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Opinion: Exploitation Of Artists Not Over

24 Aug 2023

The official stripping of James Wallace's knighthood was a necessary step - But Andrew Wood writes, don’t for a moment think this is the only example of exploitation and predation in NZ’s creative system.

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Image: Shutterstock.

The art world is a far from equitable ecosystem. 

The vast majority of its denizens are one or another flavour of the precariat, where what floats to the top contains some cream, quite a lot of scum, and more than a few turds. 

If one is to remain completely safe and untainted, it is best to stay out of it as much as possible – glib to say, but good for the sanity if you can get away with it.

One of the reasons I tend to make a lot of noise about equitable funding access for grassroots creatives - aside from making the arts available to those who could not otherwise afford to participate in a user pays system - is that this scenario leaves a lot of room for the predatory and entitled to exploit. 

And “exploit” is exactly the right word in all its senses.

One doesn’t need to be an art history major to know what monsters the patrons of the past could be. They were less shy about it in those days.

The sordid saga of James Wallace has - for some time now - been one of the worst-kept secrets in the arts community of Aotearoa. Indeed, while it must all seem a shocking scandal to the general public now that the media can report on it, for the creative community the loss of Wallace’s name suppression brought a paradoxical mixture of relief and fatigue. 

And, though it sounds crass to bring up at this juncture, for some it also brought worry – Wallace poured a huge dollop of his money into the arts through his collecting, patronage, the Wallace Foundation and the lucrative art prizes in his name. 

Hence the knighthood. 

He was widely lauded for his generosity. Some things have too high a price, but this is going to have a massive destabilising impact on the sector – one that Creative NZ is not going to pick up.

You would be quite right to ask why nothing had been done until now. Why did no one speak out? That is a difficult and uncomfortable question. 

I will attempt to offer an answer, though this is my own subjective take, and you are quite free to disagree.

As I said in the beginning, the art world has exploitation encoded into it. In relation to the bad behaviour of individuals, it falls into three camps. 

In the middle - where I think I am - are those who by dint of luck or instinct, are connected and engaged, have access and therefore also have a little bit of protection and power. We have our scars, but we have come through, and probably at a time when the art world was more tolerant - and certainly too tolerant - of not taking no for an answer.

People like me mainly encountered Wallace at public events or in professional settings. We had likely heard the gossip and innuendo - or even experienced some mildly inappropriate behaviour that many would dismiss as unimportant or leaned into for advantage. In the main, I would imagine most of us in the middle camp were unaware of the seriousness of the offending prior to those brave survivors coming forth and the courts getting involved.

Also, while it’s not fashionable to state the obvious, libel cases in Aotearoa favour those rich enough to drag it out and thereby weaponise it against people, even where there is no real case. 

This all very likely sounds like apologism, and to a degree it probably is. Mea culpa. 

The art world bears a collective portion of guilt for not being more vocal against exploitation, predation and inequality. 

Inequality is a big part of it. If you can’t afford to walk away, there’s a lot you’re prepared to put up with, ignore, or think of England. Hashtag me too.

At the bottom of this food chain, on the margins, are the vulnerable. The prey. Those whom the system doesn’t favour. When they are exploited, taken advantage of, victimised - they have no voice or risk too much in speaking out. And there are few prepared to speak for them.

And then there are the enablers who see and know all and keep shtum out of self-interest or misguided loyalty. Or even pity – Wallace, 85, cuts a pathetic figure. The much-criticised letters of support to the judge came from many - it would be interesting to ask them why, even if only privately.

What was Wallace’s motivation? I’m inclined to think it was more about power and control than anything as relatable as lust. He existed in a Perspex closet, but with his money and influence there certainly wouldn’t have been a shortage of consenting young men who would have volunteered to be kept, or at least rented. It’s the consent that is the important part. This was about being able to do whatever you want to whomever you want - even if they don’t want to - and sadly, with impunity.

Until, consequently, there were consequences.

His Royal Majesty King Charles has affirmed the removal of Wallace’s knighthood. A punishment as great, perhaps even greater, than going to prison. A temporary loss of liberty is nothing to the elite compared to the loss of a historical legacy. 

This is only appropriate for a betrayal of a public honour. But don’t for a moment think this is the only example of exploitation and predation in New Zealand’s creative system.

This case has received a lot of attention because of the big names involved. Even the plaintiffs have a certain level of public profile. It attracts general interest. To be fair, there’s probably a spicy dash of public gay panic as well. For some people, that just makes it worse.

In reality, take away the celebrity factor and it’s an all too common story. Exploitation - sexual and otherwise - takes place at all levels of the creative community wherever one person has a little (or a lot) of power over another. It’s going on all the time, in every community.

None of this is OK. The horror of it all is that we are only now getting over the decades, the centuries of conditioning that we should simply accept it.