Francis is an independent researcher and would-be curator, currently studying towards his Honours in Museums and Cultural Heritage at the University of Auckland. Charles is co-director with Simon Bowerbank of Bowerbank Ninow.
Francis: I suppose the logical place to begin is the genesis of this, what started it.
Charles: Well, we saw this gap in the market for a place that sold high-value artworks in a bespoke fashion, and marketed them in a more considered, personal and academic manner.
So your first auction is on 25 November. What can people expect to see in the catalogue?
We’re particularly focusing on New Zealand artworks from the 1960s onwards. We’re not necessarily breaking new ground, but that’s really our focus, the things we love, the things we’re passionate about.
It’s not just market driven . . .
Exactly. Our catalogues are really quite different from what else is out there – there’ll be much more writing. We had this crazy idea of accompanying every single item for sale with an essay, which we still may do; it just depends on how much money we can get away with spending.
Well, there’s always that issue.
Exactly, yeah. We’ve sort of bucked the trend of what a catalogue usually looks like. Ours are more like a journal, more like an art book, released like a catalogue.
And there’s also something radically new for New Zealand you’re doing, which is the introduction of a share in profits for artists.
Yeah, nobody’s done that on the secondary market.
Tell me about the mechanics of that, and then tell me where the idea comes from.
So what we’re going to do is pay living artists two and a half per cent of the gallery price when their work is sold. The important thing for us was that we didn’t want to impose extra cost on the market, so that two and a half per cent comes from our commission. We are the same to deal with as any other secondary-market or auction-service provider.
Probably a wise decision.
Yeah. We saw an opportunity to do something different, something that we saw as the right thing to do. It’s sort of a contentious thing, secondary-market sales, because the artist doesn’t get a portion – some in the art world might view the secondary market as profiteering. But it’s probably the strongest driver of value development for an artist – someone like Bill Hammond, their prices would never be where they were without the auction market pushing things. So we saw this as a necessary part of the overall ecosystem, but we wanted to strengthen that in a more tangible way. The artist resale royalty was a literal and comprehensive way of saying that we wanted to support the development of new practice in New Zealand. There’s no better way to do that than to put your money where your mouth is.
It seems to me that the resale royalty is also potentially stimulating a culture shift. Obviously it affords living artists a small amount of extra income, but it also underscores the notion that artists can continue to benefit from their work after it ‘leaves’ them – even ought to be able to benefit from it.
I think it is meant to signal a shift in people’s thinking, because two and a half per cent is not going to make anyone rich but, you know, if work by an artist is sold for $30,000 it might pay for some studio rent, it might pay some production costs, it will help. It’s intended to speak to the importance of cultural investment. Culture isn’t free; it needs fostering, it needs money to survive. Being an artist is very rarely
a lucrative endeavour . . .
Few people can afford to be full-time artists these days.
For new culture to be made it needs to be supported. One of the best things about starting a new business, before you get into the difficult stuff, is to sit down and think, ‘Why should we exist? Is there something we can do that hasn’t been done already that would benefit the world, benefit the market, benefit the way that people think about art?’ It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.
And obviously auctioneering is only part of the business. Currently you have a Theo Schoon exhibition on, photographs from the 1960s. [Unfortunately this exhibition has now finished.]
I absolutely love looking at art – that’s what I do on my days off, and when I go on holiday – so it made a lot of sense for us to use this opportunity to have our own gallery. I tend to think about what we do as a gallery – because we have a full-time programme of exhibitions – as being more in line with something like Artspace [artspace.org.nz], rather than a dealer gallery. I think of us as almost a hybrid model between a public project space and a dealer gallery. We’re interested in painting a wide context around the things that we sell, so we’re looking at aspects of New Zealand’s art history that have been neglected, and that’s where Theo Schoon comes in.
The other day I turned up an Art New Zealand article written by Michael Dunn in the early 1980s and it’s interesting how little the understanding of Schoon as a photographer has changed since then. The article’s primary thesis was ‘This is amazing work! Why isn’t anyone paying any attention to it?’ Schoon’s photographs are still not well known.
Exactly, and a lot of stuff has been seen in isolation, so you might see one or two things in a collection, but not en masse. Also, he printed so little of his own material, and a lot of what was printed by others wasn’t necessarily done the way he wanted it. We built our gallery in a sort of 1970s, post-war American style and decided that this would be a great way to show [Schoon’s works]. It made sense to show them like this, in a truly, I guess, modernist tradition.
And, as you’ve suggested, in conjunction with other works from the same series. You get a really good sense of what he was doing with these images.
