Home to a third of New Zealand's population, sheer numbers means Auckland is the country's arts and cultural capital.

With around 1.4 million people, there's tremendous diversity: representatives from more than 200 ethnic groups make us more multicultural than London or Sydney, we've got the greatest Maori population in New Zealand and we're the world's largest Pacific city.

THE SERIES
Monday: Arts and the economy
Yesterday: Arts and the suburbs
• Today: Arts and diversity
• Tomorrow: Arts and education
• Friday: Arts and the future

But diversity isn't just about ethnicity.

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There's a "rainbow community" of people of all sexual orientations here, while our population is slightly skewed towards youth. Dispersed over an area of nearly 5000sq km, there are also huge disparities in income. Certain suburbs may be home to some of New Zealand's wealthiest but out west and down south, you'll find some of the country's poorest - at least in financial terms.

Given that by 2021 Maori, Pacific and Asian residents will make up more than half the region's population, it seems natural to start with ethnic diversity and there are a lot of plans, schemes and dreams which do this.

Maori Warriors arrive on Waka during the Tamaki Herenga Waka Festival. Photo / Getty Images
Maori Warriors arrive on Waka during the Tamaki Herenga Waka Festival. Photo / Getty Images

The intentions in Toi Whitiki are good: celebrate Auckland's unique cultural identity, making us more attractive to international visitors, but provide opportunities for those who live here to celebrate their home countries and cultures.

The arts and culture strategic action plan says the emphasis needs to be on our "standout feature", vibrant Maori culture.

Whether that is our current standout feature, the plan is to do more to "celebrate Maori and their culture as a point of difference".

Before the ink was even dry on Toi Whitiki, the first Tamaki Herenga Waka Festival, to complement Matariki celebrations later in the year, was announced. Held on Auckland Anniversary Weekend, it attracted thousands despite bad weather.

Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed) general manager for destination and marketing Vivien Bridgwater says there were discussions about expanding Matariki festivities but representatives from the region's 19 mana whenua groups felt there was more merit in an event which added a new chapter to the story.

Anastasia Edwards, centre, and the kapa haka group from Totora Grove School perform at Matariki Whanau Festival. Photo / Northern Advocate
Anastasia Edwards, centre, and the kapa haka group from Totora Grove School perform at Matariki Whanau Festival. Photo / Northern Advocate

Pasifika continues, in mid-March, but the Southside Festival, a South Auckland-based celebration of all things Pacific, has been dumped in favour of the city-wide Urbanesia. Chairman of Auckland Council's Arts, Culture and Events Committee and Mangere ward councillor Alf Filipaina, is disappointed about the decision but says he was only one vote.

He agrees mana whenua need to be accorded greater acknowledgment, and says he likes that Toi Whitiki recognises this as a primary goal, but it also highlights the need to include all cultures. In future, we're likely to see a stronger African, South American and Middle Eastern influence.

Groups such as Ateed, the Oryza Foundation - with its catchy tagline "not all Asian arts are martial" - and the Asia New Zealand Foundation are already working towards ensuring Asian Aucklanders are included.

Last year, Creative New Zealand and philanthropic organisation Foundation North, formerly the ASB Community Trust, launched the Auckland Diversity Fund to encourage more Maori, Pacific and Asian audiences and artists in the region.

Six projects, totalling almost $367,000, were funded, but there were 36 proposals - ranging from audience development and community engagements projects to proposals for new work - requesting $3.3 million in that first investment round. This year, and next, there will a total of around $800,000 available.

Writing on E-Tangata, an online Maori and Pasifika Sunday magazine, playwright Victor Rodger expressed fears the diversity fund would pitch three minority groups against each other "in a creative arts version of The Hunger Games". He said putting all Asian cultures into one sub-group didn't do a lot for diversity.

JGeeks dancers of X-factor fame wowed the crowd at the Matariki Whanau Festival. Photo / Nortern Advocate
JGeeks dancers of X-factor fame wowed the crowd at the Matariki Whanau Festival. Photo / Nortern Advocate

CNZ's senior manager for arts policy, capability and international Cath Cardiff says the fund doesn't work like that.

"Arts organisations are struggling to keep up with Auckland's changing demographics so we thought it was a good idea to do something to focus on those groups.

"We haven't divvied the money up on those lines; it was never intended to be a competition. Auckland is evolving and growing so fast so everyone in the sector needs to be nimble and to look at special initiatives to respond to the enormous potential for growth that exists."

