10 Aug 2019

Police criticised for holding competition for cell block wall art

8:46 pm on 10 August 2019

Artists says the police should have commissioned an artist to decorate walls near holding cells in a Wellington police station, instead of opening it up to a competition.

23062016 Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King. Wellington Central Police Station.

Police are under fire for running an art competition for cell blocks in Wellington police station. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King;

Wellington police are offering prize money for the top three entries - but about 15 pieces of art will be photographed, and put on the walls of the hall in the police station's cells.

Concerns have been raised about the nature of the art that will go up, and there are fears the theme, awhi (to embrace or cherish), will not be properly represented.

When Wellington artist Pinky Fang saw the police post on social media, she said her gut reaction was that it was not quite right.

Police said they were looking for artwork to reduce stress, break down barriers, and support engagement with prisoners in cell blocks.

But Ms Fang was worried emerging artists will be exploited through the competition.

The police could have spent a bit more money, and commissioned something, she said.

"They're essentially not approaching someone to commission the art work, they're basically crowd-sourcing it for free and offering a few prizes for select people."

Auckland artist Shannon Novak agreed.

An art work needed to be created that matches the purpose of the programme, the site, and the people seeing it, he said.

He was working on a piece in Auckland where he needed help understanding the context.

"It's a collaboration between myself and another artist who understands the land that we're doing the work on, in terms of its signifiance to Māori, and I don't understand or know about that."

It was frustrating some of the art will be used without most of the artists getting any money, but it might help them get their name out.

Police are offering $1000 for first, $500 for second, and $250 for third.

Senior Sergeant Stu Taylforth said the money being used to fund the contest had been donated.

He said no police funds were being used.

"It would be difficult to justify to the public that using tax-payer's money to commission artwork, that is only seen by people who have been detained in police cells, is a good use of taxpayer money."

It was hoped the artworks would start conversations to help turn around the lives of even a few people who came to the police cells.

The theme for artists to think about was awhi - the name of a new referral programme being introduced into Wellington.

Māori artist Chevron Basset said he was worried awhi might not be emodied properly through the contest.

"If they're going to do awhi it's obviously incorporated with a Māori element but do they understand the foundations of Māori art, and the principles that are behind creating work in a Māori framework?

"Because most people don't they just do a koru, that's one thing I'm worried about."

It would be better if the art was designed by someone who had had to go through the experience of being held in cells, he said.

"They'd be able to understand what they really need."

Mr Basset said the prize money for the competition was not much - so the art might not be of a high quality.

Arts Access Aotearoa's executive director Richard Benge said adding art to the cells was a good idea, and police clearly had good intentions.

But the way they had gone about it was not well thought out.

"But how you approach it needs to be thoughtful, you need to engage with the arts community, particularly with artists that are skilled in providing art that is going to be suitable for that environment."

Mr Benge said he would have liked his organisation to be consulted.

He said any artists getting involved should be aware that they were giving away their intellectual property, with police being able to use the photos of their art in any way they liked.

Mr Taylforth said the contest was designed so that the artist retained ownership of the artwork.

He said the artworks would be a conversation starter on a topic not related to why the person was in the cells, and that could lead to bigger conversations about that person, and their underlying issues.