Unravelling the mystery of public art commissions

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scottie neoh mural
Part of the Mortlake Rd pedestrian tunnel mural by Drysdale artist Scottie “Bonsai” Neoh for which he was paid $15,000 by the Warrnambool City Council.


If you are an artist living in south-west Victoria, the chance for a big commission only comes along once in a while, so why do so many of Warrnambool’s most lucrative public art projects go to artists who live elsewhere?

The answer appears to be that the pool of local talent is not yet deep enough, or that artists don’t know about the projects in the first place.

Our interest in this question was piqued by the Warrnambool City Council’s recent unveiling of the Mortlake Rd pedestrian tunnel mural painted by Drysdale professional mural artist Scottie “Bonsai” Neoh, who grew up in Warrnambool.

There is no doubt it is a spectacular work, but what is surprising is that only a handful of people within the local arts community appeared to know about the impending project, despite the commission being worth $15,000.

Bonsai was paid another $2000 for a separate mural at Lake Pertobe that he also completed recently.

The selection of Bonsai follows the awarding of a $20,000 commission to Melbourne artist Ewan Coates in 2010 for his sculpture The Three Pillars of Gratification, on the corner of Liebig and Koroit streetsand another $20,000 commission in 2011 that was won by Ballan artist Velislav Georgiev for his work Chance Encounter, that sits on the corner of Lava and Liebig streets.

In both of those cases, however, and unlike the $17,000 paid to Bonsai, the commission was open to expressions of interest and the winner was chosen by the council’s City Art Advisory Committee. This committee, made up of council and non council people, was disbanded in May last year after running for more than 20 years*.

So what has happened on the ground since?

Warrnambool artist Nathan Pye with his fish mural, painted as part of the laneways festival, for which he received $1500 plus the cost of materials.

Well, a string of murals have popped up around Warrnambool in the past eight months thanks to the work of members of the The Artery/The F Project art collective, but these were far from lucrative commissions: they were more like labours of love.

The F Project received $30,000 in council funds to run the Hidden Histories Laneways Festival made up of 10 separate events, including the painting of five murals.

You can do the math, but $30,000 split between 10 events and five murals does not equal a big budget, but, even so, The F Project called for expressions of interest and selected a range of local artists to complete works of various sizes and complexity.

The three smallest murals, in Ozone Walk, were completed for about $1000, while one of the largest, in Patloch Lane by Nathan Pye, had a budget of $1500 plus materials.

The largest of all – a 25 m wall off Timor St – was completed by David Higgins for $2000 (including paints) with another $2000 chipped in by the owner of the wall to help cover costs.

All up, these five murals cost around $5000 in public funds, thanks to the generosity and community spirit of the artists prepared to effectively donate a lot their time.

So how did Bonsai end up with $17,000 for two murals without any call for expressions of interest?

The grand-daddy of them all: the 25m mural by Warrnambool artist David Higgins, which took a couple of weeks to complete, at a cost of $4000 including $2000 donated by the owner of the wall.

Gareth Colliton, the Warrnambool Art Gallery’s curator of exhibitions and outreach, is more than happy to explain, because he played a major role.

It should be said that Gareth, who is an artist himself and one of those who completed a laneway mural for little charge, is seen as a major supporter of the local arts community, was a key figure in establishing The Artery, and is a very affable and popular person in the arts scene.

His involvement in the Bonsai project falls in line with the powers that he has been given in his role with WAG and the council.

As he explains it, the Bonsai project is part of a new way of approaching community art projects that he believes will be of long-term benefit to the 250 local artists on the council’s database.

First, the mural was funded as part of civic infrastructure – the building of the Mortlake Rd drain – and Gareth hopes that public art will be included in more infrastructure projects, such as the design of a roundabout, for example, and that local artists will see more commissions, not less.

For this particular project, Gareth says, Bonsai was considered the best choice: he had the skills, the availability and the local connection (he is also a cousin of Mayor Michael Neoh, but Gareth says Mayor Neoh was completely removed from the process. The selection was made by Gareth, WAG director John Cunningham and Infrastructure head Peter Robertson).

Second, the commission was a “carrot” for Bonsai to run a series of workshops later in the year for local artists who wish to learn from a top street artist. The council is seeking funding to pay Bonsai for the workshops, so that they can be offered free or at low-cost.

The Lake Pertobe mural recently completed by Drysdale artist Scottie “Bonsai” Neoh for $2000.

