State of art in Christchurch

CHRISTOPHER MOORE
Last updated 10:50 24/08/2014
jenny harper
JENNY HARPER: Christchurch Art Gallery director.
sophie bannan
SOPHIE BANNAN: "There's an energy in this place; a rising sense of creativity. There is not much gallery space but there's a lot of other spaces available."

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Christchurch's arts community is fighting for its survival. Christopher Moore reports.

You'd be excused for viewing it as work-in-progress; a city where scaffolding and earthmovers have smothered the creative spirit in a blanket of dust.

But never underestimate the resilient nature of art. Christchurch's cultural life has taken a battering but it's slowly pushing its way through through four years of dislocation and destruction. Perhaps it never quite disappeared. Even during the earthquakes, artists were drawing, painting and interpreting the anguish and shock which surrounded them.

Christchurch's arts community is now re-inventing itself. It's a collective work in progress. A symphony orchestra performs Mahler in an air force museum while the national opera company sings Puccini in a basketball stadium and a professional theatre presents drama in a transformed former grain store. Art has moved outside the gallery walls and onto the street. Gaps (and there are still many) accommodate impromptu dance floors and discarded refrigerators house community libraries. Wall art injects a certain urban edge while the Christchurch Art Gallery is forming new partnerships with the community.

A new generation of young artists have arrived, eager to taste the challenge and inspiration promised by the shock of the new. Sophie Bannan is one of them. The 25-year-old has returned following a seven year absence which saw her gain a bachelor of fine arts from Auckland University before launching her career as an artist in Auckland and Melbourne. The former St Andrews College student is home to pursue a masters degree while creating art in the community she grew up in.

"There's an energy in this place; a rising sense of creativity. There is not much gallery space but there's a lot of other spaces available," she says.

"I sense that Christchurch is eager to see art."

Bannan recently signed a lease on a gallery and artists' space on Bealey Avenue. Run in partnership with two fellow artists, the new gallery will open next month.

"This is an exciting time, especially for artists. Some people seem so pessimistic about Christchurch's future but there's so much to look forward to ... and artists will play a major role in the rebuild." Bannan is not alone. Attend any exhibition opening these days and you are immediately aware of the number of younger faces. Some are practising artists, others are a new breed of cultural entrepreneurs.

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Five years ago, Christchurch's role as a cultural and artistic leader was challenging Auckland and Wellington's cultural leadership. The city, home to artists like Rita Angus, Bill Sutton and Colin McCahon was experiencing it's own artistic spring. Theatre, the visual arts, dance and music were flourishing alongside events like the Christchurch Arts Festival and the SCAPE biennale of contemporary public art.

The Christchurch Art Gallery's sleek glass façade sheltered one of New Zealand's best public art collections. A mesh of dealer galleries and small studio spaces occupied the central city. With help from the Christchurch City Council, the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra was finally moving into a new home in the former Salvation Army Citadel on Victoria Square. The Court Theatre and its partner The Forge were breaking new theatrical ground while smaller amateur groups like the Repertory Theatre and Christchurch Free Theatre drew large audiences. Christchurch was shrugging off its fusty, conservative and culturally unadventurous reputation. Then, in a handful of seconds, everything changed.

For the director of the Christchurch Art Gallery (CAG), Jenny Harper, these are still testing times. Major structural repairs and renovations have closed the CAG until late 2015. But the closure has also given the CAG time to think about its future in a new city, especially attracting a new audience and generation.

While the resurgence of new creativity is mostly positive, Harper believes that the city is still reeling from what she describes as a "phenomenal and profound cultural hit."

"You can't minimise the trauma that comes from the absence of a breath of culture from our lives. But neither can you be totally pessimistic. Buckets of hope are needed if you stay here," she says.

"We have seen exciting new projects since the earthquakes - including the CAG's Open Spaces programme which is widely acknowledged nationally and internationally. Some amazing things have happened in Christchurch but the breadth is still missing. The art of the moment in Christchurch is unquestionably architecture. But architects must endorse and ensure architecture which will make Christchurch feel like a city again."

Creative New Zealand was among the first government agencies to arrive in Christchurch after February 22, 2011. It continues in the role of funder, adviser and arts advocate.

For its chief executive, Stephen Wainwright, the old rulebooks have been discarded in order to deal with an unprecedented situation. "Creative New Zealand had to be engaged with an unprecedented situation. We quickly became aware that we had to be more nimble in our response."

