Chris Lynch: Who signed off on the sculpture?

Chris Lynch,
Publish Date
Friday, 25 September 2015, 10:55a.m.
One of the two Antony Gormley sculptures (Supplied)
One of the two Antony Gormley sculptures (Supplied)

Who signed the rate payer funded check for half a million dollars to a British artist for two sculptures and why should we care? Most reasonable and fair minded residents accept we need sports and arts facilities for a city to thrive. Cultural recovery is important, but at what cost? Before artists elite accuse me of being anti-art, consider this.

I love the arts and interviewed many artists and performers on Newstalk ZB, every day during the Christchurch Arts Festival. I was complimentary of the locally made documentary The Art of the Recovery which showcased outstanding local artists doing their bit to help the city’s mental health recovery. For the record, they did this for free. You might remember when my radio show on NewstalkZB broadcast live from the Isaac Theatre Royal to help raise additional funds to pay for the restoration of this beautiful theatre. Hardly the work of an anti-art stooge.

But to receive confirmation that two senior council staff members signed off a cheque for Antony Gormley to the tune of half a million dollars, without knowledge from all elected representatives is not art, it’s obscene. Sure, Gormley’s work is world renowned, and the man has genuine talent. His cast-iron human sculpture destined for the Avon River is impressive. But is half a million dollars the best use of the public purse in post-quake Christchurch? This was not a publicly notified competition, therefore there was no tender process. The mayor was right when saying the cash came from the arts budget, but that doesn’t negate important questions on council funds, particularly when rate-payer money is involved and when rates are going up and we’re being told the city will go broke if we don’t sell shares in our assets.

I like the sculpture, but given the ongoing issues our city faces, is it a nice to have or a necessity in the city’s cultural recovery? In a Press article, Gormley said he wanted the sculptures to play a part in Christchurch's healing process. I suspect the only thing healed will be his bank account. He also said" I believe in the therapeutic potential of art. In objectifying a moment of pleasure or pain it can release us from the pull of continued return, whether of addiction or depression."

Powerful words, but let’s get real here. The half a million dollar cheque is his pleasure – our pain. Perhaps his most insulting words were "It's cruel that this placid place, so seemingly kind and untouched by worldly cares should have suffered in this way."

Yes, a cruel world which he’s managed to do quite nicely out of. He told all those involved in the deal not to disclose the full price tag. The council and CERA agreed. Apparently, he gave us a “generous discount.” If he was keen to heal the city, he should have donated the sculptures for free and told the council to use the purchase price to fix the roads. Just like the council managers who signed this off, Gormley is divorced from reality. Last week, one of his cast-iron sculptures at Kimmeridge Bay, Dorset, toppled off rocks following a storm. He said this was proof of his art’s "dynamic relationship with the forces of nature".

Surprisingly, other media produced articles defending the artwork, and the price tag attached. In one article the council contribution was buried midway down and “expert” commentary was sought from the chair for Mesh Sculpture Hamilton, and a former director of a Wellington gallery. That’s about as objective as conducting an interview with an OCD sufferer and asking them of they’d washed their hands.

Whether you like the sculpture or not is beside the point. Those who signed off the cheque without public consultation should be held to account. In a statement, the council said the council decided to withhold the names of the two Executive Team Members who signed off the recommendation of the Public Arts Advisory Board. The publication of the names could result in considerable harassment of them personally from some members of the public. The public interest considerations of releasing this information do not outweigh the considerations of withholding it.” It’s highly likely those who signed it off are the same ones seeking privacy. It’s a shame they didn’t show the same concern for the poor old rate payer before signing off an extravagant amount of money.

Let’s hope the next time they’re asked for their signatures, it’s for their exit interview from council.

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