At some point in the coming weeks, hundreds of thousands of dollars will be funneled to the son of the sitting American president—and none of us will know anything about who sent the money, or where it originally came from, or why anyone chose to send it in the first place.
The transactions will nominally center on artwork created by Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden’s son. After spending years working alongside post-Soviet oligarchs—work that complicated his father’s anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine—Hunter has tossed on a new hat as an emerging “artist.” CNN has reported that his debut shows—one in Los Angeles, another in New York—will be held in late September, though the dates haven’t been announced (which may be because of the scrutiny the sales have received). Whenever they happen, Hunter will make the transition from unqualified oil-and-gas adviser to budding Basquiat—and will offer his artwork to the highest bidders his gallery can attract. The sales have raised concerns that buyers will purchase the art to curry favor with the president, creating an ethics minefield for the White House.
Hunter’s artwork isn’t bad, per se. A certain base-level skill is evident in the paintings. Sebastian Smee, the Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic for The Washington Post, told CNN that Biden was comparable to “a cafe painter. By which I mean, you see a certain kind of art in coffee shops, and some of it is OK and a lot of it is bad, and sometimes it’s surprisingly good. But you wouldn’t, unless you were related to the artist, spend more than $1,000 on it.”
Unfortunately for the White House, the people about to profit from Hunter’s foray into the art world are anticipating far higher returns—and suddenly presenting the Biden administration with a new Hunter-related headache. Hunter’s gallerist, Georges Bergès, has said he’s expecting as much as $500,000 for some of the paintings. That’s a pricing echelon that would put Hunter, a person with no formal artistic training, “in the very top tier of emerging artists,” according to Artnet. (“The whole thing is very, very weird,” added Artnet’s Ben Davis, not least because the Bergès Gallery’s previous best-known client was Sylvester Stallone.) For his part, Hunter has been clear about what he’d say to those questioning the propriety of his shows: “Other than fuck ’em?”
As of now, the Biden administration appears caught between the appearance of something wildly untoward and the reality that there’s not a whole lot it can do about the situation. Hunter remains a private citizen and is allowed to sell his scribblings to whomever he’d like, regardless of the provenance of the funds and the buyer’s motivation. Attempting to untangle this Gordian knot of ethical concerns, the White House and the gallerist struck a deal in July. Although the full details haven’t been revealed, both CNN and CBS have reported a number of particulars. Per the agreement, Hunter will supposedly never know the identity of the buyers, or even of the underbidders. If you squint, you could see how such a deal would address the ethical concerns. After all, if Hunter doesn’t know who’s showering him with hundreds of thousands of dollars for his paintings, how could they ever get in his good graces?
But further details undercut whatever protections the agreement may provide. Hunter will appear in person at the shows. “Of course [Hunter Biden] will be there,” the gallery spokesperson said. He’s supposed to refrain from discussing any sales and will instead “keep the conversations focused on the creative process of his art.” Nevertheless, he’ll be schmoozing with any and all potential buyers—buyers who are vetted solely by his own gallerist. (A representative of the Georges Bergès Gallery told me Bergès was “unavailable for comment”; George Mesires, an attorney for Hunter Biden, did not respond to my requests for comment.)
And yet there are no guarantees that these guidelines will be followed. There is no way to ensure that the gallery owner will keep purchasers’ names private, or that Hunter—a man not exactly known for his tactfulness—will stick to the script. As Walter Shaub, the former head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, said in July, “There’s no mechanism for monitoring, no mechanism for notifying the public if confidentiality is broken, no mechanism for tracking if buyers get access to [the government].”
In short, little will guard against the possibility that the buyers may be interested in something beyond Hunter’s paintings—and that they may be willing to pay however much they need for access to the man whose father sits in the Oval Office.
