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Plaything Gallery and the quest to democratise art

Ben King and Adam Bryce are on a mission to democratise art. With a beer budget and a billionaire’s contact book, they dream of kick-starting a new street culture scene in Auckland. Felicity Monk meets the founders of Plaything Gallery. Plus bring the noise

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Photographs by Alex Wallace

Ben King and Adam Bryce are on a mission to democratise art. With a beer budget and a billionaire’s contact book, they dream of kick-starting a new street culture scene in Auckland. Felicity Monk meets the founders of Plaything Gallery. Plus bring the noise

On the last Thursday of April in the Auckland suburb of Newton, art gallery Plaything threw a party and opened its doors for business. The place was filled with rakish youths mincing about in waistcoats, skinny trousers and bowler hats. Looking like they belonged more at an indie gig than a gallery opening, this was not your usual art crowd. But then Plaything is not your regular gallery. It is a honey trap for Auckland hipsters, and that’s just the way the owners like it.

Adam Bryce and Ben King are on a mission to democratise art. They say the purpose behind Plaything is to make art accessible to young folk. “Our day-to-day business is not trying to sell $2,000 paintings to old, rich people,” says Bryce. “We’re trying to get young people interested in art by encouraging them to buy a $200 print to put on their wall so they can learn more about the artist.”

Plaything specialises in contemporary art with an emphasis on pop art and street art. The gallery’s name—nothing to do with the building’s previous incarnation as a swingers’ club, King is quick to point out—is taken from a 1947 artwork titled I Was a Rich Man’s Plaything. Considered to be one of the first examples of pop art, the collage by British artist Sir Eduardo Paolozzi depicts, among other things, a popgun with a puff of smoke coming out the end and the word ‘pop’.

The plan for Plaything, say Bryce and King, is to alternate exhibitions by emerging young local artists with big international names. Since it opened in April, the gallery has exhibited work by local artists, including hosting its first annual 24-hour art challenge. Fifteen local contemporary artists including Tanya Thompson (‘Misery Inc’, Idealog #4, page 50), Imogen Taylor and Henrietta Harris created works based on the theme ‘panic’ in the allotted time.

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People need inspiration in a depressing era. What we’re doing is focusing on things that are important in life: getting creative about art, about culture, about connecting people

In July, Plaything will host an international art show featuring 12 contemporary artists. Bryce has been talking with world-famous New York street artist Kaws (Brian Donnelly), famous for covering Calvin Klein ads in New York with spray paint, about coming to New Zealand. “His art is worth over half a million dollars at least—for a cheap piece,” says Bryce. So how will young art enthusiasts be able to afford his work? Bryce reckons the street artist will agree to create some original prints specifically for the exhibition and sell them for around $200 on the condition that they are not resold for profit. “People can come along and meet Kaws. He’ll sign something for you and you can take away a little booklet that tells you about who he is and where he came from.

“We have these connections with these artists. They understand what we’re trying to do and are willing to make art accessible and work with us to do this.”

Negotiations are also underway with contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who last year made Time magazine’s list of ‘100 Most Influential People’, the only visual artist to do so.

Closer to home, Plaything has a fan in conceptual artist Billy Apple, who has confirmed he’ll exhibit in September. Bryce says Apple turned up to the gallery’s launch party and told them he liked what they are doing. “He understands what we are trying to do,” says Bryce. “And he doesn’t want to go to a gallery where there are all these guys in suits and they don’t know what they are talking about. He’d rather come and hang out with us and drink our beer, rather than sip their wine.”

Hype & order

So how do a couple of Kiwi guys have the pulling power to get some of the biggest names in contemporary art interested in exhibiting in New Zealand?

Art lovers have Bryce to thank for that. After graduating with top honours from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, he went on to work as a stylist there and in New York, mixing with the likes of Madonna, Kate Moss and Jade Jagger.

Later, when he founded the cutting-edge, street-culture website SLAMXHYPE, some of these contacts followed him online. The website became wildly popular and fans include Kanye West, Kate Moss, Karl Lagerfeld and Kaws. This led to consultancy work as a trends forecaster for brands such as Nike and SonyBMG, which he continues to do today.

Two years ago Bryce founded Noise Media, which, aside from Plaything and SLAMXHYPE, owns website The Wire and new street culture magazine The New Order (see panel below). The Plaything gallery now serves as Noise Media’s HQ. Bryce says the motivation behind all Noise Media’s projects is to create “a new, young culture here that is forward-thinking and intelligent”.

