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Taonga Whanau Secrets Revealed

Forum > Rants

Lee-looking-profound-1 by Artbasher
Article of the Month September 2005

If you are not a regular reader, you should check out my original review of Taonga Whanau before proceeding.

The University of Canterbury responded to my request for information regarding Taonga Whanau at SOFA gallery. There was no rat and no smoking gun. These are the facts.

Taonga Whanau FACTS:

SOFA Support Trust spent around $5,000 on the show. This covered materials (MDF and Perspex), printing, travel and accommodation for the artists.

The Christchurch Arts Festival paid the artists' fees - $800 each for a total of $2,400.

The University of Canterbury spent nothing. That is technically true, but not actually –some of the data-projectors were borrowed from them at no charge. This costs the university money, but it leaves no record of them spending it.

Average SOFA Show FACTS:

The average SOFA budget is approximately $3,000 per show. About half of this goes on printing, writers and designers fees, $500 for and artist fee and the remainder on incidental expenses and materials.


So nothing happened right? SOFA did not do anything "wrong" and neither did the university. Maybe SOFA Support Trust spent a bit too much on a mediocre show, but that's their prerogative, as it's their money. The Christchurch Arts Festival simply paid the artists the same as they paid all the artists in the festival.


But I'm still not satisfied. It's taken me a while to work out why. What I guess I was hoping to find was some ridiculous amount of money the university had spent, then I could squarely point the finger and say, "Shame on you for spending so much money on crappy art." But I can't say that. The money came from several different sources – The SOFA Support Trust is private money, raised mostly from selling art through the SOFA Print Project earlier this year. The Christchurch Arts Festival received money from both corporate sponsorship and CNZ.

Can I complain that they were paid more than other artists at SOFA are paid? How can I say that $500 is more justified than $800? What about $2,400, or $10,000, or even $100,000 for that matter. The justification for public spending on art seems to be to increase the amount and quality of art New Zealander's have.

It's disgusting to try and work out if the public got better value for money with this show than another. However, I think someone who supports public spending on the arts is forced to make calculations of this type, so lets do it anyway.

Multiply the number of people who went to this show by the average amount of pleasure/aesthetic satisfaction/whatever they got from it, and we get our total "culture" created by that show. (I'm sure it would be quite a lot, the show had about twice as many visitors as an average SOFA show, and in general people spent a lot of time with the work and their reactions were very positive.) Then divide the "culture" created by the dollar amount spent, and we get our "culture" per  dollar ratio. Do the same calculations for other SOFA shows (or any public art exhibition for that matter) and we can see which shows give our society better value for money. What a ridiculous exercise.


No artist's fee should be paid at all. An exhibition in a public gallery is itself a huge boost to an artist's career. It exposes them in the art world, legitimises them and should increase the commercial demand for their work.

But beyond this, what really disgusts me about the whole thing is that I think there should be no public money whatsoever spent on the arts or art institutions. I have two arguments to give.

Liberal Argument Number 1

The first is a liberal argument from political philosophy, that government's only role is to protect basic freedoms, in particular the right to private property. Government spending outside of this is inefficient and violates our right to do what we want with out money. Read more here.

However, New Zealand is a socialist country and we seem to accept that it is the government's role to actively spend tax money promoting culture and the arts.

Liberal Argument Number 2

The second argument tackles government funding directly.

I assert that government spending harms the arts. It crushes leadership, creativity and innovation. It breeds complacency and reproduction. It creates a culture of imitation, submission and pretence. Government funding creates bad art, and worse art than would be created if there was no funding. Liberal Argument Number 1 is actually irrelevant – for everyone will surely oppose government funding of the arts once they realise it is directly harming, (rather than aiding as is generally assumed) art and culture.

This argument is easy to settle by looking at the evidence. So, let us now turn to a brief survey of the world of art, culture and art-works, evaluate them and note whether or not they were funded by government money.

Here in New Zealand most artists essentially know of no other way to get money than by begging for it from the government and institutions sponsored by the government. The art that is produced as a result is highly intellectualised. The people who control the money are highly educated, and love to talk and write about art. In order to secure their financial and social position, they justify themselves and the art they support in a very wordy and intellectual way. Thus artists in New Zealand are forced to "make something . . . deep," as successful ex-pat Francis Uprichard put it in the Sunday Magazine, (18 Sept. 05). The art and the institutions themselves become imitative. The galleries all copy one another, HSP wants to be like the Physics Room, that wants to be like Artspace. The entire arts culture is an attempt to copy the cultures of Europe and America. Government funding has stilted any possibility of a unique New Zealand visual culture developing

Of course not all of the art produced by government funding is bad. But compare even its best results to fantastic art that is the birth of an individual's personal drive and passion.

For example, take the Young British Artists. The YBAs were launched by twenty-one year old Damien Hirst, who stole the mailing list from White Cube where he was working, and invited all of London's art glitterati to Freeze, a show he organised in a warehouse. Millionaire Charles Saatchi's financial gamble and flair for publicity then launched these artists' careers, throwing them into the centre of the world art-stage, revitalising British art in the 1990s. This art was different, exciting, and people liked it – enough to buy it.

