Creativity thriving on Auckland city's edge

By Dionne Christian

With high-profile regional facilities in central Auckland — not to mention the lion’s share of festivals — is there arts and cultural life in the ‘burbs? In Part 2 of our Arts in Auckland feature, Dionne Christian goes exploring.

When Bobby Kennedy sees passersby eyeing up the Mangere Arts Centre - Nga Tohu o Uenuku - hesitating to come in, he'll wander out and invite them on a tour.

"I can see they want to, but they need some extra encouragement."

He says making people aware that the centre is for the community can be challenging. Around 60 per cent of the local population doesn't have regular access to email; many have English as a second language - hence theatre productions in Tongan and Niuean - and galleries can look intimidating if you're not familiar with the environment.

THE SERIES
Yesterday: Arts and the economy

• Today: Arts and the suburbs
• Tomorrow: Arts and diversity
• Thursday: Arts and education
• Friday: Arts and the future

Kennedy, the facility manager (and of the Otara Music Arts Centre and Mangere's Metro Theatre) and drummer in the band Op Shop, says a large part of his job is to encourage those who may never have stepped inside an art gallery to take a look. Community art centres, galleries and theatres offer a chance to learn about and enjoy visual and performing arts in our own neighbourhood.

What may surprise is how widespread Auckland's network of such places is. Auckland Council alone lists 35 on its website and while it's sometimes joked cultural life ends at the Harbour Bridge, the North Shore lays claim to the greatest number with 12. More venues and facilities are administered by Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA), a council-controlled organisation.

Then there's the Auckland Regional Amenities Trust, which receives a levy from the council to grant money to 10 organisations, including the Auckland Philharmonia, Auckland Theatre Company, NZ Opera and The Auckland Arts Festival Trust. That it also funds vital rescue services such as Watersafe Auckland and the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust hasn't been without controversy.

Creative New Zealand, New Zealand's arts council, also channels millions into Auckland's arts and cultural scene.

Stephanie Post, co-director of Auckland Art Fair, says to ignore what's going on outside the central city is to risk missing out on a wealth of exciting new developments.

Indeed, Post believes Auckland is fortunate because there's strong work being made and shown throughout the region.

Because it's cheaper, many artists have studios in the suburbs or on the edges of Auckland, while community galleries in particular have a range of objectives that create opportunities for artists and communities which might not otherwise arise.

But one former gallery staffer says if arts are to continue to flourish around the region, community galleries cannot be told by those in downtown Auckland what to display and programme.

"My fear about Toi Whitiki [Auckland's Arts and Culture Strategic Action Plan] is that it risks having people drive out of the city to communities that they don't live or work in and know only by reputation and say, 'this is what you're having this month'. It needs to be totally collaborative with those on the ground able to have full and frank input into what goes on at their centre," they said.

The team that programmes work is part of the council's Arts and Cultural business unit. Staff spend time at the central head office and at the centres they're responsible for.
The programming team and centre staff collaborate on what gets shown, guided by a facility's strategic business plan. These plans are developed in consultation with the public, mana whenua (via workshops/email) and signed off by the local board.

James Bell, business manager at the PumpHouse in Takapuna, sees suburban performing arts venues getting busier because they're more affordable and put on work central city venues don't have space for.

That a number of community theatre groups - and there's at least one of those in most communities - already premiere national and international work highlights the role of smaller theatres. Bell is concerned the sudden closure of the Maidment Theatre - because of fears about seismic strengthening - is likely to see suburban venues become busier.

"We provide for those who want to stage an older work, say [a play by] Pinter or Chekhov, or something which is quite niche. They can find a place for their work," says Bell.
"I think the wider public would be genuinely surprised at the depth and breadth of work going on all across Auckland."

Auckland's first Mandarin-Chinese theatre company, I-Start Chinese Theatre, has two shows at the PumpHouse this week. Founded by broadcaster Yabing Liu, I-Start has around 60 members, teenagers to senior citizens, making Mandarin language plays.

Liu says its first production sold out at the PumpHouse last year. That showed there was room in Auckland for a theatre company like I-Start.

Now it's rehearsing for Murder on Changde Road, a thriller about the murder of a millionaire at his own party, which features Qipao dress and old Shanghai-style music.

"Chinese people have a very good life here [in Auckland]," says Liu, "but they need some entertainment from their own culture especially if they don't have good English."

Providing "affordable spaces" isn't always easy or affordable. It took 20 years and around $10 million to build Te Oro Glen Innes Music and Arts Centre; creating Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery from Lopdell House came with a $19 million price tag. While the end result is fantastic infrastructure, there's frequent criticism of spending.

Auckland Council is exploring alternative approaches like "pop-up" projects in non-traditional spaces. Community Arts Brokers are being employed, on contract, to tap into existing community arts and culture networks to devise a range of temporary activities in public spaces such as parks, town centres, empty shops and streets.

Like anything new, there are issues to work through. Writing on the Pantograph Punch website, artist Lana Lopesi shared her thoughts after finishing a six-month project for last year's Whau Arts Festival (New Lynn, Green Bay, Kelston, Rosebank, Avondale, New Windsor and Blockhouse Bay).

Lopesi spoke of problems with the very definition of high-quality community art - is it simply about audience and participant numbers? She also noted "pop-up" projects may be so temporary, there's no time to build community awareness and if the project is being used to revitalise a faltering strip shopping centre, that's a tough ask.

"Local boards need to develop co-ordinated approaches to the question of dying shopping strips and suburban decay in terms of what very local economic development would look like," she wrote.

"It's tough, but pop-ups and 'happenings' of an artistic nature are unable to do the heavy lifting."

The master plan

What?
• A network of vibrant arts and culture organisations and facilities
• Arts and culture are intrinsic to Auckland's place-making

How? Council says:
• Promote the city centre as Auckland's major cultural destination
• Provide a regional spread of vibrant, diverse and affordable creative spaces
• Encourage unique and distinctive public art

How? Industry says:

• Make it easier to pitch work and apply for funding
• Continue to look for alternative spaces
• Don't expect the arts to be a cure-all
• Ensure there are low-cost, local events - driving into the city can be difficult and costly

Local hub turning creative dreams into reality

Sosaia Fatani and Jenni Heka outside the Te Oro Arts Centre in Glen Innes. Photo / Greg Bowker
Sosaia Fatani and Jenni Heka outside the Te Oro Arts Centre in Glen Innes. Photo / Greg Bowker

What does it mean to have a community art centre in your neighbourhood? Can it really change lives?

Sosaia Fatani, a 15-year-old Tamaki College pupil from Glen Innes, is proof it means a lot.

He wandered into Glen Innes' Te Oro Music and Arts Centre shortly after it opened last year. The centre includes performance spaces, music rooms, digital editing suites and a dance studio. It runs a variety of community-based art and music classes, so Sosaia, a keen artist, signed up for drawing classes.

Less than a year later, he's also taken up photography, exhibited his work in a group show and sold a couple of his photos. He's been on a field trip to the Auckland Art Gallery and, when he left, he asked his Te Oro tutors what he had to do to get his work exhibited there.

Now doing his first NCEA year, Sosaia, from a family of nine children, says he's going to be an artist or architect - something he never would have thought possible until he came to Te Oro. Attending classes there has taught him new techniques and refined skills he already had.

"If I wasn't coming here, I'd probably be hanging out in my room at home ... "

It's music to the ears of facility manager Jenni Heka, who grew up in Glen Innes and says such a centre has been needed for a long time.

- NZ Herald

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