Friday, 31 March 2017

Who is Milton Springsteen?

Street art's profile rises in NZ 

Back in 2009 street art wasn't an art movement that NZers were particularly familiar with, we knew about graffiti (and that in general this was a bad thing) and I wasn't sure what to call artworks that were on the street before they were prints (aerosol art anyone?).  This began to change with the phenomenal rise into popular consciousness of the British street artist Banksy, and American artist Shepard Fairey's Hope poster for Barack Obama which became the enduring image of Obama's first campaign that is now symbolic of the mood behind the election of the US's first African American president.

But the rise of popular awareness and widespread enjoyment of street art in New Zealand can probably be traced to the efforts of one man in that year, George Shaw, and this started with the first Oi You Festival of Street Art held in Nelson in 2009.  When Oi You moved to Christchurch post earthquakes (as Rise) this turned into the most popular art exhibition the city had ever had and changed the face of Christchurch city forever.

Arrival of the artist known as Milton Springsteen

Fries with That? by Milton Springsteen
One of the intriguing names associated with the street art festivals was Milton Springsteen.  This anonymous artist created artworks known as the "Corrupt Classics", these paintings were also available as limited edition prints which sold briskly to festival goers as well as being stocked here at NZ Fine Prints.  We rapidly sold out of these editions - although a couple took a while longer to sell out (a riff on Van der Velden's Otira Gorge series did not not have the same immediate appeal as a re-working of NZ's most popular painting).

When the prints sold out my inner journalist got the better of me and I decided to see if I could find out who Milton Springsteen actually was once and for all.

On the trail of the artist's identity

Customers assumed we would know the artist's identity but kept it a secret, however we never dealt with the artist directly, the prints were sent to us from Nelson or we would pick them up from George who stayed at the YMCA in Christchurch while the street art festivals were on.  We had profiled who we thought might be the kind of person who would have the appreciation of NZ's art history as well as the artistic skills to recreate paintings in the style of Bill Hammond or Colin McCahon but although we thought we knew at the time who Milton was there was no name attached.

But should we tell who it is?

It was lots of fun playing the amateur art sleuth and eventually I was pretty sure that we have our guy (yep, we think Milton is male).  But then just as I had got to the bottom of the mystery this week a customer happened to ask us point blank via email if we knew who Milton Springsteen was - and at that moment I realised that although it was a hoot to track him down would revealing who it is spoil the fun once an owner of one of his prints knows the artist's real identity? And aside from that I began feeling nervous that revealing who the artist is would A) annoy George Shaw who we think has been a tremendous force for good in the NZ art world and B) Cause Mr Springsteen any sleepless nights for no good reason.

Dilemma resolved... 

So as with any moral dilemma in the modern age we decided to put this to the vote.  Putting a poll on our Facebook page and on Twitter, 100% of votes cast were to reveal the artist's identity, but the small number of votes meant this wasn't very helpful at all!

And then it came to me, we can reveal who we think Milton Springsteen is without spoiling the mystery of his actual identity.  And here's how we can do it. We think this person is Milton Springsteen.  Are we right?


Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Print sales to the UK & US markets changed over Xmas 2016

Our analytics maven pointed out something interesting to us recently.  NZ Fine Prints' revenue from sales into two traditionally strong markets - the United States and the United Kingdom - dropped over the Xmas period 2016 compared to 2015.  This was hidden in our overall figures as sales domestically grew year on year, we hadn't noticed this decline and had been patting ourselves on the back for another Xmas better than the previous one! (The other top overseas destination for NZ prints (Australia) was flat, just a couple of percentage points higher than last year).

As any business owner knows a drop in sales is both alarming and a signal of something - but understanding why a businesses sales into a particular market dropped is a puzzle.

Initially we assumed that political uncertainty (election of Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK) could be the biggest factor in this decline, it's a sentiment that would be hard to measure of course but intuitively when the financial outlook is less clear making the decision not to buy a non-essential item such as an artwork might be a logical response.  The ongoing strength of the NZ dollar against the pound was brought up in our meeting, but the $US has been rising against the $NZ so relative currency strength probably wouldn't be a factor in both of these markets declining at the same time.

But then our analytics revealed something else that neatly fits another theory, not sure how we can test the validity of this without a survey of our customers but bear with me...

We were surprised to note that the total number of transactions had not fallen, and a similar number of prints were bought in an average sale - it was the average value of each sale (ie the cost of each print purchased) that had dropped.

Native Birds poster $NZ 39.95
Our theory:  we are wondering if kiwis living in these two countries are buying a less expensive poster (such as the top selling Native Birds of NZ poster at just $39.95) as a short term reminder of home, wall art that isn't meant to be on the wall for the rest of their lives.  It's an inexpensive large artwork that can even just be pinned on the wall, more temporary and less expensive to display than a framed print.  

