Photo: Florence Charvin

On May 20, 2020, RNZ Morning Report featured a surprising result for an art auction in post Covid-19 lockdown. 

Conducted by the International Art Centre in Parnell, Auckland it featured “Important and Rare Art” and, according to the gallery’s director Richard Thomson, it was notable for the extraordinary level of interest with significant numbers of active bidders and higher than expected prices. “The buyers came out in their droves,” he said. 

He interpreted this as “very reassuring for artists, collectors and the trade” – and perhaps it might be. But this was a sale of historic art made by dead artists and represents a shift of funds into an investment that “holds its value in good times and bad”. 

That is a world away from the 90% of living artists who are struggling make a living from art in New Zealand and the more important reason for owning art – that it touches something within us.

Given the Covid pandemic, there has been a surprising optimism in the New Zealand economy resulting in a year of growth in art sales, with galleries up and down the country reporting a lot of new interest. Each sale represents an investment in a painting or sculpture, often by a first-time art customer seeking to enhance their lives through art instead of taking that $20,000+ overseas trip. 

So, hope is alive and artists can keep on creating while our borders remain closed and the economy holds up. 

A rich man’s fancy?

For some art may seem an irrelevance or elitist, but research shows that art making and the sharing of art is as old as mankind and that it is really important for human wellbeing.

Creativity is all around us. The growing number of practicing artists in the arts economy suggests it is a developing interest. Through the arts we express ourselves, tell our stories, validate our emotional lives and enrich our souls, thus resulting in a more humane and gentle society. 

By experiencing the visual arts, performing arts or music and dance, we add to the quality of life. Art reduces anxiety, expands horizons of imagination and creativity and brings joy to the heart. It is shown to be good for the mental health of individuals and for community wellbeing, which is why governments at all levels support their arts communities in order to foster a strong sense of unity and cultural identity.

Attendances are growing

Public participation in cultural events is growing as the public discovers opportunities to engage, note the success of the Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival in attracting locals and New Zealanders from other regions. In recognition of its success, the Festival has received a Creative New Zealand grant of $150,000, doubling the funding received for the 2020 festival, which is also funded by Hastings District Council. The 2021 festival will be even more amazing, and hopefully, will play to bigger audiences.

Events that celebrate visual art are also experiencing a growth in numbers. The Wildflower Sculpture Exhibition is a resounding success, over the week of the recent show it welcomed 9,000 visitors and over the seven biennial events they have staged, Cranford Hospice has benefitted to the tune of $430,000, and paid out $1.3 million to artists. 

The November opening of Hastings City Art Gallery’s EAST 2020 exhibition was jam-packed with local art lovers with most making repeat visits to fully appreciate the artists’ work. Similarly, the exhibition TIKA TONU featuring 30 Kahungunu artists and curated by Sandy Adsett, attracted big crowds and celebrated the quality of Māori contemporary art in New Zealand.

The Hawke’s Bay Arts Trail over Labour weekend (a recent initiative by Arts Inc. Heretaunga and Creative Arts Napier working together) gave arts patrons the chance to visit their favourite artists in their home studios. Another addition to local calendar is the UKU Clay Hawke’s Bay ceramics awards; it is run biennially and has been well supported by artists and patrons.

Making a living

Art-focused events like these are really important as drivers for new work and for stimulating the cross-pollination of ideas between artists. Their hard work and ideas are validated by exposure, which in turn makes for greater creative risk-taking and fresh unique work. The big benefit is a higher quality of art overall. 

Of course, art sales are hugely important to the artist as it pays the bills; but more importantly, it is a validation of the time, energy and inspiration that went into the work. The creation of true art is never just for money, it is about sharing ideas and a form of expression dear to the artist’s heart that is essential to their identity as an artist and human being. 

In this country we don’t have a big enough art economy to adequately support the significant number of artists working at a ‘serious’ level and while there are notable exceptions, the majority of artists have to fund their own art practice by other means, leaving only pockets of precious time for studio work. 

Given that, do we have too many people practicing art? Art for its own sake is good therapy for young or old, while learning the skills to do it well takes persistence on a long-term basis. It is hardly surprising a large number of people are practicing art in some form and signing up for arts workshops and education. Many of them will be content to regard it as a deeply satisfying hobby, others are extending themselves further by creating exciting and unique work that needs to be seen – and sold. 

Support our artists – Buy local 

We are now an affluent nation where disposable income is used on overseas travel. Travel may be severely restricted at the moment, but for most of us in Aotearoa the good life has continued and the unused travel budget is being redirected to other objects of desire … and that includes spending on art. 

Recent sales figures show that more people are becoming art buyers since the pandemic closed our borders and we are enjoying art at home in a way that we wouldn’t have had it not been for Covid.

Privately-owned galleries are important because most sales happen through them and the work shown indicates esteem and respect for the artists’ practice. Customers recognize this and find reassurance in consulting with knowledgeable gallery staff that listen to their preferences and offer appropriate advice.

Napier City and Hastings now have enviable collections of showpiece sculptures and murals, and increasingly, Hawke’s Bay artists have been commissioned to create them, which is very encouraging. Though we love the Paul Dibble sculptures in Napier and Havelock North, is it being too pedantic to suggest we should be supporting our own community by commissioning local artists for public art? 

In any event, let’s recognize the quality of our regional talent as evidenced in our independent galleries, public art forums and the major Hawke’s Bay art events mentioned above. Art is life enhancing. Our artists are world class and their work reflects our region. 

Support the Hawke’s Bay arts economy and buy local. 

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