If you see one in isolation you don’t really get the whole picture. It was really important to us that the audience see what he was about.
In the future we’ll be looking at other areas. I’m interested in the new/old contrast thing; I find in the institutional sector it doesn’t happen often. A lot of shows are built around being comprehensive surveys of either old work or of new work, but the idea of radically contrasting things that have happened in quite disparate areas of the world, at quite different times, doesn’t seem to happen a lot. Our next show [on until 15 October] does that. We’re showing a John Baldessari video from the 1970s, which we’ve borrowed from an institution in Chicago. We also have works by Simon Ingram, who makes paintings with painting machines; they’re highly formal and structured, and play into the ideals and also, I guess, the failures of conceptual art. The third artist is Oscar Perry, a painter from Australia who is aligned to this wave of painting that has been the focus of critical ire of late – a kind of ‘Zombie Formalism’.
After that we have Ans Westra, I think about twenty photographs – some from Washday at the Pa [a famous and controversial book of photographs of Maori children at Ruatoria, published in 1964], some she took at Ratana [Pa].
So they’re all 1960s or 70s works?
I think there are some there from the Springbok Tour, which was the 80s . . .
All historical, though – well recent historical.
‘Historical’ always amuses me in the context of the antipodes, because we have these galleries, such as QAGOMA [Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art] which by their layout imply that everything from after the 80s is contemporary and anything from before then is old, but so much of that ‘old’ work has to be considered decidedly recent. Anyway, I think it’s interesting that you’ve chosen as your focus the 60s to the present day, and with Schoon, with Westra, you’re situating yourselves near the beginning of that period. I want to assume that you feel there’s something important about that time.
It’s when New Zealanders started figuring out who we were. And so many artists around that time started trying to figure that out, I think. Maybe not consciously, but they were certainly grappling with it.
What always fascinates me is the rapid tumble out of the rather Anglo-centric point of view at the beginning of the twentieth century – the rejection of New Zealand as an outpost of Britain, and of our art as a relatively unimportant subcategory of British art. You’ve got literary figures like Allen Curnow, Denis Glover, A. R. D. Fairburn, and so on, who were trying to ground their work in New Zealand experiences, trying to develop a more distinctly local voice – though they were still, of course, heavily influenced by developments abroad. Meanwhile, in the art world, you’ve got Rita Angus, Doris Lusk, et cetera, reshaping modernism to their needs. Curnow once called it ‘sharing modernity’, I think.
And then, while the increased exploration of the local was really still only in its infancy, all of a sudden the 60s hit.
And it’s like bang!
Now we have to be international – meaningfully international! Any notion of finding ourselves as New Zealanders, distinctly, has to be put on hold for a moment while we work out how we’re people in the wider world. I think in some respects the art world in New Zealand today likes to think of itself as a kind of local branch of a global tree. And yet, the question about a special New Zealand identity is still – I’d flag here the flag issue – important to us. There is still an anxiety.
I find it interesting that Bowerbank Ninow is showing work made at a pivotal time, by artists who were looking at issues that maybe some New Zealanders have forgotten were ever addressed – how an artist in
New Zealand might respond to abstraction, for instance. I’m thinking here of Schoon and abstract expressionism.
I mean, another obvious example, another obvious person to mention here is McCahon.
For sure. McCahon is like my . . . he’s it. I’d like to do some interesting things with his work, and we will have one or two. I think the reason McCahon’s important is that he tells the story of New Zealand drifting back and forth between trying to be international and trying to figure out who we are. He paints that story.
Yes, yes he does.
He is the mirror of the prevailing sentiment at the time. I don’t know if anyone’s really put it like that but it’s certainly the way I think about it.
He hits all of those marks, doesn’t he?
Beautifully. He’s always there. He’s right there with every moment in New Zealand art history in the twentieth century. He’s an interesting figure in that respect, because he begins to transcend generational art in an uncommon way.
Unlike, say, Fairburn, who had to be forgotten to some extent, had to be disliked, had to be rejected by his children’s generation – as he’d rejected the generation of his parents. But McCahon avoids that.
And you see the way that, through his life, well, New Zealand’s cultural emergence, its sense of what it was OK to see itself as, developed so significantly, you know? He started out deeply religious – I mean, he was deeply religious his whole life – but, for want of a better word, he started out deeply religious and ended up being interested in existentialism, which in a way is the same thing. It’s like he used the language of the moment to talk about the moment.
This conversation originally appeared in The Seasonal #01 SPRING in October 2015