Hunter Biden is, of course, hardly the first relative of a sitting American president to capitalize on their last name. The entire Trump brood was one oleaginous mass of conflicts of interest, foreign entanglements, and suspect financing. Even that lodestar of ethical leadership, Jimmy Carter, saw his family race to the shady-money trough after he became president: His brother lobbied for the Libyan regime, and his son was a computer consultant for the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. To be fair, there is no reason to assume that President Biden would ever succor his son’s potential patrons—just look at how then–Vice President Biden browbeat corrupt figures in Ukraine while Hunter sat on the board of Burisma.
Still, this is a situation without modern precedent: A presidential family member is bartering something intangible, something without any intrinsic value whatsoever—except the undeniable value of the painter’s last name. He’s selling abstract, two-dimensional images, and charging tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, while potentially hiding the identity of the people he’s selling them to.
That opacity may be problematic given the people involved in this gambit, but it’s not unusual for the multibillion-dollar global art and auction markets. To the contrary, it’s the norm. As one pro-transparency activist recently said, “[The art market] is often called … the largest unregulated market in the world.” Unsurprisingly, this lack of regulation has attracted widespread criminal activity. Over the past decade, the industry has exploded into one of the world’s most popular conduits for the anonymous, unchecked laundering of dirty money into legitimate assets.
The U.S. has stood at the center of this transformation. With the largest art market in the world, and the second-largest auction market (after China’s), the U.S. provides platforms for billions of unregulated dollars to flow freely and anonymously among buyers, sellers, and middlemen. And though other industries—banking, shell-company providers, and the like—now face a complex web of rules and regulations designed to block dirty money, the American art industry remains completely exposed to any comers. As The New York Times recently summed, “Buyers typically have no idea where the work they are purchasing is coming from. Sellers are similarly in the dark about where a work is going.” All that matters is that mountains of unchecked monies exchange hands—gallery and auction-house owners take anywhere from 20 to 50 percent (or more) of the sale prices as commissions—resulting in the transfer of staggering wealth.
Examples abound. Last year, an in-depth Senate report uncovered that a pair of sanctioned Russian oligarchs allegedly laundered millions of dollars via the American art market, all in order to skirt U.S. sanctions. (A representative for the oligarchs has denied the allegations.) In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a complaint against Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s long-standing dictator, alleging that he’d used American auction houses to transform some of his ill-gotten gains into, among other things, the world’s greatest collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including the Prince of Pop’s crystal-studded glove. One former federal investigator told me that Obiang is the “poster child of kleptocracy.” (As part of a settlement agreement with the DOJ, Obiang forfeited $30 million in assets but did not admit any wrongdoing.) And Jho Low, the Malaysian financier at the center of a multibillion-dollar laundering racket, allegedly used his art as collateral for a nine-figure loan from Sotheby’s, one of the leading auction houses in the world. No safeguards, no financial checks, no questions asked. (Low was indicted by federal prosecutors on charges related to the alleged embezzlement scheme; he denied wrongdoing and remains at large.)
The market is essentially expected to police itself—but why would it? Simply too much money is at stake, and, according to one legal scholar, “art dealers have little incentive other than good faith to flag possible money-laundering schemes involving artwork for law enforcement.” As an auction-house executive who worked with the son of Equatorial Guinea’s dictator told me, Obiang “was always a decent guy … It’s hard to—he’s a client—hard to take that hat off and look objectively. Because he did help our business—and was a good client.”
Instead, we have to take dealers at their word when they say they’re on the lookout for questionable funds flooding the market. In the case of Hunter Biden, that means we have to trust that the gallerist selling the artwork is sufficient defense against the possibility of dirty money flowing directly into the pockets of the president’s son.
Recently, however, signs indicate that some long-overdue transparency—or at least less opacity—may be coming to the art and auction markets. Earlier this year, with little fanfare, Congress passed legislation requiring antiquities dealers to identify the people behind the sales and purchases, cutting off a key stream for oligarchs, organized criminals, and others who secretly move looted artifacts under the cover of shell companies. Although the new regulations are limited only to antiquities, they set the playbook for the kinds of rules that could soon apply to the art business. As a first step, Congress earlier this year mandated a federal study on financial malfeasance in the art market. As the Senate report from last year stated, “Congress should add high-value art to the list of industries that must comply with [Bank Secrecy Act] requirements. Given the intrinsic secrecy of the art industry, it is clear that change is needed in this multi-billion-dollar industry.”
