Illustration: Sloane Kim

The Ponsonby Central mural saga and the exploitative nature of ‘art competitions’

It all started with a competition by Ponsonby Central asking for artists to submit their ideas on what to paint on its Brown Street wall. But when criticism over pay started to roll in, the Auckland restaurant complex deleted negative comments on its social media, escalating the whole affair into a full-blown standoff. Illustrator Sloane Kim takes us through the saga.

There’s been quite a bit of noise surrounding Ponsonby Central recently. Artists from all over Aotearoa have been coming together to speak out against their 2017 Summer Art Mural Competition. They’ve discussed the inherently exploitative nature of art competitions and expressed their discontent with New Zealand’s art industry and the systemic issues that have resulted in our hapori’s struggle to thrive. But what began as simple criticism and open invitation to resolve these issues alongside the community escalated when Ponsonby Central’s social media engaged in some questionable behaviour in response.

The Brown Street wall mentioned in the call for entries is pretty famous amongst artists. Ponsonby Central even brags about its history with big names like Gina Kiel, Charlotte Hawley, Kelsey Montague, Jimmy James Kouratoras and Flox in their initial announcement. But what they failed to mention is how those artists actually came to paint the wall.

Gina Kiel was commissioned by FCB, a media agency, and Audi NZ for the launch of their campaign to advertise their new Q2 model, and was paid fairly for her work. Flox and Jimmy James Kouratoras collaborated on a piece of their own volition during a campaign organised by Sam Ryan to launch their new NZ artist showcase Colours Collective.

And Kelsey Montague was invited, commissioned and properly paid for by the Ponsonby Business Association (better known as ‘I love Ponsonby’ on Facebook and Instagram) in early 2015 to help advertise the space through the hashtag campaign #getyourwings #ponsonbycentral. This is how art and projects like these are supposed to be done – either paid or volunteered for another cause; maybe for a charity or even for the sake of further expanding their own artistic experiences.

Charlotte Hawley, however, is the only name Ponsonby Central rightfully invokes in their initial post. While she now objects to it, she actually entered and “won” the Summer Art Mural Competition in 2015 during the early stages of her career. But back then, the prize was $1,000 cash and $500 worth of materials. It was also supposedly designed to target the “up and coming”: fresh graduates or young artists who were looking to break into the industry such as herself. But the original posts in Ponsonby Central’s archived website suggests that the criteria and targeted demographic has remained largely indiscriminate and nearly identical to the competition as it’s presented today.

Ponsonby Central promoting its summer art mural competition on its website.

Since 2015, they’ve dropped the cash prize to $500, before tax. Street artists have come forward to say that they would typically quote about $2,000-$4,000 minimum for a piece about that size, depending on a few variables like the purpose, complexity, materials, etc, so they were never really paying a reasonable rate to begin with.

In fact, let’s think about that for a moment. Let’s say you work a full 40 hours a week at minimum wage; you’d actually make $130 more than what Ponsonby Central is offering. That’s literally below minimum wage, and Ponsonby Central even expects you to put in, at least, a full five day week to complete the mural within the time frame they’ve provided (11-16 December).

On top of that, they invited anyone and everyone to apply and specified that the work submitted must be an original piece referencing Ponsonby and summer, opening up the competition to professionals and amateurs alike. This is all for a promotional piece to help advertise their space in the same way Kelsey Montague did. But she was paid a proper market rate that covered not just her work, but her flights and accommodation.

While all these technicalities were upsetting, it was Ponsonby Central’s reaction and behaviour that has antagonised New Zealand artists and forced us to act. Ross Liew is the co-founder of the Cut Collective. He also curates, produces and programmes all things related to public art for the Auckland City Council along with a few other groups around Aotearoa. He boasts 15 years’ experience as a public artist and represents the Advisory Panel for Art in Public Places as their chair.

So, when the competition was initially announced, he left a simple, cheeky five-word comment pointing out that maybe the prize wasn’t enough to compensate the work people would be putting in. A little verbal nudge in the ribs. I would quote him directly, but Ponsonby Central moved quickly to delete that comment along with my own. Any attempt to engage and explain the flaws of competitions like these to both Ponsonby Central and other commenters, no matter how friendly or polite, were met with the same response.

