The following is an interview with Sarah Mohawk the organizer of artist-run initiative PUBLIC DOMAIN.

Tanya Martusheff, Daphne Simons and Rosa Gubay sat down with her in the Artists Alliance office recently to discuss her latest project – the PUBLIC DOMAIN Art Fair 2016 (PDAF’16).

Tanya was one of the artists whose work featured in the PDAF’16, on behalf of recently closed artist-run space FUZZYVIBES and Daphne was one of the organisers of recently closed project-space Canapé Canopy. Auckland artist Li-Ming Hu represented them in the PDAF’16.

Altogether, the PDAF’16 hosted 11 current and recently closed artist-run spaces from Auckland and Hamilton and showcased work by 23 artists. The main venue was DEMO, a recently opened gallery funded by Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design. There was also a satellite component by Skinroom Gallery who presented their PDAF’16 contribution in their Hamilton gallery at the same time.


PDAF’16 Installation shot featuring Li-Ming Hu, Hugo Koha Lindsay, David Ed Cooper and Tanya Martusheff

Daphne: So why did you originally decide to start the PUBLIC DOMAIN project?

Sarah: On a personal level, coming out of art school I was really disillusioned with object making, proposal writing, paying to enter art competitions, etc. It just seemed like a bottomless pit I was throwing money into. I prefer the discussion and social side; critiquing work, going to exhibition openings. And I’ve always been a bit frustrated with nepotism – it might not be a conscious thing that people do, but you can usually get ahead the best by knowing somebody. But then we’re all trying to know the same somebodies when we should actually be trying to know each other. You can still find opportunities without having to be all bitter and competitive.

D: On that note, I found it interesting to hear the live radio interview before the PDAF’16 on 95bFM’s Artbank with yourself and Hikalu Clarke, one of the directors from DEMO, in which Hikalu made a casual remark suggesting that nepotism is unavoidable in the arts.

S: Which is what PUBLIC DOMAIN is actively trying to counter! PUBLIC DOMAIN is intended as an open system that anybody is welcome to join and use for his or her projects.

D: So what does PUBLIC DOMAIN offer to artists who want to get involved? How will it run?

S: I’m still reworking our original manifesto, but essentially it’s like a union for artists. By making these connections to help people find spaces, and show with other people that they might normally not show with. It gives people the tools to show outside of the regular gallery circuit of making proposals, asking favours, etc. PUBLIC DOMAIN also comes with it’s own brand and connections, so even if you aren’t looking for a show it’s a way to get connected with others.

That’s the utopian version. It’s also an open sourced initiative. So the idea is that if someone really wants to come in, help run it and change things for better or worse, they could put forward a motion. I want to make it an officially incorporated society with board meetings, but we need at least 15 members who are dedicated to attend that before I can make things happen.

I also realized from running the PDAF‘16, that it’s really easy to get people involved when it comes to showing their work, but its not that easy to get people involved with the administration and running of things, the uncool ways of making the show actually happen.


Installation shot featuring Rockies, Ayesha Green, Phillip Mcilhagga, Nicholas Pound and Tom Tuke

D: Is there a kind of selection process when people propose projects to PUBLIC DOMAIN?

S: The original idea was that everyone has access to our marketing, connections and framework on how to build a show. So technically there’s no selection process, since the onus is on the artists to produce the end result using the given tools. Though my attitude is maybe a bit aspirational – I envision that if I am able to grow PUBLIC DOMAIN, people who are involved will be able to pick and choose other people’s projects to make a contribution to. For example, you’d mind someone’s show one day, and they’d mind your show a month later.

Tanya: I was particularly interested in hearing your thoughts on the differences between the Auckland Art Fair and the Public Domain Art Fair.

S: I wanted it to happen at the same time so that it had all the marketing benefits from the Auckland Art Fair. At the Auckland Art Fair you pay heaps of money to be included, and you seem to get favored for showing less artists, there’s a kind of artificial hierarchy around it and there are very high commissions. Our fair was allowing for randomness, the fact that we didn’t know what we were getting, that there was no conscious ratio of “let’s display more or less sellable work”. Although, in saying that, it seemed that some galleries did decide to represent more sellable artists.

D: Yeah, now that you mention it, there was a lot of easy-to-buy work at the PDAF‘16, I wonder how much of that was unintentional.

I can say for us, the fact that Li-Ming’s work was not very sellable wasn’t a conscious thing, we asked her purely because her project at the moment is to do with artist-run spaces, their history, their protocols, so I thought this would be an ideal setting for her – amongst a concentrated display of artist-run spaces.

S: Yeah, I never asked the spaces what informed their decision about the artists – some of them were just putting their best foot forward or choosing their friends, others chose people that deserved the opportunity.

D: I found the crossovers in the PDAF‘16 interesting. An artist like Anna Sisson was showing work as part of NZ on TV Gallery, but she is also one of the curators from Window Gallery (also in the PDAF‘16) and that she is also part of the artist-run space Terror Internationale, who had a project at the Auckland Art Fair. Did you see them there?


Louise Afoa and Anna Sisson

S: I didn’t go. I got offered a free pass – multiple times – but I didn’t have time minding the PDAF‘16 gallery by myself everyday. I probably should have just closed the gallery and gone, but its kind of cool to say that it was a political move from me to not go, I can feel like I took the moral high ground.

