Culture focus is missing

SPORTING CHANCE: Gerry Brownlee mural at New Brighton mall.
SPORTING CHANCE: Gerry Brownlee mural at New Brighton mall.

The Minister of Earthquake Recovery shared a vision with us this week. For Lo, Gerry Brownlee looked to the east and saw a recreational watercourse with water sports and a multitude of fluid recreational opportunities. He turned then to the west and saw a covered sports arena, a sports precinct and a city which was destined to be New Zealand's capital of sports.

The vision pleased Our Gerry, especially the opportunities for polished advertising campaigns, slick promotional deals and much kudos for the Government.

However much you criticise Brownlee, he's a man with an innate grasp of what the New Zealand public like - and without mincing words, we like sport. It's the stuff which fuels this nation. . . and wins elections. New Zealand's appetite for sport is insatiable. We'll obsessively play it or or watch it. We'll talk about sport to the exclusion of all else. Raise sport over the dinner table or at the Christmas barbecue and watch an evening's conversation flow like a ball kicked by Our Dan from the halfway line.

Raise contemporary New Zealand art or the latest production at the Court Theatre and observe as the conversation wilts like the New Zealand league team playing Australia. It's not that we are an unintelligent, unattuned race of Philistines. Well, not all of us. It's simply that a deep distrust of anything resembling an intelligent and informed awareness of matters cultural is so deeply ingrained in the New Zealand psyche that it's immovable. We cling to the legacy of a 19th colonial society where pragmatism and practicality meant survival and ideas and creativity was unnecessary baggage; something definitely not wanted on the collective voyage towards the brave new world.

Australians are as fanatical about their sport as we but they appear to have achieved a satisfactory balance between sport and the arts. It's a cultural thing; a question of maturity; and a recognition that there's more to life than a sporting event.

New Zealanders have a long way to go when its highest cultural achievements are hobbits and a 17-year-old pop diva. That's why Gerry Brownlee's vision of the new Christchurch as New Zealand capital of sport - is badly skewed and unfortunately timed, especially when the city's arts community is still struggling to stand after the past three years.

Promote sport by all means. Encourage it, support it. But at the same time maintain and sustain Christchurch's creative spirit. After three years, and despite valiant attempts to revive them, the arts in this city give every indication of suffering from inertia; caught in a vacuum of their own making.

Instead of engaging our minds in some grandiose "city of sports" or a still undetermined and vaguely developer field arts precinct, shouldn't we be dealing with the real challenge of providing Christchurch with a concrete idea of the role its arts and cultural activities will play now and in the future? Instead of funding arts organisations on an ad-hoc basis, shouldn't the City Council be taking a wider view instead of playing one group against another?

It's time for the various sectors of the arts community to come together to present a strong, unified picture of what the arts need and want from local and national government, rather than nattering to themselves in dark corners. The scattergun approach might bring about results for the few but it will not benefit anyone in the long term.

The bottom line is that, three years on from February 22, 2011, this city and community still lacks a clear cultural focus, especially for its visual arts. The Christchurch Art Gallery is closed for repairs until 2015 and the painfully slow progress in reopening the Centre Of Contemporary Art as a temporary base for the CAG is frustrating. Jenny Harper and her staff have mounted a stalwart battle to keep the CAG firmly in the public eye but even a year is a long time to wait for a city whose much-loved art collection remains a silent and invisible earthquake.

If visions of sporting prowess can be raised from the liquefaction and empty streets of eastern Christchurch, why can't similar imaginative and innovative thought be applied to giving the city a visible and significant cultural and artistic hub until, perhaps even beyond, the time that the CAG opens its doors again?

If they continue to simply muddle through with the Micawber'ish dream that something will turn up, the arts, artists and the city could find themselves up a muddy creek in a leaky kayak without a paddle.

This is a regular weekly column by Press arts commentator Chris Moore.

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