Once we realised what they were doing we began documenting our own comments to bring artists’ attention to the issue and to use as collateral in case things continued to escalate. They are available to read in a gallery linked at the bottom of this article.

Eventually, word about their behaviour got out to the art community through our own social media efforts and within three days there were about 40 comments from professionals and amateurs alike, including some of the past artists that were listed in the announcement, all criticising and/or condemning both the competition and their behaviour. Ponsonby Central was actively monitoring, deleting and curating these comments through all of this, covering up their efforts to censor artists by removing any mention of it, so it’s hard to say just how many comments there actually were. Regardless, people were making noise and Ponsonby Central made it very clear they were watching.

The activity surrounding the competition was still going strong at the end of those three days when Ponsonby Central made another post on their social media accounts. They thanked everyone who had already entered and encouraged more people to do so with no direct mention or acknowledgement of the feedback they were getting from the New Zealand art community. Instead, they adjusted the criteria for the competition by allowing any subject matter and invited pieces “that you’ve done previously that you’d like to see BIG!” which, admittedly, was an improvement. But it still didn’t address the issues raised by the people in the comments.

Comments on Ponsonby Central’s Instagram post about the competition, many of which have now been deleted.

In the initial post, the community was upset but understanding. We interpreted the competition as the result of ignorance and misunderstanding and wanted to help. People were being constructive with offers to kōrero, negotiate prices, and even help source local artists. Everyone wanted a positive resolution and Ponsonby Central’s active curation efforts let us know that they were seeing everything. So for them to move forward without a single word about this conversation we were so eager to have, it could only really be interpreted as antagonism, and people responded accordingly.

At this point, artists were frustrated and demanded to be heard. But even as people tried to make contact or get a response, Ponsonby Central began blocking accounts from their Instagram – specifically, the ones bringing the most attention to them. All of which made their intentions very clear: they had no interest in actually engaging with artists.

Over 60 comments and four days later, Ponsonby Central posted the competition again. They started off by telling the story of how the Brown Street Art Project got started. It was an attempt to appear in touch with the art community but ultimately irrelevant. Whatever good they may have done in the past had nothing to do with their immediate actions nor did they have the courtesy to mention who those founding artists were. They then went on to finally address, not the issues, but the activity surrounding their social media over the past week:

“This time around there has been a lot of discussion around our project and we feel the conversation about the value of art in our community is always healthy, we have also talked to some senior artists and curators (who we have approached and who have approached us) in the field who suggested that this is not a project for more established artists or designers but more a great space for anyone of any age or experience to have some fun on a larger scale. 

We welcome the conversation that is happening on our social media and we have endeavoured to keep as much of it as possible. All we ask is that it is kept civil and not rude, abusive or bullying to anyone that is applying or wanting to ask about our project or to members of our staff.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. Before a conversation had even started, Ross Liew’s five-word comment had been deleted and any polite and softly worded criticism was met with censorship, which was what led to the escalation in the first place. We were patient and invited them to an open discussion with the community but they chose to meet with anonymous artists behind closed doors to discuss issues that affected everyone. But more importantly, they never actually addressed any of the issues raised by the artists in the comments.

The conversation that started all of this was the inherently exploitative nature of “art competitions.” Professionals in the industry call this spec work: the practice of asking people to work for free for the chance of maybe getting paid. Although it’s a simple concept, artists often find themselves having to use examples through other professions like: “would you ask 10 different dentists for 10 different fillings and only pay for the one you liked best and then offer them the opportunity to do your root canal for no extra pay?”

Indie arts festival Chromacon was blocked by Ponsoby Central on Instagram after a series of critical comments.

The reason we find ourselves resorting to absurd analogies like these is reflected in the sentiment surrounding one of the most common phrases all artists are familiar with: “I wish I could draw.” While flattering, it stems from the idea that being an artist isn’t or shouldn’t actually be a job, because it’s misconstrued as an innate ability we’re born with, no different to breathing. But the fact of the matter is that anyone could draw if they actually wanted to. Making art is just like any other skill or job: you invest your time and energy to learn, practice and improve. And just like any other job, we expect to be reimbursed for our specialised skillsets.

