The saso.creative Phantom Downunder Art Prize: The Australian Experience was a creative contest held through February and March this year, challenging Australian artists to reinterpret our favourite purple comic strip hero. Held in conjunction with the arrival of The Phantom Art Show in Coffs Harbour, it was the initiative of Sam Chapman and Nanette Backhouse from saso.creative.
ChronicleChamber sat down with Sam to explore the concept, find out a little about what happened behind the scenes, and discuss the success of the competition.
ChronicleChamber: Thanks for talking to us today Sam. Before we begin, can you tell us a little bit about who Saso Creative is, and how you supported the Bunker Cartoon Gallery in bringing the Phantom Art Show to Coffs Harbour?
Sam Chapman: Sure! saso.creative is a creative agency in Coffs Harbour whose services include design, copywriting, marketing and strategy. We sponsored the Phantom Art Show to the tune of $5000+ — $1500 of which went to the prize money for the Phantom Downunder Art Prize; $1250 in cash to the Bunker Cartoon Gallery to help defray costs of the exhibition; and $2500 in design and marketing services in-kind.
CC: What inspired you to sponsor an Art Prize in the first place?
SC: Synchronicity. Opportunism. Exploitation… ;) Take your pick. We (me and Nanette) genuinely love art — and feel that it’s probably not supported enough, especially in regional areas. We wanted to see if, as a business, we could get a decent return on investment sponsoring art rather than, say, sport which seems to be by far the more popular sponsorship path. I should also say that I am on the Board of the Bunker Cartoon Gallery, so I wanted to see too if we could set something of a precedent that would lead other businesses to consider sponsoring future exhibitions at the Bunker.
The Art Prize was, I guess, a proof-of-concept. As a marketing business, we encourage businesses to consider out-of-the-ordinary approaches to their marketing and promotions — so in this instance we wanted to put our money where our mouths were.
We wanted to firstly get the community involved in the Art Show; and part of getting them involved was to try to take the art to the community, to the streets, rather than the other way around. I saw it working on a number of levels: local artists can help a community feel involved because, “Hey, I know that guy …” and by the same token can break down walls that people might feel toward art being “beyond” them; I also saw it as a way of generating traffic, interest, and hopefully enquiry in the shops that host the various artworks along the Phantom Walk, so there’s a pay off for them; and lastly I saw it as encouraging people to visit the Phantom Art Show at the Bunker. CC: Why the Phantom in particular? And why specify Downunder, or The Australian Experience?
SC: Why the Phantom? Sorry to disappoint phans, but that was pure opportunism, or synchronicity, depending how you look at it. Our business’s current marketing campaign centres on “Give your business super powers” and features a (pretty generic) superhero doing superheroey things in a business context. When we heard about the Phantom exhibition, we thought the whole superhero/Phantom theme fit well with our current marketing. So a little exploitative perhaps, but business can be like that.
I should add that when I saw the manifest for the Art Show — the calibre of the artists involved — I honestly just thought, Whoa! When we spoke on opening night, Dan, you explained that you were coming to the art as a Phantom fan; whereas I was coming to the Phantom as an art fan. One of the things I’ve been spruiking to friends and associates when singing the praises of the show is that you simply won’t see this calibre of artists in one place in a regional gallery — possibly ever. If you’re a Phantom fan, sure, go see the show for that reason alone. But if you’re not, go see because outside of major metropolitan exhibitions the chances of seeing Garry Shead, Charles Blackman, Peter Kingston, Reg Mombassa, Euan MacLeod, Dietmar Lederwasch etc etc, — the chances of seeing that calibre of artists all together in the one show is nil. So I guess we as a business, as well as individuals, wanted to be involved with that.
