For the love of art

ART LOVER: No-one waits more eagerly for the New Zealand Art Show than Carla Russell. She's the boss, so she's obliged to support it, but she buys for love.
ART LOVER: No-one waits more eagerly for the New Zealand Art Show than Carla Russell. She's the boss, so she's obliged to support it, but she buys for love.

Carla Russell is the ultimate commuter. She lives with her husband and two children in Taranaki, far away from the colour and crowds of the New Zealand Art Show of which she is the director. Her work pulls her back to Wellington for a week every month and fulltime once the serious business of getting the show on the walls approaches. "In July and August I pretty much move to Wellington."

The big commute makes sense for the 40-year-old. In Taranaki, the family can afford an idyllic lifestyle in a 1920s cottage with a big, flat lawn and a view of the sea and the mountain. More importantly her husband, Adam, fulltime dad and extremely keen surfer, is close to his favourite surfing beach. "Wellington," Russell says, "just wasn't doing it for him."

The cottage and the lawn are a canvas for Russell, who has dutifully bought artworks from the show since its beginnings a decade ago. "I support it. Actually, I can't help it."

She has so many works festooning the walls and perched in the garden that she almost needs to catalogue them to remember who made or painted what.

"I spend about $600 per artwork. The average for the show is $650. That's where I've been quite consistent from the first year.

"But the most expensive thing I've bought is a huge sculpture in the garden, a $5000 piece from Lower Hutt made out of aluminium. It's kinetic and in three separate pieces and it's huge and beautiful."

Inside, among the treasures, a favourite is a lightbox installation. "You have to plug it in. It's got fibre optic cables and they light up fluorescent blue. We turn it on when visitors come round."

When the show opens with a gala evening at the TSB Bank Arena on July 25, Russell will have picked her favourites. Photographs are at the top of her wish-list. There's no getting in before the ordinary punters, but she has the advantage of seeing the work first.

She buys for love, "but having a look around my house it's pretty much a history of the show".

"I don't have enough wall space now and I have to put some away. My philosophy is, if you like it, you should buy it. Don't buy it as an investment, and if one does turn out to be an investment, that's fine."

Russell has been associated with the show since the beginning, from when it was the Affordable Art Show and anyone who fancied themselves as an artist could put their work in a frame and have their belief confirmed. At its height, there were more than 1000 enthusiastic entrants. A decade on, says Russell, "We've learned it's best to showcase quality artworks at affordable prices. We know we can only handle 3500 artworks."

This year saw about 600 would-be exhibitors, with about 200 making the grade in the "general" category, allowed to show five artworks each. Selected artists have a wall-sized space each and can show as many works as they like.

Russell's art show involvement began by happenstance. She's not an artist and nothing was further from her mind than a career in art. Russell travelled until her mid-20s and then studied at Victoria University, leaving with an arts degree majoring in Mandarin.

"I had a love affair with Asia."

She taught English in Taiwan, but after four years knew she didn't want to continue. "I wanted to live in New Zealand. As I got older, family was more important. I'd just turned 30 and was still single and wanted to settle down."

Her return coincided with her mother, Frances Russell, having been to a Sydney art fair and realising there was nothing on that scale in New Zealand. "She had the idea and at the same time I'd come home and I said I'd organise it."

A board of six or seven trustees was rounded up and for the first year Russell was contracted to put the show together. It was much easier than she had anticipated. Within three months more than 500 hopefuls had applied - "it was phenomenal" - and eventually more than 5000 people visited the show and one-third of the artworks were sold. In 2005, Russell was employed by the trust as executive director. "It's gone from there."

The New Zealand Art Show is on at the TSB Bank Arena from July 25-27.

The Dominion Post