Previously an edition by a top shelf NZ artist like Dick Frizzell - one of his tiki series for instance like the "1938 Tiki" pictured below which start at 20x the price of the bird poster even for a small work- was a more typical purchase.  This is an artwork you would buy to have a lasting memento of Aotearoa to treasure for the long haul - perhaps if you did not have any inkling that maybe one day you would be returning home to NZ to live.
D. Frizzell "1938 Tiki" $NZ 650 

Is this change in preference for the temporary decoration over the long-lasting taonga an indication that kiwi immigrants to these countries are feeling less certain about their long term prospects?

And is this an indicator that perhaps even more kiwis are actually planning to be returning home while we are already undergoing a period of sustained record high immigration?

Art that we buy for ourselves reveals a lot about us (yes, even those customers who "don't know anything about art but know what I like when I see it" but who actually do have an appreciation of art that just needed some encouragement) - but we have never considered that the value and intended longevity of a purchase might mean something too.  But we have been left wondering if this (hopefully temporary!) sales blip for NZ's largest art print and poster gallery provides an insight into the current mindset and perhaps future plans for the kiwi diaspora?


Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Back to school

Today marks the start of the school term, a bittersweet time where the kids head back to a new year of learning and parents readjust to having no children around. 2016/17 was a great holiday but after six weeks off both kids and parents are ready for the school term to begin.

The cost in economic terms of NZ's long summer school holiday must be quite large, perhaps offset in GDP terms by increased spending on travel, accomodation and holiday activities but in terms of a productivity hit for a family run business such as NZ Fine Prints the school holidays are a bit of a trial. Business is reduced to the bare minimum of getting prints shipped out the door, there is no spare time for planning, cataloguing or dealing with artists - anything outside of the ordinary is pushed forward into late January when we are back at work without the children under foot.  Looking back the family memories of the holidays are will be a big bunch of good times but we have really tried the patience of some customers along the way - but what alternative there is to tag team parenting reduced to part time hours over the school holidays eludes me.

Glenn Jones' print of coloured
crayons labeled in te reo Maori
Back to school is also part of what NZ Fine Prints are doing in 2017.  Pre-internet we had a division of our company devoted to supplying NZ schools with art education materials, particularly large colour reproductions of famous paintings.  This part of our business has reduced to a fraction of what it was now that teachers can access colour images over the internet for classroom use, basically we ended up selling school teachers with discounted prints for their homes rather than providing educational resources for the classroom!

We still think that kids growing up should be surrounded with good quality prints of paintings that are more than the purely decorative, to learn about art history and to appreciate what a rich visual culture has been created by artists over the past 500 years but we no longer import a purely educationally focussed range of prints.

Posters and prints will always be on walls of kiwi kids classrooms so we are expanding the prints for children/kids art collection in 2017 to include educational posters such as NZ and world maps (including NZ map posters in Te Reo Maori), and we're adding some great kiwiana ABC posters for the pre-school learners as well.

Monday, 12 December 2016

We worried NZ might run out of prints to publish (back in 1977!!)

To mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of NZ Fine Prints we have been delving into our company archive throughout 2016. We unearthed this gem of an article where one of the founders of our gallery (then trading as Avon Fine Prints) was found to be musing on the imminent demise of the business - because we would soon run out of suitable New Zealand prints to publish! Forty years later we are still managing to find new prints for our customers to buy, and the trend to a greater choice seems to be accelerating with more prints being published each succeeding year than ever before!  Don was great at generating publicity and the notion that success was spelling the end of a business should perhaps be seen in this light...

A twinge of regret now, but… Success spells the end of a business

Christchurch Star, November 19 1977, p16

A business which folds after a decade might not represent success to some. But when Don Ellis set up Avon Fine Prints Ltd in Christchurch he knew it was only a matter of time until the business destroyed itself.

So the demise comes as no surprise, but it still brings a twinge of regret.

In its wake lie at least 200 different limited editions of prints of some of the finest historical paintings in New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific. More than 20 of these editions have sold out, some with spectacular increase in value. Another 60 or 70  editions have only between 10 and 200 prints to sell. (An edition usually comprises between 750 and 1000 prints.)

Once they’re gone, so virtually is Avon Fine Prints.

Print publisher Don Ellis in 1977
“Avon prints are not being completely phased out. New issues will possibly be made at the rate of one or two a year, and for a short time the paper prints will be made available to collectors,” says Mr Ellis. “It is also likely that another limited edition book or two will appear over the Avon imprint - but most of the Avon group’s activities these days are centred in the Capper Press, with its reprint books and New Zealand art prints; in Avon Picture Mouldings; in the educational division with its imported educational prints; and in Campbell Grant, best known for The Silver Shop.”

