Heart of the arts silenced
The New St building with the striking mosaic on the front was at the hub of many Nelson teenagers' lives until its closure last year. With demolition set to begin today, Stacey Knott revisits an old stomping ground
It's just a building . . . but it contains the echoes of the experiences of thousands of Nelsonians, from all-night revelry to art therapy.
But no more.
The large building in New St, currently defined by the heart and sun mosaic on its facade, now sits empty, waiting for a demolition and salvage crew to move in from Monday to begin the process of reducing it to rubble.
The building was most famous, and loved, when it was arts and performance venue the Artery.
Giving it punkish heart and a rock-the-establishment soul, from inception until its demise in 2002, was Dave White.
In 1996, White became the coordinator of the space, then called the Nelson Community Arts Centre. He was tasked with balancing the interests of the diverse groups using it, including rock bands, artists, music course students and the IHC.
Former punk rocker White says he quickly realised that the venue's best feature was its practice rooms. One of his first tasks was putting an old eight-track recorder to use.
A week later, he put out a compact disc featuring a range of local bands. He also encouraged teenage bands to come in and record, and hosted the local Smokefreerockquest heats.
The initial lease the arts centre had on the space expired in 1997. The Nelson City Council bought the building that year - it then loaned the centre the money to buy the building from the council, while leasing the centre the land it stood on.
With this change, White called for a new name and a new look.
With grants and other funding to develop the space and keep it functioning, White worked to soundproof the venue, created a recording studio and art studios, and called for artists to create something out the front.
Artist Valenska Campion's mosaic Eat Your Art Out was commissioned. It took about 18 months to complete, using tiles hand-made by members of the Nelson community, and was unveiled in 1999.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, the Artery had music rehearsal and recording studios, visual arts workshops, a video editing suite, a projection booth, a photographic darkroom, resident artists' studios, a pottery kiln, a large performance room, and a cafe-gallery-cum-performance area.
It hosted raves, rock gigs, exhibition openings, films, poetry readings, and specialist programmes for people with disabilities, and provided a wide variety of courses, from life drawing and ceramics to CD recording and stilt walking.
However, White's time at the Artery was punctuated by complaints that he was running the venue to cater exclusively to alternative communities, and not meeting the needs of the other groups using it.
"My mandate was to provide services to the community, like art classes, holding exhibitions and providing studio space," he says. "Once we opened, we had a large core group there - the Gathering had their offices upstairs, and a radio station brought in another crew. That frustrated the music course and IHC people.
"They were worried it was being turned too alternative. ‘What about something for the straight kids - a basketball hoop or a skate park?' There were basketball courts in every school already.
"This was for those who aren't being catered for. That was always a philosophical disagreement I had with them."
Noise complaints were also coming thick and fast, and the venue gained a reputation as a home to underage drinking. White remembers nights when hundreds of teenagers would be partying in the street outside, with the police parked at each end of New St, watching them. While the teens weren't allowed to bring booze into the venue, White was powerless to control what they did outside it.
When inside, however, they were well catered for. There were nights when the entire space was used for multizone parties, with live bands and DJs, art installations and chillout zones, with about 1500 people attending.
One gig that stuck in the minds of many was when Shihad played in 2000.
White says the staff had to block the air vents to head off noise complaints, resulting in the venue becoming a virtual sauna, with condensation raining from the ceilings - so much so that Shihad frontman Jon Toogood stripped down to his green undies. The audience of 600 moshed on, raising the temperature further.
"I remember all these pretty young girls coming in with their makeup on, nicely dressed for Shihad - then a few hours after, slouching down the steps, all their makeup washed off, their clothes completely drenched, but all smiling," White recalls.
Not only did hundred of Nelson young people spend their weekends at gigs at the venue - it also let local bands hone their talents.
Darryl Coppins was a well-known heart-throb in the 90s and early 2000s, playing guitar for rock band Mother Guru. Now based in Canada, he works fulltime in music and has a long list of successes behind him, including working with Grammy-winning producer DJ Dirty Harry.
Coppins started going to the Artery and playing gigs there after he moved to Nelson in 1999 to do the Nelson School of Music's contemporary music performance course. He remembers it as "a place to gather and share a common love of live music", which "offered a safe haven and an escape of sorts - a place to express, create, dance, and gather with friends and make new ones".
He feels "absolutely gutted" about the loss of the building.
Likewise, punk-rocker-cum-Anglican minister Joshua "Spanky" Moore says the venue's best trait was its ability to bring together all factions of Nelson society. He started going to the Artery when it was still the Community Arts Centre. He was 15 years old, playing guitar and singing for his new band Clowndog. They were playing Nirvana covers, but were inspired to write an original song for a compilation CD White was putting together.
