Toi Poneke a creative arts colony

Last updated 05:00 29/07/2012
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ROSS GIBLIN/Fairfax NZ

CREATIVE: Jewellers Vaune Mason, Amanda Howley and Annie Collins at Toi Poneke Art Centre.

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It was nearly midday when the courier handing me a parcel at my front door gave me a strange look. He looked sort of sorry for me.

The mirror explained. My dressing gown was covered in crumbs. A smear of jam from breakfast had given me a lopsided moustache. My hair was greasy. A deadline was no excuse - I needed a shower, a change of scenery and some adult conversation.

Sure, working from home has its pros: no commute, few interruptions, the freedom to wear your trackpants, proximity to the chocolate biscuits. But after four years of writing from an office in my house, I was ready to leave home.

That weekend, I noticed a rooms-for- hire sign on a building in Abel Smith St, just round the corner from Cuba St. Until then, I didn't know that Toi Poneke Arts Centre (TPAC) rents out affordable working spaces to artists and creatives.

From the outside, the centre's two buildings, connected by an overbridge, did not impress. They looked weathered, industrial, borderline ugly. Inside, though, it was not the scuffed institutional lino I noticed. It was the palpable energy, the welcoming smiles, the buzz of conversations, the art livening up the walls, the diversity of the people.

A few weeks later, I was sharing an office there and got to wondering: What difference did this place make to residents' lives and careers?

When it opened in July 2005, the council-subsidised centre envisioned becoming the incubator of Wellington's arts scene - and helping preserve Te Aro's creative community and funky vibe (which became endangered when the Wellington inner-city bypass ploughed through, building development restarted and rents rose, squeezing artists out).

Seven years on, it has done both. Today, over eight floors, 55 emerging artists and creatives work from 30 studios, paying between $40 (shared) to $140 per week. Twelve small creative businesses and eight arts organisations base themselves here for between $70 and $300 per week.

Soon, residents' artwork will liven up the exterior of the former Education Ministry buildings - but it is not just visual artists you will find inside. As well as painters, printmakers, ceramicists, sculptors, photographers, film-makers and muralists, there are graphic designers, 3-D animators, sound artists, musicians, writers, theatre technicians, toy-makers, an arts publicist and more.

Residents span all backgrounds and ages. Some are full-time; others work offsite and come in their "downtime". Some make a living from their craft; for others that is a goal. On the first floor, I share milk with 40-something Mark Wallis, a community worker who says the centre is the perfect place to run his practice, Just Youth, which uses creative arts and music to work with at-risk teens.

Downstairs, in ground floor jewellery workshop Workspace Studios, Vaune Mason and Annie Collins make their own pieces surrounded by funky wall hangings. The pair, who moved together to TPAC in 2007, also provide bench hire for other jewellery makers in pod-like workstations, teach jewellery classes for different levels, and host events such as team-building and hen parties here. Until their classes got up and running, the centre offered them a studio at a reduced rent (unlike many arts centres, TPAC encourages others to run classes rather than running its own).

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"This place is great for artists and small businesses," Mason, 36, explains. "The affordability, central city location, access to the photocopier, printer and a reception which accepts parcels, all make a big difference. You're in a productive incubator, building relationships, and you can come at the world from a professional place, not just your bedroom."

- The Dominion Post

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