Smaller dealers may gripe about the costs of complying with additional regulations—and not without reason. But unfortunately for them, they operate in a sector that’s become too compromised for the government to keep ignoring it. This regulation is clearly necessary, and those who have profited from the art market’s explosion over the past few decades can see what’s now barreling toward them. “We are in the paranoid-terrified phase of what’s going to come down the pike,” the former head of the Art Dealers Association of America said earlier this year. “Right now, I think people are a little panicked.”
Hunter Biden’s debut will only add to this heightened scrutiny—and might accelerate change in the industry. In addition to the calls for reform that have been growing louder in recent years, freshman GOP Representative Mike Waltz introduced a bill in late July that would force all children and stepchildren of sitting presidents to reveal the sources of their income. Waltz dubbed the bill the Preventing Assets and Investments With No Transparency From Executive Relatives Act, or, fittingly enough, the PAINTER Act.
Let's Art Teen returns to Cultural Centre – Energeticcity.ca
The Let’s Art program received a $2,000 donation from the Rotary Club of Fort St. John last year. The donation covered 100 hours of arts instruction offered at the North Peace Cultural Centre.
Registration is required for the program, which can be done by calling the NPCC at 250-785-1992 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The program is also offered for kids aged six to 12, however, the 2021 session took place in March.
Art Beat: It's Art Crawl weekend – Coast Reporter
The 2021 Sunshine Coast Art Crawl kicks off Friday, Oct. 22 at 10 a.m., with 164 venues open to visitors until 5 p.m. all three days, through Sunday. And at 10 of those venues (as of press time), Friday evening from 7 to 9 p.m. will also be a time for celebration. Most of the partying is at Gibsons venues, but Redecor + Design (venue #111) on Cowrie Street in Sechelt will also be open, as are Halfmoon Bay venues The Mink Farm Gallery (#146), and Kito Tosetti (#147). Details are at the “Friday Night Parties” link at sunshinecoastartcrawl.com.
Art of Healing
The Sechelt Hospital Foundation’s Art of Healing campaign holds its Gala on Saturday, Oct. 23 at the Sunshine Coast Botanical Garden (venue #126). That’s where 36 works donated by some great local artists are on display and will be distributed in an exclusive online raffle draw to 36 ticketholders. All visitors to the exhibit can also bid on auction packages, and purchase raffle tickets for the grand travel prizes, among them a grand prize of a trip for two to Venice or any other European destination.
Sechelt Arts Festival
It’s also the final weekend of the Sechelt Arts Festival, with the premiere of the play, Voices, at Raven’s Cry Theatre. There will be three performances, Friday night, Oct. 22, Saturday night, and a Sunday matinee. The visual art and heritage canoe displays at Seaside Centre become Art Crawl venue #115. Poet Valerie Mason-John speaks in a free event (registration required) at Raven’s Cry on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. And your last chance to add your touch to the Paintillio mural at Trail Bay Centre will also be on Saturday, until 4 p.m. Info and tickets at the festival website.
New writers’ group
The Sunshine Coast Writers and Editors Society is holding its first meeting on Friday, Oct. 22 at 7 p.m., via Zoom. The society’s purpose is “to serve writers, editors and groups on the Sunshine Coast to grow and develop their skills, as well as support other writers’ groups and events in the province and across Canada,” and “to hold events and launch projects to highlight the incredible talent that exists on the Coast.” Contact Cathalynn Cindy Labonte-Smith at 604-724-3534 for a Zoom link.
Meet the author
Writer Jennie Tschoban will be signing copies of her funny and touching memoir, Tales & Lies My Baba Told Me, on Saturday, Oct. 23, from 1 to 3 p.m. at Daffadowndilly Boutique & Gallery, on Marine Drive in Gibsons.