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A friend in a band said recently, ‘I’ve been in a recession for 30 years now … it’s easy for me’. That’s the sort of mindset we’re coming from: not having money and making things anyway

King, a music producer and founding member of the band Goldenhorse, became Bryce’s business partner after the two met in 2007. Introduced by their wives, they quickly realised they shared a similar dream: to help create a thriving street culture scene in Auckland, one that would rival that of London or New York. “I get tired of people saying there is nothing in Auckland, that Auckland is a shithole,” says King. “I think: make it better then!” Bryce agrees: “Let’s make it happen, figure out a way. Either go back to London and have a cry, or stay here and make it cool, because it is a great place. We have the relationships and the connections to be able to do this kind of thing, so why not use them?”

Lofty ambitions and a generous vision aside, selling $200 prints to get young people excited about art is all well and good—but how will it pay the bills? Bryce says Plaything will still cater to the established, high-end art market. “We have the ability to bring internationally renowned artists here, and selling their work isn’t that hard.” But targeting younger aspiring collectors is what’s most important to them. “That’s the underlying reason for this gallery and it is supported financially through our own philanthropy and bigger shows throughout the year.” Hiring out the gallery as an event space has also brought in some income. And there are others that share the vision: Wellington-based company Made From New Zealand has become a partner in the business.

Says King: “A friend in a band said to me recently, ‘I’ve been in a recession for 30 years now … it’s easy for me’. That’s the sort of mindset we’re coming from: not having money and making things anyway. In terms of having a viable business in a recession, the service, the product, the ideas that we are offering is pretty unique … other people can’t do what we are doing because it depends on the relationships that we have developed.

“People need inspiration in a depressing era. What we’re doing is focusing on things that are important in life: getting creative about art, about culture, about connecting people. These are things people search for in a recession and we can offer it.”

Bring the noise

More from Noise Media

SLAMXHYPE
In 2003, during a long and boring hospital stay, Bryce taught himself how to build a website. SLAMXHYPE was the result, a street culture news site dedicated to men’s fashion, art and culture.

“SLAMXHYPE is targeted at influencers,” says Bryce, “so it’s well ahead of pop culture. We talk about brands and artists that very few people would have heard of until a couple of years later.”

It took a little while before he recognised that he could make money based on the volume of traffic to his site. “Everyone was happy to tell you it was great and amazing and worth a lot of money and offer to buy it off you, but no-one would actually say: ‘This is how you make the money’. Eventually I did figure it out.”

Today, slamxhype.com receives over 100,000 unique visitors a month. Although his brother now manages the website from Tokyo, Bryce is still very much involved in the content and direction.

The New Order
Bryce had long wanted to create a magazine version of SLAMXHYPE, to give more space and a longer lifespan to content that was appearing on the website. In April, Noise Media launched The New Order, a quarterly publication aimed at “those who make and breathe tomorrow’s trends” with an emphasis on art and fashion. While the magazine is edited, designed and printed in New Zealand, the content is sourced from around the world. Bryce says they sold all 20,000 copies of The New Order’s first issue, with 98 percent of those sales in the UK, Europe, the US and Japan.

The Wire
Launched in late 2007 as a collection of personal blogs by creative Kiwis, The Wire debuted with around 40 well-known personalities. But it never quite clicked; King thinks the Kiwi dislike for self-promotion meant the bloggers had little left to write about. Rather than talking about hopes and dreams, successes and failures, much of the content was just mundane.

In May, The Wire relaunched as “a daily news blog with a focus on pop culture: fashion, art, music and food”. It’s a more personal site with just eight bloggers, all involved with various Noise Media projects, including Bryce and King and their wives.

Support the Independents
‘Support the Independents’ is a concept Bryce and King developed after they grew tired of people asking for free copies of The New Order. They now use it as a tagline for all Noise Media projects. King says New Zealanders, particularly in the creative industries where everybody knows everybody, have a habit of asking for things for free. The premise is simple: “Basically, it‘s saying to people: ‘If you like what we are doing and you believe in it, show your support and pay for it,’” he says. “Don’t show your support by saying, ‘Hey man, this is really cool, can I have a free copy?’ Because like it or loathe it, money makes these things happen.”