The Australian Experience angle stemmed from the fact that the Phantom was, or is, way more popular here in Australia then it ever was in the US — and it’s virtually unheard of in England — and we just thought that might be an interesting avenue for artists to explore. Why is he so popular in Australia? Is there something in his character we as Aussies relate to. Or am I reading too much into it? I recall a bootleg album cover from the mid-80s featuring Radio Birdman, the Saints, the Passengers, Sunnyboys, and the album art featured the Phantom with the then-Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in a headlock. Why the Phantom? A dozen other superheroes of similar vintage might have been featured, but for some reason the cover artist chose the Phantom. Why? (I’ve still got the album somewhere, too.)
CC: How did the curators of the Art Show respond to the idea?
SC: Loved it. These guys are genuine fans of the Phantom artists, especially the Wilson McCoy and Ray Moore era, so seeing other artists’ take on the Phantom is a real thrill. And there’s always the possibility of turning up an unexpected diamond, which they did ... CC: If we can ask, about how many entries did you receive?
SC: It was around 25-30 all up. I would have hoped for more, but realise that we didn’t give ourselves or artists an awful lot of time to get things together. We know better for next time.
CC: And so what was the breakdown of local versus entries from further afield? What were some of the furthest distances that entries had to travel?
SC: I’d guess around 80% were local. The rest came from regional NSW and Queensland, Hornsby, Toowoomba, Griffith, one from Victoria.
CC: Sam, as an observer of the judging process, is there any inside goss you can share on interesting comments or observations from the judges?
SC: We had three entries featuring the Phantom smoking a joint — not sure if that says something about the Phantom or something about Coffs Harbour. The judges found reason to linger over every entry. They were all genuinely thrilled with John van der Kolk’s entry, which was the Phantom swinging around on a Hills Hoist, titled Washing Day.
In fact, Peter Kingston has secured that piece for the remainder of the Art Show proper, so it will travel alongside all the existing works to Newcastle, Manly and beyond.
I talked to the artist to let him know he won, and he was absolutely stoked not just to win but to have been judged by the likes of Peter Kingston, Dietmar Lederwasch and Euan MacLeod — or as he put it, “there are judges, and there are judges…”. If nothing else, I am thrilled that we played a small part in helping John van der Kolk connect with this exhibition — for an artist, it’s a big deal. CC: Was it difficult to convince local businesses / council to allow you to create the Phantom Walk? What has the response been like from them?
SC: First up we simply walked into shops and started babbling about the Phantom, so initially there were a few raised eyebrows. But once we talked them through it, they were all happy to jump on board. We started talking to the newsagent, and he said, "Oh, we have a real Phantom nut who comes in every month and I have to reserve an issue and not put a price sticker on it just for her …” So it seems the Phantom is a Six Degrees of Separation thing. Probably more like three degrees. CC: Any indication what the public response has been to the Phantom Walk? (all entries will be displayed in pop-up galleries in and around Coffs Harbour retail centres)
SC: Unfortunately the Phantom Walk isn’t up and running at the just yet; we’ve had dreadful weather and that’s delayed our getting the works into the various shops. We can't wait to make it happen though.
ChronicleChamber will publish photos of the Phantom Walk as soon as they are available.
CC: Is the Art Prize an initiative that you will repeat for other exhibitions that come to the Bunker?
SC: Absolutely we’d do it again. Probably not straight away — which is simply a dollars issue — but it was great fun to be involved with and I think we’re already seeing a reasonable response to our sponsorship dollars. But I’d really encourage other businesses to sponsor local and regional art competition and exhibitions. It’s a great thing to get involved with, and from a business perspective you’re exposing yourself to a very focussed target market. But don’t wait for a gallery to come to you or to offer up sponsorships publicly — it probably won’t happen. Go the gallery in person and wave around some cash …
Also, if there’s a business in Newcastle or Manly (the Phantom Art Show’s next two destinations, I think), I’d really encourage you explore this opportunity with your local gallery.
CC: I think most phans would love to see that - there's no such thing as too much Phantom art! Thanks for your time today Sam, for putting your money where your mouth is in terms of supporting the Arts, and all the best to saso.creative and the Bunker Cartoon Gallery for the future.