Most of the paintings printed by Avon Prints have been out of copyright - the work of very early New Zealand and Pacific artists. If copyright is still functioning, it is usually negotiable, or royalty arrangements can be reached.

At present Mr Ellis is trying to negotiate with a group of New Zealand artists whose work embraces the 1920s and 1930s.  Largely, Mr Ellis is guided by his own preference for paintings, although there is no foolproof way of knowing which works will win public approval as prints.

Some are much more popular than others - for no apparent reason, he says. “All the publisher can do is to feel for his market, have a good idea what he thinks should be done, ask other artists, critics, gallery directors for their opinions, distill all the information and come to a decision.”

Now that the early print business has come to an end, Mr Ellis looks forward to spending more time  working with Capper Press, a business which specialises in the reprinting of old books - particularly those which are extremely specialised. Among reprints to date are Freda du Faur’s book Conquest of Mt Cook, W.S. Green’s The High Alps of New Zealand, Sir Henry Brett’s White Wings, T.H. Pott’s Out in the Open, and numerous others. All these have a limited demand, but are fascinating in their own right, Says Mr Ellis. Among those he has personally found most entertaining and interesting are a couple on herbalists and doctors, and one called Colonists’ Guide: an Encyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge, a book which includes advice on how to cook, how to grow vegetables, and generally, how to stay alive.

Many of the books which are reprinted are chanced upon or brought to light by members of the public; others are selected by the firm. Without a reprint many of them would either disintegrate through old age, or else perhaps be lost in archives.

Begun as a hobby, Avon Fine Prints is the only company of its kind in the world devoted wholly to the publication of historical maps, prints and charts in limited editions. Until this month the prints were available unframed, but now sales of framed prints only will be made.

Why the change? Says Mr Ellis: “The selection and publication of limited edition prints is an intensely personal choice; there are very few historical paintings left to do, and the prints done cannot, of course, be reprinted, so that this side of the business is coming to a natural close.” The balance of the limited edition print stocks are to be transferred to the wholesale and retail framing division of the Avon group of companies, the Picture Shop, in Hereford Street.

When Mr Ellis began the business, people generally had no idea what a print was, he says. Nor did they possess much knowledge or appreciation of New Zealand’s early works of art “People certainly wouldn’t entertain New Zealand prints at that time so we had to have a sales aid, and that in our case was the limited edition print. “We came in on a rise of historical interest in New Zealand - and it has been this which has sustained the interest in the prints. “People suddenly became interested in their town or environment and bought a print of their area. The set of four views Auckland 1852 by P.J. Hogan is one of the best known groups. “The prints helped people to become interested in their own indigenous New Zealand art, and we would like to think that what we’ve done has helped to further stimulate their interest.”

People buying the early limited editions did so in the knowledge that once the edition was sold out, there were no more available. It was a sought-after commodity. “The problem which occurs, however, is that at some time you must run out of suitable paintings from which to take prints.” And with this prospect looming, Mr Ellis started Capper Press about five years ago.

Mr Ellis’s interest in art stems from his childhood. As a young man he built up quite a collection of early New Zealand paintings and eventually decided to start his own business in prints. The Auckland series was one of the first printed and “it went like a rocket”, says Mr Ellis.


Consequently, the business was soon on a firm footing, and today can claim credit for the publication of at least 200 different prints.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Screenprinting with NZ printmaker Greg Straight

The printmaker Greg Straight working on his new edition
Catching Rays, a new limited edition print by NZ printmaker Greg Straight, encapsulates just about everything we like to see in a contemporary print by a New Zealand artist.

It's technically proficient, printed with great attention to detail, it has crisp lines and dense colour.

The artwork is large scale (it's on a full A1 sheet) and in a small edition (just 25 prints).

It depicts something unique to NZ in with a creative and distinctive artistic voice that is both thoughtful and decorative. The design on the rays wings may at first glance appear to be just a riff on classic Maori motifs but there is definitely something bat(man) like about the patterns on a second look.

Checking colours of the artist's proof
Catching Rays is also great value, you are buying a very large handmade print by a popular artist for just $300.

We also love the subject, New Zealand's sea creatures like sting rays haven't had as much exposure in contemporary art (compare the vast range that is available to buy in the ever popular native birds and native plants collections) but they deserve to be celebrated by our artists to the same degree.

Greg with his print "Catching Rays"
(available to buy here)
 Artist/illustrator Giselle Clarkson whose "Fish Species of NZ" print came out a couple of years ago is another artist whose interest in depicting NZ's sea creatures is making us wonder if a new kiwi wall art trend is stirring.