Or take the major twentieth century movements of Cubism and Abstract-Expressionism. These were both revolutionary at their time, shocking. No government was or would have supported them. "But," you counter, "There is plenty of shocking and revolutionary government art being produced today. Just look at the reactions on this website to the art of Wayne Youle or the Rakenas." I tell you their work is not shocking, but mundane in it's complacent acceptance, repetition and elevation of the customs of our government distorted art-world. The same old ideas – identity, colonialism, the art-world, trucked out again and again. It's not even that it's these ideas that are always re-used, it's that the art is expected to have ideas that can be talked about in a similar way.

Another objection you might voice is that the ancient patronage of Popes and kings is no different from government funding today, yet this patronage produced the greatest works of the renaissance. However, ask yourself what these patrons asked of the artists. They took the greatest artists available, and demanded of them their best work. Now, is that how CNZ gives out money? Not at all. Their motto is, "Developing and promoting the arts for all New Zealanders." Did the Pope care that hardly anyone would see the Sistine Chapel? Of course not, it was for him and his buddies. CNZ is all about helping the weak, the not-quite-so-able, the public at large and those who can't make it in the real world. Compare the NEA's (America's CNZ) motto, "A great nation deserves great art." Figure out who's encouraging mediocrity.

Away from the fine arts, the art forms of popular culture are the product of a pure free market. An Australian (Australia also has lots of government funded art), Prodos, points out that government funding could never have produced the cultural forms that dominate contemporary life, such as Cinema. I add that Rock-and-Roll, Hip-hop and Dance Music are all necessarily the result of creative individuals and a free market environment. That American culture dominates the world – and that the American government spends a pittance on the arts are facts. I found some comparisons.  The USA spends in total not much more on the arts than New Zealand - around 6$ per person annually, compared to our 100$ per person.

Final Word:

I would rather have leadership and inspiration in the arts than all the money in the world. Compare Bill Clinton playing his saxophone on television and saying, "this is a good thing," to Helen Clark signing paintings she never painted and passing them off as her own, and it's ok – it's OK for art to be a total sham, here, have some more money and shut up.

Further reading and references:

http://www.uncommonknowledge.org/00fall/502.html  "Terms of Endowment" - Discussion on government funded art.

http://forums.philosophyforums.com/thread/16180 - Discussion on Liberalism and the arts.

http://writ.news.findlaw.com/scripts/printer_friendly.pl?page=/hamilton/20021010.html - Legalities of US government art funding.

1 to 3 of 3
19 articles & 495 comments since 9 Aug 2005
Helen's fraud was a duchampian statement :)

That's interesting. I hadn't realised it was part of the festival, probably because it carried on quite some time afterwards. That kind of makes sense then, as a show it was VERY earnest and read in the context of Applaud 2005 was intended to a appeal to certain kind of audience: politicians and other assorted powerful. The opening night at CoCA was much the same and consistent in overall theme with Taonga Whanau.
In terms of Taonga Whanau, you have already negated liberal argument 1. As for liberal argument 2, I don't think it applies because I didn't think TW all that 'deep' as such, though pleasant enough - but as I wan't to avoid using the 'M' word and sounding like Don Brash, perhaps we could say that the aspect that appealed to CNZ, the festival organisers and the University may have been that it was 'cultural'and 'cultural' contemporary art is often short on the ground in Christchurch. And South Island curators notoriously panic and fall to pieces whenever the 'M' word is mentioned because 'M' arn't very visible down here. But as the festival is about entertaining the public rather than challenging it (not always a bad thing under the circumstances - more flies with honey etc) it seems appropriate.
The problem with your Renaissance analogy is that most of the big art patrons then were incredibly sophisticated, educated, rich, worldly people and thus immediately in touch with, if not dictating, the art of the time. Even Michelangelo had to do what Julius II told him to do, but Julius was sympathetic to his talent. By the way, actually the Sistine was frequently in use for public ceremonies. Most ducal, papal etc palaces also functioned to an extent as public places and centres of government, so they did have an eye to impressing the punters with their immortal fame and glory. Sadly in out Democratic and venal age, the same conditions are not easily available.
40 comments since 22 Aug 2005

Artists getting paid is not something to complain about.

There is no arguing about the the lack of taste or actual concern that any instituion actually has. That includes art schools and the public of any show at any given time.

The sad thing is You. That you argue that artists shouldn't be paid and your sad and pathetic moralising about it clearly shows that you really are in denial of the economic realities artists face. Go get mom to pay for your food and rent and leave those working the least paid profession in the world alone.

By the way...
Over 80% of government funding of the arts does not go to artists anyway. If an artist sells through a gallery they front up the time to make the work and the materiails and then give the gallery 30 to 50% of the cost of selling the work to the gallery who represents them.

Embarrassed for you
137 articles & 705 comments since 12 Feb 2005
Artists should be paid.

But only when they provide something of value to another who is willing to exchange their hard earned money for it. Anything else, such as government funding for artists who otherwise would have to find something useful to do, is the actual "denial of the economic realities that artists face." Artists should not be paid by decree from someone who did not earn and does not respect the money they are paying with. Artists getting paid to make bad and mediocre art is absolutely something to complain about, critique and if possible change.

My main point in this article is that government funded artworks, galleries and artists are inferior to those produced by the free market. I think you need to address this issue first. Should we pay for bad art just to keep those people in their jobs? To support their inferior products and talents? Bad artists or institutions don't deserve to be paid for what they produce, and good artists will always succeed. I'm an artist too BTW ;)
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