'THE AUSTRALIAN ART CURATOR BLOG' - WHY YOU CAN BUY ART FROM PRISONS

You might know about art movements like impressionism and cubism, even digital and post-internet. But how much do you know about prison art as a genre?

It may not have the prestige of some other genres, but prison art has an extremely long standing, rich and diverse tradition, and is defined by inmates expressing themselves through aesthetics while imprisoned.

 Unknown Artist, Images courtesy of CSNSW

Unknown Artist, Images courtesy of CSNSW

This is hardly a new practice - think of the detailed calligraphy, diagrams and signatures left on the walls of the Tower of London. There is something about art and its transformative power of being able to take the creator beyond their physical confines, which makes it an ideal pursuit in the prison system. Australia-based advocacy group, Justice Action even points out that by creating an entirely “separate world”, the inmates are able to exert power through creative expression. Even the long-standing tradition of prison tattoos can be seen as a form of prison art; inmates creating aesthetics on the body, using skin as canvas as a mode of expression.

But while other artists can sell their works in person or online, the generation of income through art is far more difficult for an inmate. A whole lot of artwork is created within the justice system, so what happens to it?

 ‘Female Dream’, Unknown Artist, Images courtesy of CSNSW

‘Female Dream’, Unknown Artist, Images courtesy of CSNSW

Different jurisdictions and prisons have different rules when it comes to the selling of prisoner’s art. Some, like Guantánamo Bay, argue that works produced by inmates was the property of the US government (announced after a Manhattan exhibition was held showing works by inmates and ex-inmates). The Koestler Trust in the UK collects art and exhibits it, using arts as away to challenge preconceptions of ex-inmates by holding large-scale exhibitions at Southbank, as well as mentoring ex-inmates.

In the Southern Hemisphere, the current debate is around this ability of prisoners to sell their work: for income.

According to Arts Law, Australian states vary in their approach to the selling of artists’ work. While Queensland has outright forbid the selling of artwork, states such as Victoria, NSW and Western Australia have bureaucratic structures set up to specifically to sell prisoner art (Victoria has an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific program), and see the artists benefit from the revenue generated.

 Elizabeth (L) and Damian (R) work at the gallery alongside Philipa. Images courtesy of CSNSW

Elizabeth (L) and Damian (R) work at the gallery alongside Philipa. Images courtesy of CSNSW

One such place is the Long Bay Correctional Complex, whose Boom Gate Gallery has been displaying prisoner’s art since 1992. Councillor Philipa Veitch, a fellow member on the Night Time Economy Advisory Committee for Randwick City Council and member of the Boom Gate team explained to Art Pharmacy Consulting that  “a lot of art being produced (in prisons) and as a result of that a decision was made to have a gallery.”

While the revenue stream models for prison galleries differ (some choose to donate interest of sales to crime victims groups, others offer a lower percentage to prisoners) Boom Gate Gallery returns 83.5% of the revenue from works sold to the prisoners upon release. The rest goes to cover project costs.

Armed with an arts education degree and her knowledge as a practicing artist, Philipa first became aware of the gallery when fellow artist Elizabeth (Liz) Day, who worked at Boom Gate,  mentioned it to her at an opening. She’s now been there 12 months.

 Inmate paintings at Boomgate Gallery. Images courtesy of CSNSW

Inmate paintings at Boomgate Gallery. Images courtesy of CSNSW

“Our long term goal is to keep the gallery going,” says Philipa. “There’s not a lot of places exhibiting inmates’ works (and to) have a creative outlet is a very positive thing.”

“It’s important to have that public support and people coming to the gallery.”

She points to one example, where an inmate James* who frequently collaborated on artistic projects with other artist-inmates, has now been released with money in his account from sales he made from behind bars.

“It's good for self esteem, it keeps them occupied,” says Philipa, on the long lasting effects on the inmates lives. “They’re obviously enjoying it and continuing to develop and experiment. Sometimes there’s breakthroughs (in their work) and you just say ‘wow’.”

Works from the inmates that have been showing at Boom Gate Gallery are currently showing at the Downing Center, Sydney, until the 4th of December.

 Unknown Artist, Images courtesy of CSNSW

Unknown Artist, Images courtesy of CSNSW