of the framing showroom. The exhibition openings were generally a crowded Sunday afternoon event from 2 till 5 with ample refreshments available. Often the artist was present to explain the images but irrespective, a fine time was had by all and lively discussions were the rule.

I wasn’t able to attend that original opening and by the time I made it to the exhibition only 1 work out of 35 or so was available, a rather plain piece of middling size judging by the dynamics and dimensions of the others on show. The painting was secured for $125 with a slight discount as it was the last of the offering to be sold and I was pleased to have an example from the inaugural exhibition.

The painting was considered to be a ground floor purchase, as great things were expected of John. His work was so unique and fresh, it set the local art world alight.

John Cartwright’s subjects and style didn’t vary a lot from that original show. His palette would brighten and farm animals would appear as the scenery became more comprehensive. But in the main he would continue to incise the South West landscapes and their rustic dwellings into his gesso covered hardboard panels before applying his distinctive colours and glossy finish.

Cartwright’s landscapes and houses were exhibited across Australia in galleries as prestigious as the Holdsworth and Barry Stern in Sydney, The Greenhill in Adelaide and with Russell Davis in Melbourne. He worked tirelessly and after many years had most selling avenues covered. His son kept meticulous records of which and where his works had been sent, from tourist shops to gallery exhibitions and most venues in between. His practise became so successful that he involved other members of the family in the process and continued to frame his own works. He was not selective or discriminatory with his clientele and framed for others as required.

John Cartwright is an important contributor to Australian art. He could be called an entry level artist, and without those who possess this distinct ability, the interest in art and art practices would not grow and develop in the general community. His paintings encourage people to look and buy.

There may be Australian collectors who have acquired works by Whiteley, Williams, Juniper or Smart and others more celebrated in institutional and academic circles. But in most instances this collecting interest has started with works by John Cartwright and those of his ilk.

These contributions to the development of Australian art should never be ignored or undervalued.


Hide your paintings (Big Brother is watching) By Michael Levitt for the Financial Review

We live in a country where the government has legislated for the censorship of Australian art.
We live in a country where the government has legislated for the censorship of Australian art.

Imagine this scenario. A Government employee arrives at my front door unannounced. His job – to inspect my home for signs that I have been openly displaying art.

Is he concerned that I have stolen this art? No.

Is he on the lookout for works that might be pornographic, racist, seditious or that might otherwise be somehow contrary to the national interest? No.

He is inspecting my home to determine if the art in question belongs to my very own self-managed superannuation fund (SMSF) and that – perish the thought – I might be enjoying it. That’s right – he is deeply troubled that I might be deriving benefit from my art when everyone knows that the only justifiable place for any investment quality art is in the dark;anywhere at all as long as it cannot be seen, appreciated or enjoyed.

Believe it or not, we live in a country where the Government has legislated for the censorship of Australian art. By Government decree, works of art – some of them undeniably masterpieces of contemporary Australian art – must be stored away and hidden from view. Why? Because our Government is insanely preoccupied with the thought that Australians are populating the walls of their homes with art for which they have obtained a tax concession through their SMSF.

Yet, since July 2011, shameful regulations that prohibit people from displaying their SMSF art at home or at work abruptly ended the acquisition of any art by SMSFs. As a consequence, a large chunk of the Australian art market disappeared and the art industry in this country descended into a sharp decline. Ironically, it is not investors and collectors like me who are struggling but, across the country, it is art dealers and the artists they represent who are feeling the financial pain.

And there is an impending deadline that poses an especially grave threat to the art industry in Australia about which the Federal Government is actively doing nothing at all, deaf to the cries of the art industry and immune to any reasonable argument. By July 2016, every piece of art acquired by any SMSF before July 2011 will have to be stored in a registered storage facility and insured at market price.

Few SMSF directors will accept these draconian and costly directives and it is anticipated that a large percentage (if not all) of the estimated $589 million worth of art currently held in Australian SMSFs will be sold or written off before the deadline is reached. Our Government is retrospectively enforcing the complete dissolution of SMSF art – the consequences for the value of that art and for the livelihoods of many of our artists are likely to be severe.

It is disgraceful and absurd that art should, by Government diktat, be hidden from view. Irrespective of the Government’s irritation at the tax concessions that have been obtained for the purchase of art, some of which is undeniably of uncertain long term investment value, there simply cannot be any valid justification for legislation that seeks to censor art in this country.

If the Federal Government truly believes that art should never be included as an investment vehicle in SMSFs, it should have the courage to say so and enact appropriate prospective legislation. But to effect this outcome through censorship of art and to do so retrospectively is not only cowardly, it sets an uncomfortable and even dangerous precedent.

Meanwhile, Australian SMSFs hold almost 100 times (by value) more shares than art. Amongst that vast mass of shares arebillions of dollars’ worth of genuinely speculative share market investments.Without doubt, billions of dollars of tax concessions have been obtained by – and continue to be issued to – SMSFs for the purchase of shares with little or no likelihood of either annual dividend or long term capital gain. And the Government is silent.

This is unabashed discrimination against art in favour of the share market.

Our Prime Minister trumpets that we are “open for business” yet, at the same time, his Government knowingly suffocates our almost defenceless art industry.

Mr Abbott parades around the globe as a spearhead of liberal tolerance and democracy while his Government stands alone in the world in legislating for the concealment and censorship of art.

The Government’s openly stated aim to reduce regulation and to encourage business is utterly selective and clearly does not extend to include the Australian art industry.

Art in Australia is in decline and it is so at the hands of its own Government. What a disgraceful cultural legacy for any Australian Government.


Michael Levitt, Perth


Published in the Financial Review July 7 2014.