Meet the artists
On Sunday, Oct. 24 starting at 2 p.m., Jennifer Bryant and Jennifer Ireland will talk about their new exhibit, Matters of Scale, on now at the Sunshine Coast Arts Council’s Doris Crowston Gallery in Sechelt.
The band Astral Motion bring their blend of originals and classics to Roberts Creek Legion on Friday, Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. On Saturday, Oct. 23 at the Creek Legion, Vancouver acoustic band Farmteam start their sets at 7:30 p.m.
The Locals play the Turf Stage at Tapworks in Gibsons on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. On Wednesday, Oct. 27, Vancouver singer-songwriter Eamon McGrath plays Tapworks at 8 p.m.
At the Gibsons Legion on Saturday, Oct. 23, Poppa Greg and the band kick things off at 7:30 p.m.
At the Clubhouse Restaurant in Pender Harbour, catch Half Cut and the Slackers on Sunday, Oct. 24, from 2 to 5 p.m.
ArtCity: Art education in the gallery (and virtual) space – Woodstock Sentinel Review
In September, I returned to the Woodstock Art Gallery as the assistant curator of education intern, eager to actively bridge arts programming within the permanent collection and the public.
In September, I returned to the Woodstock Art Gallery as the assistant curator of education intern, eager to actively bridge arts programming within the permanent collection and the public. I have been involved with the gallery for three years, beginning as a co-op student with the education department in 2018 and then as the curatorial and collections assistant in 2019 and 2020. In my previous position, I worked exclusively in a background role curating exhibitions and assisting in collections management. With this new role as assistant curator of education, however, I was able to once again rekindle my interest in bringing the arts to the local community.
This position, of course, comes with unique challenges during a pandemic. Everything that we once considered emblematic of educational programming – in-person classroom trips, tours and studio events – has been put on pause in an abundance of caution. Over the last year and a half, the staff at the Woodstock Art Gallery have created online lessons and educational resources, virtual exhibitions and other online activities for the public. In addition, artist talks, curator webinars and exhibition openings have all been streamed virtually. It is within these unique circumstances that I began my new position in the education department.
The role of assistant curator of education is a fairly recent addition to the Woodstock Art Gallery staff roster. Created in 2018, this short-term internship aids the education and curatorial departments in realizing public programming. Previous interns have curated exhibitions, written a practical accessibility guide, conducted research and led education programming. The education department’s current goals had to be completely reoriented to accommodate the pandemic, however. Virtual resources are being further developed and made accessible to both the public and teachers alike. As collaboration with the curatorial department at the Woodstock Art Gallery has become a central component of arts education programming, alternative methods to experience exhibitions are also currently in the works.
The future of education programming, however, will not remain entirely within a virtual space. There is a unique value to in-person programming that staff at the Woodstock Art Gallery yearn to return to. Releasing Community Creation Kits and art grab bags throughout this past year, for instance, has been a way to bring art-making materials back into the hands of the public during the toughest restrictions. Now as lockdowns slowly ease and restrictions lessen, we have begun to return to in-person educational programming.
In September, the gallery hosted its first Creative PA day program since the beginning of the pandemic with a small group of kids. The day was filled with the arts as we toured exhibitions, visited the park, and explored lessons in sculpture making. By the end of the day, each child brought home their sculpture and multimedia creations, along with the tools to create more. Building upon this successful day, the education department will slowly begin to roll out more in-person programming, including another Creative PA Day in November. But this, of course, will take time.
Throughout this pandemic, educational programming has taken on many forms – from entirely virtual resources to at-home art kits and PA days, educational programming has required innovation and creativity. The future of education will forever be shaped by the lessons learned during the pandemic and will perhaps take on a whole new form that has yet to be explored.
Julia deKwant is the assistant curator of education intern at the Woodstock Art Gallery. The Woodstock Art Gallery acknowledges the support for this position which is funded by Young Canada Works at Building Careers in Heritage.
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