Strategy? What strategy? This was the question asked by many of the estimated 30-40 participants who filed into the Christchurch Art Gallery auditorium last month to discuss the Christchurch City Council’s (CCC) new art strategy and to help create, said art forum organisers, consultation and engagement company Brown Bread, “some last-minute energy around this important strategy.”
Why last-minute? Deadlines for submissions on the new strategy were due to close on 27 August but it soon became clear many involved or interested in the arts had no idea a strategy was even being developed. Now, as a result of the arts forum, Mary Richardson, general manager of citizens and community at the Christchurch City Council, has extended the deadline to 10 September. That is next Monday, just four days after the eighth anniversary of the 2010 earthquake.
Why important? The Council’s Arts Policy and Strategy and Art in Public Places Policy have not been updated since 2001 and 2002 respectively. Even if they were on the council to-do list, the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 ripped apart the pre-existing art order. The Christchurch Art Gallery, the Arts Centre and CoCA gallery were closed. Art venues and dealer galleries were shut or relocated. Despite their successes, popular creative initiatives such as Gap Filler and Festa were looking precarious as the rebuild swung into slow action. A lack of studio space was raising fears young artists would flee. Some did.
In 2011 Arts Voice was set up with representatives from Christchurch Arts Festival, SCAPE, CPIT (now Ara), the Free Theatre, The Court Theatre, Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and the Christchurch School of Music to advocate for the arts in post-earthquake Canterbury and to encourage a new strategy “that secures the arts as an essential part of the new city”.
Arts Voice (deregistered as a charity in February last year) commissioned a survey. Three-quarters of the reported “more than 300 residents, artists and art workers” said they wanted a comprehensive long-term vision and strategy for the arts in Christchurch, citing a continuing lack of affordable spaces for the arts, the fragmented presence of arts organisations and the limited capacity to nurture professionalism.
In the meantime, in 2012, the Christchurch Arts Audience Development Trust was set up by – yes, another long institutional list: Canterbury Museum, Christchurch Art Gallery, Christchurch Arts Festival, Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, Dance and Performance, SCAPE Public Art, Word Christchurch, Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism and New Zealand IceFest to develop audiences for the arts and culture in post-earthquake Canterbury. In 2013 it commissioned its own survey. Despite a high rate of cultural engagement – 85% of the population has been culturally active since the earthquake – it found our rate of engagement had fallen below the national average.
Will this be fixed by a strategy? As Philip Aldridge, former head of The Court Theatre now chief executive at the Arts Centre, told the arts forum last month, most artists would run a mile at the mention of the word.
But art strategies are now core council business, usually couched in generic terms about valuing the arts, recognising their economic contribution to the city, building a unique cultural identity and encouraging more people to participate. The CCC says its new arts strategy will map out the necessary steps for Christchurch to be “an innovative and exciting place to live, where our creativity helps us reach our potential.”
According to Brown Bread’s Lizzie Davidson, the city has been through a period of great change and upheaval, “but we don’t want that to define us forever so there’s a hunger for – well, what now? How will we define ourselves in the future? A new arts strategy taps into that hunger.”
The Council now has a new steering group to develop the strategy and a working party to guide community engagement, both comprising representatives from local and central government, local iwi and arts and academic institutions. Since submissions for the strategy opened on 9 July, eight workshops have been held and some 200 individuals and organisations have given feedback. It says four themes have emerged from these: the arts are central to telling our stories, connecting us to our past and to this place; the arts bring life to our city; the arts make a real difference in people’s everyday lives; the arts underpin a creative and innovative city. No surprises there.
But feedback at the recent arts forum reiterated calls not only for more arts funding (in 2015, the Council cut the Christchurch Art Gallery’s annual acquisition fund from $250,000 to $80,000; this year it cut its annual funding of the public art advisory group) but also for the need to look beyond the funding organisations already engaged in the strategy.
Thus far, the council has struggled to communicate with practitioners and younger participants in the arts. This was reflected in the under representation of younger artists and students at the recent forum. A common feedback was, “Why aren’t there any young artists in the room?” and from many younger attendees: “I had no idea this was happening until Brown Bread emailed me.” Which begs the question, how does CCC reach the full breadth of the community beyond the large organisations being represented? And furthermore, will this strategy accurately represent the full range of art practices? Or will it privilege others? Where is the representation for such disciplines as literature and traditional crafts? And does it make allowances for the arts being a place of criticality? Brown Bread noted from the forum, “The group noted that it may be challenging to have consensus from a diverse group of artists on a strategy for the arts, but while we may disagree on the implementation of the strategy, we can aim for an agreement on its overarching goals.”
This is important. If an arts strategy is to have any real value, if it is to be used by the Council to make funding decisions with due cognisance of the professional and many unprofessional initiatives necessary for a dynamic and inclusive city, it will need more input. Not just the well-crafted submissions from the capitalised institutions listed above but the thoughts and ideas of artists, writers, performers, venue and gallery operators and those who simply value the work they offer. The clock is ticking. The deadline closes on Monday. You can have your say here.
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