Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Old school

Last week Hamish Keith tweeted, “My Listener column on Bill Culbert choice for Venice Biennial will not make me popular but I think it has to be said.” If only. Instead the selection has been swallowed whole without so much as a burp. 

Exactly when was it that we decided to change why we send artists to the Venice Biennale? Who was it that decided we stop supporting and internationally spring-boarding artists in mid or early career as we have done so far, and instead artistically ‘knight’ an artist at the end of his working life? 

Stumping up with over $600,000 (44 percent of the entire CNZ international budget) to give a one-off honour to an artist at the end of his career (Bill Culbert will be 78 when representing us at Venice) can hardly be described as either a medium or long-term investment in our contemporary culture. Wasn't that what Venice was supposed to be about? When you consider that the Laureates Awards are only $50,000 each and the Icons are just given a gong and a pin for the honour of it, this is a huge call.

While on one hand CNZ constantly tells us they are investing in the future of New Zealand art, Commissioner Jenny Harper claims that "Venice is a wonderful platform for us both to celebrate his [Culbert's] individual achievements and to continue to present the richness of this country’s visual arts practice." In reality Culbert is to all intents and purposes an 'English' artist who hasn’t lived in the country for over 50 years and didn’t start regularly exhibiting in New Zealand until he was 65. This surely undercuts his ability to present that richness.

And if we're talking about celebrating the individual achievements of our senior artists there's a long queue of worthy candidates starting with Apple (Billy) and heading right through the alphabet to Webb (Boyd). Then if we step back from the seniors (sorry about that Boyd), there is a whole raft of established artists who would benefit long-term from such a huge investment. 2013 is the final year that the Government has committed to supporting Venice so there is more than a good chance we can wave attending post 2013 Biennales goodbye. It's a failure of nerve that artists like Shane Cotton, Brett Graham, Gavin Hipkins and Fiona Pardington to name just a few are now unlikely now to be given this opportunity. Any one of them would certainly better deliver on CNZ’s requirement that Venice participation ensures “New Zealand’s distinctive voice is heard overseas.”