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A secretive art world grapples with data protection legislation

Josh Spero

March 21, 2018

On a recent Thursday night, London's Lisson Gallery held a private dinner to celebrate the opening of exhibitions by two artists. The event was at The Ned, a luxurious private members' club next to the Bank of England. Guests were selected with care: a Norwegian collector with a private sculpture park and the head of one of London's most prestigious galleries were among them.

Such an occasion might seem to have little to do with European data protection law, and more to do with the social lubrication that keeps London's art world running smoothly. But galleries record extensive personal information about collectors and clients -- from their tastes and their buying histories to their private addresses and even their dietary preferences. This is personal data, which means that those who organise events like the Lisson dinner must grapple with a new EU law, the General Data Protection Regulation.

The legislation

GDPR, which comes into force on May 25, gives EU citizens the right to know if, how and why a company is processing data about them; the right to see that data; and the right to have the data deleted.

It imposes heavy obligations on organisations: they must obtain unambiguous consent to use and retain data, keep the data up to date and delete what is old, instead of letting it rest in their systems. It applies to any company in the world handling an EU citizen's data, and the punishments for breaching the act are severe: tiered fines up to 4 per cent of annual global turnover or EUR20m (whichever is greater). The art world guards its data jealously, but not always carefully, which means it is paying close attention to GDPR.

Allison Thorpe, head of marketing and communications at Lisson, summarises the importance of data to an art business when she describes the gallery as "a relationship organisation". Those relationships, which are developed at dinners, openings and art fairs, consist of data as much as human interactions. Lisson has collected half a century's worth of data since it was founded, and has been working hard at organising it, says Heidi Naish, the gallery's business systems manager. "Our database is sophisticated enough to be able to give someone the details of the work they've purchased . . . the events that they've attended, the artist interest that they had, any notes about dietary requirements," she says. "All of that information we can pull [out] quite quickly." A personal letter from a client to founder Nicholas Logsdail may take some digging out, however.

The legal view

Ian De Freitas, a partner at Farrer & Co, the law firm, advises art businesses on GDPR.

He says the art world is "unusual" in how long people who work in it retain data. "They say that they often need to keep information for decades in relation to sales of artwork, for example for provenance purposes," he says. A gallery can keep this, but should purge the data it does not need sooner, he advises.

Not all art businesses are as keen to talk about GDPR. Sotheby's and Christie's, the world's biggest auction houses, declined to put up anyone for interview, issuing statements instead. One reason for a business's discretion, says Mr De Freitas, is to avoid attracting the attention of regulators or troublemakers, both of whom might test a company's systems.

GDPR cannot govern everything a gallery might know. In Dark Side of the Boom, art-market writer Georgina Adam quotes gallery owner Thaddaeus Ropac talking about "the blacklists", which art businesses maintain of those who cannot buy works from them. (Someone who "flips" a work soon after buying for a quick buck might be banned, for example.) If blacklists were to be recorded formally in a gallery's systems, they would fall under the scope of GDPR.

So blacklists are verbal, Mr Ropac explains. Galleries that represent a common artist discuss who they would not want to sell a work to. "I know that any serious gallerists have these lists on their mind," he says, "and it is also discussed internally or between gallerists and artists." Mr Ropac adds that he welcomes the GDPR "for EU citizens to protect them from global businesses".

The existence of blacklists points to a wrinkle in GDPR, which Mr De Freitas also acknowledges: the new regulations do not catch unstructured or unindexed information.

Old favourites

This is why, he says, people are "going back to more old-fashioned techniques of keeping information", such as holding on to business cards. (Before you run out to buy a Rolodex, however, Mr De Freitas says such a system, with its easy A-Z filing, would fall under the GDPR.) A personal notebook could be exempt, too: "If effectively your paper records are a record of what's in your head, as it were, then it's information but it's not subject to the regime." When it comes to organising the perfect dinner placement, art businesses are probably safe. As one former auction-house employee notes, "Any inside knowledge as to who's had affairs with whom, and who hates whom, is all kept in people's heads."

Whatever happened to the Rolodex?

When Zephyr American Corp invented the Rolodex in the 1950s, it looked as if the desktop rotating index-card holder would follow the rest of Zephyr's product line (the Swivodex, the Clipodex, the Autodex and the Punchodex) into obscurity.