If you think about it, it was a good business decision from Michael Lett to show Eve Armstrong’s Trading Table, [which is famous for exchanging objects, skills or ideas of equal value instead of money], because he pretty much got $8000 worth of free marketing that he wouldn’t have been able to get had he paid for it in a normal sense, and then he got the award for the best stand at the fair and $5000 back.

D: Could you tell us a bit more about the Te Arerenga Public Domain Art Fair residency OPEN CALL competition you had at the PDAF‘16?

S: Yep, this was open to any artist who attended the PDAF‘16. The Te Arerenga residency program is organised by the same people who run Mirage Gallery in Auckland. They invite New Zealand artists to venture on a one-month residency in Rarotonga. The artists will be able to work in purpose-built private housing and a studio on the beach. We’ll be announcing the winner at the end of June. I think if I did the residency I would want to make an addition to the residency site – I’d probably add a brewery on the side.

D: Haha! If I did it I would spend my time trying to get rescued by passing boats – smoke signals, the works.

I’m curious whether you think there was a conflict of interest from hosting the PDAF‘16 in a gallery that is funded by an arts institution? I guess they are also in the business of promoting up-and-coming artists?

S: This is a tough one for me, since in a perfect world I wouldn’t want PUBLIC DOMAIN to be affiliated with an institution at all, and I’d have picked a completely neutral ground for the first show. Though PUBLIC DOMAIN does have some precedent to dabble in all areas – public, institutional, or private funding – it shouldn’t be dominated by it, or it would create its own downfall. Even with the PDAF‘16, we had to look for a space that was willing to accommodate us on such a strict timeframe with a very limited budget.

However…  when you’re working with a lot of different sponsors and supporters, the original idea can get dulled a bit since you have to ensure that it doesn’t conflict with your supporters’ brand. While it doesn’t necessarily befit institutions to come across as a brand, they totally are, so there was a bit of that ensuring that the ideas didn’t come across in a way that might reflect badly on anyone’s involvement with the project.

Though I disagree that institutions are in the business of promoting up-and-coming artists. They are in the business of selling the lifestyle of an artist, to someone who isn’t one yet! It’s strange to see the marketing choices and seeing student’s work placed within that – I saw my own work on the uni website the other day, the paintings that I got made in China. Without any context they just make it look like the institution is training painters, which is ironic, since I am 100% not a painter.

So I guess in a somewhat roundabout way, yes I’d agree that there was a conflict of interest for me and PUBLIC DOMAIN, but there always is when you’re the one searching for benefactors. That’s the thing I find great about artist-run spaces – no precedent to meet anyone’s specific needs.


Serene Timoteo and Abee Jensen

Rosa: Are you planning to continue the Art Fair in the future – and if you are, what would you do differently?

S: I’d like to continue it in future – though since PUBLIC DOMAIN is supposed to have no allegiance, we need to look at a different space for next year. I’m still interested in possibly running it out at Corban Estate Arts Centre, but the hall hire is quite expensive.

R: I wish we had Letting Space and Urban Dream Brokerage up here, they are a brokering organisation in Wellington that help artists find free/cheap venues for exhibitions and temporary projects. They negotiate with the landlords and they tend to find areas where there is lots of vacant space and the rent is low. For Auckland it’s maybe harder to go out into the peripheries.

S: Especially because the peripheries of Auckland are so far (from Rodney to Bombay). It’s hard to invite people to shows that are outside of the central city.

S: To make the job easier next time, I’d also try to have more clarity on the kind of works we can expect earlier on in the planning schedule. I’ve been thinking about running an Art Fair since last year, before PUBLIC DOMAIN existed, but we didn’t actually contact people until a month before the show since I was uncertain about the space. That’s an extremely tight deadline for people working on a show for free, that had over 20 contributors. Another thing that I really wanted to do was release a publication in which each of the artist-run spaces provided a text. But due to timing issues I had to completely cut it.

D: That would be a great thing for the next one though. What I liked about the PDAF‘16 – was that it was a kind of automatic historical archiving of that moment in time, momentarily bringing together the disparate artist-run spaces that are currently operating or recently closed under the same roof. I think this sort of thing – the artist-run fair to provide contrast to the big-boys-big-toys art fair – makes a lot of sense to the general art community. It’s value and potential are easily recognisable. I’m very curious to see what PUBLIC DOMAIN is going to do in the future. I totally agree with what you were referring to before Sarah, the great thing about artist-run spaces is that they are not accountable to precedents, their operations are inherently open and up for questioning.

PUBLlC DOMAlN is an artist-run initiative open for all artists to join, to unionise and open source new ideas about exhibiting artwork.


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Full list of galleries and artists featured in the PDAF’16:


Canapé Canopy, MirageFUZZYVIBES, Skinroom, DEMO, Casbah, Rockies, Pilot, HOTDATE, Window, NZ on TV

Alex Matthews, Te Marunui Hotene, Abee Jensen, Hugo Lindsay, Te Arerenga Project, Li-Ming Hu, Louisa Afoa, Dylan Scott, Matt Coldicutt, Joseph Griffen, Ayesha Green, Tom Tuke, Serene Timoteo, Anna Sisson, Nicky Verdon, Nicholas Pound, Veronika Djoulai, Phillip Mcilhagga, David Ed Cooper, Josh Hamilton, Tanya Martusheff, Clara Wells, Wairehu Grant