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October 1, 2012 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts | [ssba]

Paris Is Burning

Last month the Paris Family Art Collection was sold at auction, breaking records for art auctioning in New Zealand. On the first night of the auction over $3.5 million changed hands, with some works fetching over $200,000 on their own. This is a spectacular amount of money and the high competition around the ownership of these works indicates that not only is New Zealand art collectable, it can also be highly lucrative. But for collectors Les and Milly Paris it was never about the money.

Since the 1960s the couple relentlessly followed their noses when it came to collecting, buying what they liked rather than what they thought would be valuable. Their collection included works by McCahon, Tuwhare, Angus, Walters, Killeen and Woolaston, but none were purchased as investments. The Paris’ bought works to beautify their lives, and to support artists who very often were or became their friends. Milly and her late husband Les were not artists or commentators but their taste and commitment will leave an enduring mark on the art history of Aotearoa.

The most important lesson we can learn from the Paris narrative is that they acted the way they did not to generate income or to make a name for themselves; rather they were motivated by a love of art and of the people who dedicate their lives to creating it. In a country where meagre arts funding is fought over tooth and nail, a nation where dealer galleries and auction houses have almost succeeded in completely commercialising the processes of visual beauty, they prove a stark reminder. People produce art because they need to; it’s there and needs to be expressed. But the need is not just one-sided, we as viewers and appreciators need it too. This world would be a dull, grey and lifeless place if artists didn’t use their crayons to colour outside of the lines.

But if we buy art to create a significant collection, or as an investment portfolio then we run the risk of being like Maurice Gee’s Wilberforces, slowly crushing the colour out of the world around us. The simple act of following your nose can bring utter and complete joy if we allow the process to flourish. If we buy young artists’ work, if we buy locally, if we just make a small effort to support the artists rather than the dealer gallery system then we have a real chance of carrying on the tradition which the Paris duo have laid down for us. I see the sale of their collection as a challenge to our generation.

They were in their early 20s when they started collecting, and whether we notice or not this country is better off as a benefit of their foresight and commitment.

The Paris collection was a marriage of taste and a quality of intent. They collected well but it wasn’t just for their own benefit. McCahon and Woollaston struggled, but people like Peter McLeavy and the Paris family supported them and helped to bring New Zealand’s artistic scene to a much wider audience, both within this country and internationally. Who’s going to do that for this generation? Are we capable of supporting the diversity of the art scene which has built up or will it die in the graves of the baby boomer generation?

Hopefully we’re capable; I’m certainly going to give it a try.


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