Priced at £7.95 -- about £85 today -- sales were slow. But in time, business people in the art world and beyond appreciated the ability to retrieve contacts easily and throw out old acquaintances without jettisoning their address book. By 1989, Rolodex claimed three-quarters of the "desktop retrieval market", according to the Boston Globe.

The brand name entered the lexicon as a term for someone's contacts, especially valuable ones. One Rolodex executive was particularly confident, telling the newspaper: "The Rolodex system is so simplistic and inexpensive that it doesn't make sense for people to take up space on a computer storing the kind of stuff it's used for." At the time of its inventor Arnold Neustadter's death in 1996, a Rolodex executive told the New York Times that annual sales were almost 10m.

But use of the word "Rolodex" peaked in the mid-1990s, according to Google Books. Rolodex would not disclose current sales figures. Still, the desktop contraption is not dead yet.

You can buy a new model today for about GBP25 on Amazon. Joshua Oliver

NZ gears up for Barack Obama's flying visit


Barack Obama arrives at Auckland International Airport. Former United States President Barack Obama's private jet has landed in Auckland. A road near Air Centre One at Auckland International Airport was closed late on Tuesday in preparation for his arrival, and the plane touched down from Singapore just after midnight.

Obama is rumoured to be staying at The Landing, a secluded luxury resort on Purerua Peninsula in Northland's Bay of Islands, but how - and when - he gets there isn't known. He could have up to a dozen armed agents protecting him for his visit to New Zealand, according to security analyst Paul Buchanan. READ MORE:
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Barack Obama is driven from Auckland International Airport in a six-car motorcade.

A spokesperson for police said they were not willing to go into specifics on security arrangements, including how many roads might be shut down during Obama's visit. "At this time, we are not anticipating any significant disruption arising from police actions during the visit."

Barney Irvine, spokesman for Transport and Infrastructure issues for the AA, said the effects of such visits tended to be localised to places a foreign dignitary might be staying at or speaking at.

"On a city-wide scale I wouldn't expect any impact." Obama's tipped to join former New Zealand prime minister John Key and son Max for an exclusive round of golf.

NZ gears up for Barack Obama's flying visitDAVID WHITE/STUFF

The private jet carrying Barack Obama arrives at Auckland International Airport.

The venue for their golf game has been a closely guarded secret, but there is speculation about two exclusive clubs, Kauri Cliffs and Tara Iti in Northland. The only public engagement will be a Powhiri at Government house, ahead of an invitation only dinner on Thursday.

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Auckland's waterfront will go into lockdown on Thursday night as Obama pops in for the banquet alongside some of New Zealand's highest-profile civic and business leaders. Security will be tight - comprising at least six layers, including police and Obama's personal protection squad.

On Tuesday morning, trucks were moving containers out of the centre, which has just finished hosting the Volvo Ocean Race. Former US president Barack Obama is expected to play a round for golf with our former prime minister John Key. A staff member said preparations for the dinner would begin in earnest on Wednesday.

They revealed security measures began at least a week ago, with an advance guard scoping out the venue to identify what steps would be needed to lock it down.

Kiwi actor Sam Neill said on Twitter on Tuesday he was "honoured to be In Conversation with President Barack Obama for an hour on stage this week in Auckland", adding that he was a "tad overexcited".

Obama is due to be in New Zealand until Friday, when he's scheduled to fly out to Sydney.

NZ gears up for Barack Obama's flying visitSTEFFI LOOS/GETTY IMAGES

Former US president Barack Obama will be in New Zealand for a short stay this week.

NZ gears up for Barack Obama's flying visit

Barack Obama and John Key on the second green as they golf at Kaneohe Klipper Golf Course on Marine Corps Base Hawaii in 2014.


Former US president Barack Obama arrives in New Zealand tomorrow and will hold a private meeting with the prime minister but won't be holding any media engagements.

- Stuff

Minnesota Family Protection Act would close boating insurance loophole

(KMSP) - A new bill that reached the Minnesota legislature Monday would require insurance coverage for all people onboard a boat, regardless of family status. Currently, Minnesota law requires insurance coverage for all family members in a car, but does not require them to be included in a boat insurance policy. The Minnesota Family Protection Act would close that loophole.

There are more than 800,000 registered boats throughout the state.

The bill was authored by Senator Paul Anderson and Representative Kelly Fenton and supported by Wiggle Your Toes and Fox 9's own Courtney Godfrey, who was injured in a boating accident last summer.

Courtney said her recovery was made even more challenging when the family discovered she was excluded from their boat and umbrella insurance policies.