Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Council feet-dragging happening everywhere

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Auckland Art Gallery exhibitions have featured contemporary Pacific and Asian art - although historical exhibitions are still western, such as  Californian Design 1930-1965  (on now).
Auckland Art Gallery exhibitions have featured contemporary Pacific and Asian art - although historical exhibitions are still western, such as Californian Design 1930-1965 (on now).

A couple of weeks ago at zinefest (celebrating the underground uses of the photocopier) I picked up Mellow Yellow issue 4, attracted by its ripe lemon wrapper. It turned out to be associated with YAFA - Young Asian Feminists Aotearoa. (Their suggested T-shirt slogans include: "I am not your 'delicate lotus blossom"' and "Orientalise this!").

The zine added to my thinking about institutional racism, a phenomenon that in general doesn't get enough public attention. If no effort is made, the default setting of any system will be mono-cultural. In Aotearoa, such an establishment institution - be it an art gallery, school, hospital, court of law or, yes, newspaper - will act as if the long-term majority population is the entire population.

This is sometimes through carelessness and ignorance rather than deliberate exclusion. Change is too often thrown into the "too hard" and "unimportant" baskets - it takes money, willpower, creativity and power relinquishment.

Even when minorities are "celebrated", those who already have the power usually keep it.

The upshot: in Auckland, cultural institutions-with-inertia are in danger of becoming irrelevant. By 2006, pakeha made up only 56.5 per cent of the population. You wouldn't know that by looking at the balance of funded arts around the city. Even taking cultural legacy into account, a disproportionate amount of public money and programming goes to European/western art forms, performances and groups - certain types of theatre and dance, opera, literature, orchestras. The significant position of Maori culture as the tangata whenua culture is acknowledged by certain decision makers (including Creative New Zealand), as are (to a lesser extent) Pacific cultures, but there are still massive gaps. Meanwhile, funding for art associated with other cultures is extremely small.

Assumptions of "add ons" are entrenched. The Auckland Plan says "We enjoy learning about different cultures, particularly through festivals such as Diwali and the Chinese Lantern Festival." As a Te Tuhi exhibition asked last year: "What do you mean, 'we'?" For some Hindu Aucklanders and Chinese Aucklanders, learning about "different" cultures might involve experiencing the ballet, C.K. Stead and Lorde.

There is improvement - recent Auckland Art Gallery exhibitions have featured contemporary Pacific and Asian art - although historical exhibitions are still western, such as Californian Design 1930-1965 (on now).

But too often "quality" means "western," while "ethnic" is too often only associated with "community". Oh, and the patronising "vibrancy".

Which is why it's pleasing that the draft Creative New Zealand 2013-2016 strategic plan - out for public consultation until August 26 - emphasises Auckland's cultural mash-up and states: "We need to respond in fresh ways to this rapidly changing demography." But in contradiction, updating CNZ's Cultural Diversity Strategy has been deferred from the 2010-2013 plan until the end of the new plan: 2015-16.

Such feet-dragging is unacceptable. It happens everywhere: an Auckland Council officer recently told me that the Sandringham Business Association, say, might want a public mural painted by Sri Lankan artists. But the council doesn't yet know how to find them. Well, why the hell not?

- NZ Herald

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