Christchurch has confronted the loss of most criteria linked to a thriving arts sector including places to deliver art or perform in and the audiences to engage with.

"While many of those criteria were thrown out of the window by the earthquakes, we've become aware that whenever individuals and organisations have had autonomy, they are now mostly in a good space. The Court Theatre, for example, went out and developed a new theatre. It's currently breaking all box office records."

"We're aware from our research that Christchurch is now hungry for art and the arts. Despite challenges ranging from traffic and difficult roads to changed venues, audiences and artists are making the best of the situation because the arts are still important to them."

Wainwright's perception appears to be supported by the findings of a survey by the Christchurch-based arts organisation, Art Beat which questioned 150 people in the Re-Start mall during a series of three weekends in 2013-14. It revealed that 22 per cent were visiting for an arts related experience while 70 per cent "strongly believed" that the arts were central to the rebuilding of the central city.

Wainwright believes that those delivering culture confront the reality of making many decisions on how they will deliver now while planning for the future. "This will be a marathon. For most it's not a matter of self-interest but how what their art and creativity fits into the realities of this transitional period." The need for a dialogue between the different individuals and organisations is another imperative, he says. The future of the proposed performing arts precinct is high on the list questions confronting the city's arts community. While Wainwright sees this as a key space in activating the central city, he hasn't seen anything which clarifies who is in overall charge of the project.

"It would be good to re-ignite the discussion," he says.

While the arts precinct remains a work in progress, two other projects symbolise the slow cultural re-birth. The Isaac Theatre Royal is scheduled to re-open its doors to audiences later this year after a major rebuild and renovation.

The second is the Christchurch Arts Centre. The historic complex suffered extensive structural damage in both the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes but quickly became the focus of an ambitious repair and restoration project. "The Arts Centre lies at the centre of rebuilding Christchurch's cultural heart - we feel very strongly about that. While it expresses hope in the future, it's also a tangible sign that this project is making a difference. It's currently the largest restoration project in the world. It's also a remarkable opportunity to return something to the people of this city," according to the chairwoman of the Arts Centre Trust Board, Jen Chisholm.

She describes the transitional period as "a thought-provoking and somewhat rebellious time which should be embraced - and perhaps reapplied - to the rebuilt city."

Public Art is among the arts organisations which have retained a highly visible presence in Christchurch with a catalogue of contemporary public art. "The availability of open spaces means that SCAPE received more attention since the earthquakes. Collective projects by the Christchurch Art Gallery, SCAPE, Gap Filler and other independent groups has generated a sense of energy, drive and enthusiasm," SCAPE's director, Deborah McCormick, says. The highest priority for the arts community is the establishment of formalised collective plan for the arts which can weave the threads of local and national government's cultural policies with those of the arts community.

"We must get a plan going to build on the momentum and groundswell which have already begun. The political will is there but we could so easily lose this opportunity."

The city council, central government and the private sector should develop "robust and stimulating visionary plans" for the arts.

"This is certainly one of the most exciting times in my career. But the big question is how we sustain this spirit to retain a cultural presence in the central city."

McCormick is touching on one of the central issues confronting Christchurch's arts sector. Many artists left Christchurch after losing a swathe of affordable studio spaces in CBD in the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes.

If it had continued, the exodus would have had a disastrous effect on the city's artistic life. Gradually new studio and exhibiting spaces reappeared but a significant number of artists continue to work outside the central city.

"When the rebuild is completed, rents for suitable studio space will probably be too high to ensure that artists can work here," McCormick says.

"But there will be many buildings which won't have 100 per cent occupancy. Owners might perhaps consider providing spaces for a peppercorn rental where artists could have a studio or gallery. It would be mutually beneficial."

Consideration could be also given to letting a percentage of the capital costs involved in a new building could be used to provide a painting, a sculpture or artwork for public view.

Lara Strongman's recent appointment as the Christchurch Art Gallery's senior curator followed a long personal and professional involvement with the city's arts. She senses a desire to turn from the transitional towards some sense of permanence. The arts will continue to change and re-invent themselves.

"A cultural and creative vein runs through everything we've experienced. The barriers between people have come down.

"Christchurch's cultural sector now faces the challenge of extending that energy and commitment into the rebuilt city rather than return to the old siloed ways of doing things."

Strongman remembers a painting by Colin McCahon, part of the Christchurch Art Galley collection. Across the bottom of the brooding pre-dawn landscape, McCahon wrote what might be seen as a message to Christchurch.

"Tomorrow will be the same but not as this."

- The Press

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