But why not call for expressions of interest, just to see who and what pops up?

Gareth put it this way:  “In the short term, that would be like giving a man a fish or teaching him to fish.”

“We could have given someone this opportunity immediately and it would have been done (but) there are also only a few people in town who have the technical skills to do a work of that scale.

“Far more important is teaching all of those other artists how to do this. Rather than see only the two, three or four that are out there at the moment, I want to see 30 or 40…”

Maybe so, but there are also artists keen to be considered for the talents that they already have.

As one said in an email to Bluestone this week: “I would jump at $15,000. I have been painting for years and have never been paid that much…us local artists seem to find out (about these opportunities) once the bloody project is up.”

(* The council has since confirmed that WAG is investigating setting up a new industry advisory group to provide expert advice on the delivery of its programs and its five-year plan.)

11 thoughts on “Unravelling the mystery of public art commissions”

  1. And I am not an arty type person. I just like things that obviously look good to most people.

    I absolutely love all the new murals. Tasteful, decorative and intelligent. What an asset and a joy to look at.

    As for ‘The Three Pillars of Gratification’ and ‘Chance Encounter’ what an embarrassment, waste of money and a lost opportunity. We need ‘happy’ art, not ‘negative art that is a joke’ art. The advisory committee approach in Warrnambool is proven to be flawed.

    Instead, give the responsibility of assessing ‘community art’ to a credible group of people or organisation like fProject. After the Laneways Festival, they now have the score on the board.

  2. Mr Bonsai is unquestionably talented, but one can’t help notice that his name is Neoh…is there a connection to our esteemed Mayor and if so, was all due diligence observed?

    1. Yes Deb, Bonsai is related to Michael Neoh but Gareth Colliton said the Mayor was not involved in any way in the selection process and he was informed only after the decision was made.

  3. I struggle to believe that the family name of the artist had nothing to do with his being chosen. If we have 3 or 4 local artists that are skilled in this area, then why weren’t they chosen and consequently chosen to teach others? Very, very disappointing. This casts a shadow over these murals by Bonsai in my eyes. Once again, it’s not what you know……

  4. To borrow Gareth’s fish analogy, this looks like a case of too many big fish in a small pond. Put the expression of interest out there and give local artists the opportunity to step up to the task. Surely this is not to be judged by one fishermans opinion of ‘technical skills’???

  5. What was the rush to get the mural up?
    Why couldn’t it have waited until the ‘skills’ were passed on to local artists who would have been interested?

    I also feel that there is still a gap in communication between local art groups, artists, other creative interest groups , local council and the general public.
    We need an across the board, open and public system of communication. It shouldn’t be who you know or what group you belong to. It should be easy to find out what is happening in the local art scene.

  6. Seems to be a common theme here …WCC and the lack of transparency. Of course this is not helped along with the chosen artist having the same family name as Mayor Neoh. I do not question that the Mayor was not involved in the decision process, but one does ponder why the whole process was not open to other LOCAL artists in our town. Isnt WCC’s mantra ..Live Local…Shop Local…. Perhaps not in this case. Considering it was not a transparent process, allowing other LOCAL artists to apply, you could have it at a guess that this would make Bosai (Neoh) selection all the easier. Come on guys who do you think your kidding…not me!

  7. Once again the issue, I believe, is the lack of transparency in the decision making process that causes distrust and frustration among the artists (in this instance). All anyone wants is a chance to present their work to be considered by people who are qualified to make such decisions. Which means that when these projects are being proposed, they need to be open to anyone who wants to participate in them. Undoubtedly will take a bit longer, but in the interest of having an equal playing field, it’s really the only way to go.

  8. I have been thinking this through wondering how I would word my comment. Kerri-ann and Ann, I thank you for your assistance. Whatever goes on at Town Hall appears to go on behind closed doors. Also thank you to Bluestone for the way you are using your words to open the doors of the Town Hall so we are no longer mushrooms. I believe Mr Anson and Mayor Neoh have a lot to answer.

  9. The work is amazing! have you nay sayers seen it? Bonsai went to Brauer College- did you know that and he has also completed major sponsored pieces in capital cities across Australia.

    Warrnambool should be grateful to get the services of such a talented – former local- artist.

    I have been following this artist for a long time and he is very talented.

    1. Hello Kendall, we do indeed know the history of Bonsai’s work and career. The point of the story is not to question the quality of his work, but rather the process of selection.

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