Arts crucial for the rebuild

MORE OF THIS: CityUps lights up Christchurch as part of the Festival of Transitional Architecture.
KIRK HARGREAVES

MORE OF THIS: CityUps lights up Christchurch as part of the Festival of Transitional Architecture.

OPINION: 

Warren Feeney, chairman of Arts Voice Christchurch, reviews the state of the arts in post-quake Christchurch and calls for more planning.

Why are the arts essential to the rebuild of Christchurch and what vision exists for their future in the city? In spite of the increased visibility of the arts throughout the past three years, encouraging residents and communities to return and take part in activities and events in the inner city - the arts are still perceived by the majority of those planning the rebuild as a "nice to have".

Certainly, this opinion was prevalent in the recent state-of-the-arts survey undertaken by Arts Voice Christchurch of more than 300 residents, artists and art workers.

The overwhelming majority believe that the arts are not considered a priority.

Comments included: "'The role the arts can play in involving people in their city is consistently underestimated by those planning the city... [and] the arts are as vital to our city and community as any other initiative and yet appear to have been treated as the poor relation to date".

Over the past three years the arts have time and again demonstrated that they are critical to residents' wellbeing and the inner city's recovery and economy: FESTA, the Christchurch Arts Festival, the Christchurch Art Gallery's Outer Spaces, GapFiller, The Body Festival, Christchurch Pops Choir, Free Theatre, the Court Theatre, the CSO, Scape Public Art and Art Beat - the list is too extensive to identify every event, exhibition or performance.

Yet, the statistics and commentaries from the survey noted significant concern about the lack of consultation by city planners with arts organisations and artists. A senior manager who completed the survey acknowledged this lack of engagement and shared his anxiety about its potential impact on the rebuild:

The clustering of major facilities for arts groups is important. The reality is that the centre of Christchurch will be largely barren with scattered development for a long time (10 years at least). To believe anything else is just wishful thinking. So the clustering of major arts facilities is important to create a vibrant area with some critical mass.

At present, the notion of the arts permanently inhabiting the inner city is problematic. The arts operate within a culture of passive exclusion and an economic environment which removes most arts organisations and artists from considering working in the city.

Expressions of enthusiasm in the survey for the performing arts precinct were qualified by comments that although major arts organisations occupying the precinct were important to its success, they were part of a more complex infrastructure that encompassed other forms of public performance, artist-run-spaces, alternative festivals and street art.

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In principle, the majority of those surveyed (58 per cent) supported arts activities and organisations being clustered, but also acknowledged that smaller organisations in both the inner city and its surrounding environs added significantly to "robust and interesting art".

The survey also revealed the challenges artists and arts organisations still confronted due to a lack of facilities. The absence of spaces that were affordable, available or suitable for rehearsals, performance and exhibitions confirmed that little had changed since February 2011. Over a third of comments identified the absence of spaces as the priority.

Indeed, it seems remarkable that artists and organisations have maintained the quality and diversity of arts events and exhibitions in Christchurch for such a protracted period, often without fundamental resources. The arts' success belies the reality of the absence of a rigorous infrastructure to operate within.

Distances between venues and the fragmented, temporary nature of activities further contribute to delaying recovery and growth.

Of concern is the sense of fragmentation - a loss of infrastructure to provide pathways.

The biggest concern remains that young artists will leave the city.

The long-standing need for facilities must be addressed and part of the answer resides in prioritising the reopening of the Christchurch Art Gallery, the Arts Centre and COCA Gallery.

All three were singled out in the survey as venues for the visual arts, concerts and performances, and - equally important - places for all Christchurch residents to socialise.

Accompanying the reopening of existing facilities was also a call for wider consultation between arts organisations, particularly the larger ones: "CEOs and directors in the arts [must be more] involved and concerned with the wider issues of the rebuild and the role of the arts, rather than just focused on their own organisation."

Unifying all these issues, was the survey's finding that 75 per cent of those surveyed supported the need for a comprehensive arts strategy, integrating the arts into all levels of the community through short, medium and long- term strategies, undertaken by central and local government in consultation with the arts sector.

The arts are a priority for the success of the rebuild.

Arts Voice Christchurch makes three recommendations to be acted upon within the next six months: That an independent economic and social impact study be undertaken with the Christchurch City Council, central Government and the arts sector to document the social and economic impact the arts have made to the city's recovery;

that the Christchurch City Council and central Government, with arts sector representation, advance and resource the development of a new "state of the arts" strategic plan for Christchurch; and,

that the Christchurch City Council and central Government with arts sector representation, advance and resource an arts facilities plan - short, medium and long-term - as part of this broader, new "state of the arts" plan.

Since February 2011 the role of artists and arts organisations in Christchurch has changed significantly. Christchurch has established a unique association and affinity between the people of Christchurch and the arts. The opportunity now exists for all interested parties to capitalise on this relationship and for the city to found a unique and vital identity as a centre for creativity and community engagement.

 - The Press

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