"From that point on, we never played a Nirvana song again. They used to pay us to play their underage gigs in pro-bono recording time.
"Looking back, I can't believe anyone was giving us anything to endure our terrible live performances. It was a pretty ingenious way of growing and supporting a young music scene."
The Artery also shaped the music the band were soon to become famous for (in Nelson, at least).
"I also remember playing a Clowndog gig there one weekend, and there was this whole punk scene beginning to emerge amongst the teenage bands," Moore says.
"We didn't really play punk at that stage, but it was obvious that that was what the crowd wanted. We ended up just playing the same two chords over and over on stage, making up these bizarre impromptu punk songs on the spot, and the kids went crazy for it.
"The mosh pit got so high during those songs that it collapsed on stage over us as we played - it was amazing. From that point on, we became a punk band."
The diversity the Artery inspired in turn inspired Moore to take up his current role as an Anglican minister.
"It was a place where we could come and rub shoulders with a totally different culture from the one I'd grown up in. I grew up on a sheep farm in Wakefield, so hanging out with tattooed, mohawked, vegan mosaic artists was a whole new world.
"For me, it was a safe place where underagers could learn the grassroots skills of recording, performing and writing. I'll always have huge respect for the suffering Dave White and Nathan Judge went through in supporting young local musicians.
"One of the lasting memories I have of the place is the space they made for people with disabilities. I remember an older guy called Ollie used to hang out there every day, who was obviously from a local halfway house - and seeing the way the mohawked, black-jeaned staff at the time interacted with him and were always so kind challenged me to rethink my stereotypes.
"At its best, the Artery was a place that welcomed the outsider, regardless of what kind of outsider they were - punk or hippie, sheep farm kid or disabled old man. I think that's quite profound, and it's inspired me in my work with the Anglican Church to emulate that kind of space."
However, the Artery's reputation and problems plagued it, from accusations of exclusivity to noise complaints, to financial issues.
These came to a head in May 2002, when White was fired, the centre's funding was cut and it closed its doors for the last time. The last gig there featured Salmonella Dub, who had played at the opening in 1998.
White was out of a job but, looking at the bigger picture, he considered the closure to be "a huge, massive loss" for Nelson.
He moved on to open the Phat Club in Bridge St, taking many Artery punters with him - those who had been to gigs there as teenagers, and were now 18 and older.
"The people who were there the first night were all the 14-year-olds who first came to the Artery."
There was a failed attempt to turn the space into a one-stop youth venue, with various health support offices as well as a youth performance venue.
Renamed The Hub, it never regained the appeal it had under White's leadership.
In November last year, the council announced that the building was an earthquake risk and had to be demolished, with the site to be turned into a carpark.
There were some efforts to save the Eat Your Art Out facade, but the council said this was not feasible. Its fate, like that of the building itself, looms as an ignominious end.
OBITUARY Born circa 1940; led a varied life as a wool store, shoe factory, community centre, recording studio, dance venue; death by demolition 2014.
Nelson City Council records show that the building was used as a wool store in 1940. It was converted into a Bata shoe factory in 1977, followed by a gym in 1990.
The Nelson Community Arts Centre was set up by the IHC, which wanted a venue for its art classes, and the Nelson Community Arts Council, which wanted a venue for its Tops (Training Opportunity Providers) courses. Dave White was employed as coordinator in 1996.
In late 1997 the Nelson City Council bought the building. It then sold it to the centre, and leased the centre the land the building stood on.
The Artery was officially opened in September 1998, hosting the inaugural Artery Fringe Festival. It kicked off with the first Intergalactic Ball in September, featuring Salmonella Dub.
In 1999 the Eat Your Art Out mosaic was completed and unveiled. In June 1999 the council took over financial control of the centre, where a council-appointed member of the group running it had the power of veto over any spending plans.
Also that year the Artery was subject to noise complaints, and there were fears that it would be shut down due to this.The council served a formal abatement notice on the venue to keep late-night noise down.
In 2001 a man was found dead in a carpark in New St after attending a party at the Artery. A coroner's report showed that he died after taking the drug ecstasy.
In March 2002 Artery manager Dave White signed a lease to open the Phat Club in Bridge St. He planned to work only part-time at the Artery, taking care of gigs, with someone else taking over responsibility for the office and administration work.
In May 2002 the Community Trust cut its funding to the Artery, and the Nelson City Council started investigating whether it had acted in accordance with its funding agreement. The Artery closed, and White lost his job – he opened the Phat Club the following month.
In June 2002 plans were made to turn the Artery space into a one-stop shop for young people. It was reopened and renamed The Hub in October 2002.
By June 2004, most of the services set up in the space had left, and seven of 10 staff had lost their jobs. In November 2013 the council revealed that the building was to be demolished, as it was deemed to be an earthquake risk.