Art facts

• 90% of Aucklanders said they learn about different cultures through the arts.
• 74% say the arts are for people "like me".
• 86% agree the arts help improve New Zealand society.
• Maori and Pacific people are most likely to favour the arts.
• Low income households (up to $30,000) are less likely to attend arts events.
• 250,000 people attend the Lantern, Pasifika and Diwali festivals.

The master plan

What? Toi Whitiki Goal:
• All Aucklanders can participate in the arts.

How? Council says:
• Increase opportunities for Aucklanders to experience arts and culture.
• Better communicate what's on
• Remove barriers to access and participation.

How? Industry says:
• Ask artists for their input early in the planning process.
• Recognise the diversity within ethnic groups.
• Support local festivals as well as central-city ones.

The gentle art of getting your life sorted out

Simon Kerr speaks at the Whangarei Art Museum during his exhibition The Roads to Redemption. Photo / Supplied
Simon Kerr speaks at the Whangarei Art Museum during his exhibition The Roads to Redemption. Photo / Supplied

Had someone given him an art book when he was an impressionable 15-year-old, Simon Kerr reckons he might have headed down a different road.

Instead, he read about Australian bushranger Ned Kelly and fixated on being an outlaw. It led to four decades in and out of prison as he notched up 150 convictions and made headlines for his part in the infamous "Hole in the Wall Gang" of bankrobbers, an escape which saw him stow away on a cargo ship to Australia and a 13-day rooftop protest, about remand conditions, atop Mt Eden jail.

Now the former Auckland resident, 54 and on parole, has found his calling: as an artist - not that he's ready to call himself an artist just yet.

"There are people out there who are trained and it has been their passion for their entire lives. I'm just telling my story but I am growing and learning." Kerr started painting at Northland's Ngawha Prison in 2011, joining a class run by the Department of Corrections through Arts Access Aotearoa, a national organisation receiving core funding from Creative New Zealand.

It lives by the mantra art is for everyone and works with others to remove barriers for people with physical, sensory or intellectual disabilities so they can participate in the arts as creators or audiences.

It's also the key organisation in promoting arts as a tool to support prisoners' rehabilitation and has a contract with the Department of Corrections to advise on its arts programme.

Arts Access Aotearoa executive director Richard Benge says visual and performing arts and creative writing are used in our prisons to teach life skills and help prisoners make constructive choices, set goals and solve problems while creating art through their own imagination and creative efforts.

Now the former Auckland resident, 54 and on parole, has found his calling: as an artist - not that he's ready to call himself an artist just yet. Photo / Supplied
Now the former Auckland resident, 54 and on parole, has found his calling: as an artist - not that he's ready to call himself an artist just yet. Photo / Supplied

"For some, it may be the first time they've been encouraged to develop their creativity and if these lessons can be applied on the outside, maybe they'll make wiser choices," says Mr Benge.

Since he stunned his teachers with his innate talent, Kerr's work has featured in a group show as well as solo exhibitions at Jetsom Artspace in Kerikeri, Devonport's Depot Artspace and Whangarei Art Museum.

"I'm one of tens of thousands of people that headed down this path and I am not looking for people to feel sorry for me," he says. "I'm just telling my story. The path I was given was chosen for me ... but my brothers and sisters didn't succumb to our environment, so it shows we make our own choices. But there is a high chance that environment will take you into this one ... "

"This one" is a painting - bright colours, bold figures and visceral imagery characteristic of his work - showing the inside of a prison cell. Kerr, whose parents separated when he was young, first went to prison when he was 15. He says his mother worked hard to raise him but he was caught up in the "bullshit life" of wanting to be an outlaw but it became a "fever" he couldn't control. His fever, already cooling, was replaced by desire to create something positive. Kerr says art for him is not therapy but autobiography but he wants his work to be uncomplicated so people look at it and think, "I get it".

Jetsom curator Sheree Edwards' first reaction to Kerr's work was that it was raw, bold and powerful. "When we first displayed Simon's work, we didn't make too much of his backstory because I wanted people to judge them on their own merits rather than imbue them with a certain cachet." The work sold well before she explained who Kerr was.

"I suppose you can say it's an insight into a world that is hidden from many New Zealanders." To see Kerr's work: jetsomartspace.co.nz