A clear future for COCA
It may be later than anticipated, but it is official. Christchurch's Centre of Contemporary Art (CoCA) is reopening in February 2016.
When it launches its new programme, it will be exactly five years since it closed its doors and part of its collection went into storage, while more than 100 artworks on hire throughout the city became the subject of detective work for the gallery's Board of Trustees.
At a recent public talk at the University of Canterbury, CoCA director Paula Orrell outlined her background in the arts in Great Britain and talked about the gallery's legacy and the next phrase of its history.
Orrell brings international experience in the arts to her role and a level of advocacy for artists' work and public participation in the arts that there are few precedents for in New Zealand. A measure of the success of her previous six years as curator at the Plymouth Arts Centre is evident in her transformation of "a regional arts centre into an internationally acclaimed venue".
CoCA may be 135 years old, but as Christchurch's longest-standing arts organisation (formerly the Canterbury Society of Arts, 1880 – 1996) it retains its potential as the most relevant and dynamic Victorian arts institution of its kind in Australasia.
Orrell spoke of CoCA's ambitions for the gallery as a public space for the "sharing of stimulating art experiences that engage people in conversations".
"Art galleries are places that value people and that's what we want CoCA to be."
She also expressed her commitment to the important role of temporary public art, confirming that the gallery will operate "beyond its walls in public spaces".
"CoCA will be a centre for people curious to visit, and we will also bring that place to people as well. CoCA will represent all forms of art: the visual arts, theatre, performances and film, etc, with opportunities for artists, writers and curators. Artists will be able to use the space to produce new work."
Central to these agendas is her belief that the arts are a means for political commentary and change, addressing environmental issues, racism and social progress. She maintains that the virtue of art is that it is "about looking at the world from a different perspective". "Different value systems are valued by artists."
Orrell has collaborated with British multi-media artist Steven Claydon, who makes work that considers the complexities of how we read art and culture (for example, his assemblage of a fake classical Greek bust that looks as though it could have been both decorated or defiled by Bart Simpson). The spirit of Claydon's art raises serious questions about our perceptions of the arts and also touches upon something of Orrell's ambitions for CoCA to make the visual arts more widely accessible to new audiences.
It also reveals the reason why she maintains that it is important for CoCA to move beyond the space of its Gloucester Street gallery. As a key issue facing all of us in the 21st century, Orrell has commented on the significance of environmental change and how artists engage with such an issue by saying that "it is important that we are able to open up questions by commissioning artists to make new works", citing the example of the River Tamar project in Plymouth in 2012 and her work with international artist Adam Chodzko. His contribution to the River Tamar public art programme in Plymouth explored the history of the area in a work titled Ghost – a kayak created for a rower and passenger who was able to recline flat in the kayak at water's level, taking in a view of the river and bank that invited them to think again about their experience of the river and relationship with it.
Chodzko makes artworks that encourage alternative points of view: "Artists push you, and they should push you and the institutions that you work for. That's what it is all about. It is not about numbers, but people's lives."
For some former members of CoCA with long memories, Orrell's programme may seem out of step with the Canterbury Society of Arts and CoCA's previous exhibition schedule and support for local artists. Yet, Orrell indicates that creating opportunities for local artists remains central to its agenda. "What is the next opportunity for artists? The gallery is about the value of the relationship between artists and curators and the question now is how to formalise a membership scheme for artists." She confirms that this will take the form of education, making works of art, mentoring, meetings, discussion and opportunities for artists to travel and extend knowledge of their arts practice.
Established on June 30, 1880 by prominent Christchurch residents committed to the development of the city's educational institutions, the Canterbury Society of Arts was founded to "promote study in the fine arts, and for the periodical exhibition in Christchurch of original works of art". Its intentions were to support local artists and their careers through exhibitions that brought their work to the attention of the public of Christchurch and New Zealand.
So successful were their ambitions that, by the 1920s, its exhibition openings had become the calendar event of the year for many Christchurch residents, coming together for an important occasion to see new works of art by New Zealand's leading artists. Throughout the 1960s and early '70s, the gallery was nationally recognised as a leading space for contemporary New Zealand art. It offered a liberating alternative for local artists and art supporters frustrated by the conservatism of Christchurch's public gallery.
Orrell's vision for CoCA may be phrased differently, but it shares all the values and convictions that have informed the gallery's history: What is the next opportunity for artists in a gallery in Christchurch concerned with sharing stimulating art experiences that engage people in conversations?
Warren Feeney was director of CoCA between 1999 and 2010.