But the argument businesses and organisations normally use to justify morally bankrupt pay rates is that their competition or business practice is for younger or more inexperienced artists and that professionals should pay them no mind. Ponsonby Central uses this same argument in their third announcement under noble intentions, presenting it as a community project. But the bottom line is that it’s harmful to our industry not only because it enforces the idea that artists should be grateful for getting work in the first place, but also because it brings into question just how much anyone’s work is really worth regardless of experience.

The moment someone decides an artist’s work is worth paying for, they stop being an amateur and their work is automatically worth standard industry/market rates. This is because the decision to exchange currency for their goods and services implies that they’ve already gained the necessary experience to do the work stated in whatever contract that they’re presented with, and to offer them any less than other professionals in the industry sets the bar for how much we’re worth as a whole.

But one young artist chimed in on the debate in the third post, pointing out that we all have to start somewhere and pay our dues, and while this is true, we don’t have to start by being exploited and getting paid less than minimum wage. Professionals are all too familiar with jobs that promise “exposure” and constantly warn against them. On the rare occasion when a past client actually passes on your name, it’s always with the reputation that you work for cheap. As a result, people often end up getting stuck working full-time jobs by day and drawing things they have don’t even want to be drawing by night, wondering why their career is off to such a poor start.

In reality, the best way to break into the industry is to get involved with the community. Attend art festivals like Boon Fest or Chromacon, and get in touch with the artists you admire. Show them your work and ask for advice because any real artist worth knowing is going to be happy to foster our community by helping you grow and fight to ensure that younger generations don’t have to suffer exploitative work. Your future as an artist lies with artists, not the people who undervalue your work.

Aotearoa and The State of The Arts (Illustration: Sloane Kim)

It should also be noted that Ponsonby Central uses their history of “supporting” artists and our communities by talking about their involvement with Artweek Auckland and listing the people they’ve hosted in their complex. But by that definition, New World has been supporting artists by allowing us to buy groceries. The artists that have set up shop with them in the past have all paid full price to rent those spaces and the New Zealand Contemporary Art Trust typically approaches businesses and organisations to negotiate and pay for vacant spaces throughout Aotearoa on behalf of participating artists.

No one is angry that they’re doing business with artists, but true support comes in the form of those who have contributed to festivals and organisations that foster growth and development. To dress up regular transactions as “support” is condescending, as if to say they’re doing us a favour by allowing us to exist like any other industry.

We’re not trying to run a smear campaign against Ponsonby Central. In fact, we’d still like to find a positive resolution to all of this. The reason we’re fighting this is because it’s an example of a global issue where our jobs are constantly trivialised and given away like they’re worth nothing, while businesses and organisations deny the promotional value of our hard work in their market.

Crafters Union ran a competition back in July for a wine label with a prize of $3,000 which is about how much any artist commissioned for that same job would charge. This one is particularly upsetting because they had people like Rachel Doughty, the director of One Design, an incredible design studio, on their judging panel.

We live in a strange cultural climate here in Aotearoa. Our community is so small and tight-knit that our actions have huge consequences, which is why we have to look out for each other. This includes how the hapori whānui and artists of Aotearoa interact. The way that our art and artists are perceived and valued by our people plays such a huge role in determining our lives and industry. Our jobs are scarce and competitive. We aren’t unionised and our laws don’t protect us from unethical business practices. So all we can really do is educate and hope that bigger, more powerful entities such as Ponsonby Central will listen and lead by example.

For the sake of full transparency, I’m releasing all the screenshots of our social media efforts and comments that have now been removed. We’ve been accused of harassment and abuse, and as someone who’s been emotionally and physically abused in the past, this is an allegation I am, personally, taking very seriously. We weren’t aware of any physical or emotional violence enacted on our behalf and we certainly don’t condone it.

For more information about artist’s rights and the events surrounding Ponsonby Central, you can go to Chromacon’s Facebook page to read Allan Xia’s open letter and some more details that have since been removed from Ponsonby Central’s Instagram.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article referred to a poster competition organised by the Wondergarden music festival and incorrectly stated that the competition winner’s artwork or design would become the festival’s promotional poster. This was not the case as the festival currently already have an official festival poster designed by their paid, in-house designer. It also incorrectly stated the value of the prize on offer. The total dollar value of the prize was $800, not $200 as the article stated, and with the prize came an additional VIP experience at the event itself. We apologise for the error.

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