I’ve been asked to write about what the Hawke’s Bay arts and cultural sector most needs. At the same time I’ve been given instruction that I’m not to mention the Hawke’s Bay Museum & Art Gallery.
Setting my mind to the task, I can think through a whole list of events or new institutions that would bring something new and dynamic to the Bay experience.
Some of these have been mentioned before, or are in development – a locally based dance company, a dedicated Hastings Museum, a showcase contemporary Marae, a Ngãti Kahungunu Cultural Centre, a big all-embracing Hawke’s Bay Art Festival or a branch Guggenheim at Te Awanga.
Although all of these might be good ideas, the question remains where would the initial funding come? Whose pot of money would be required to make these projects real? Sure a serious arts festival to the late summer calendar would be a great boon to local business. A big glossy international art museum would transform Hawke’s Bay the same way it has both Bilbao and Hobart (via MONA).
However what the local sector most requires doesn’t require funding but something far more difficult to achieve – a radical change of attitude.
I would like to suggest that a little grassroots rebuild of the way we think about the arts might be the first step to achieving some of our more visionary projects.
‘Sunshine breeds complacency’ – I’ve written that line before in reference to local creative production. We all know that in the sun it is easier to avoid any serious work. What draws people to life in Hawke’s Bay is climate and this means we need to work doubly hard at the requirements of art and culture making. Why? Great creativity, and therefore great art, tends to come from sources that are less than sunlit.
Cities similar in climate to Napier or Hastings (Brisbane or Los Angles come to mind) have to work hard to maintain a presence in the global world of ideas. They’ve done this by inventing events and institutions that draw the attention of the world and by ensuring their artists remain exposed to the rigors of this wider world.
So, how hard are local artists working on resisting an afternoon spent sitting in the sun? How well are they doing maintaining a presence in the global world of ideas? How well are we doing at monitoring outputs and where necessary offering the right type of support?
EAST 2012, currently on show at Hastings Art Gallery is a fine well-executed project delivering exactly what it sets out to do – providing a showcase for local artists – something art galleries have done for years. At the same time the exhibition is a little suffocating, because the conversational and intellect routes it traverses are simply too well travelled. There is too much that has been predigested and packaged and too little that innovates or experiments. Then without intending to, iShowcase1, in the gallery next door, sets students up with the same map to the same destination – a trip to the cul-de-sac of local art.
As I said before, EAST 2012 represents something provincial art galleries have been doing for years – supporting local artists by putting them in front of local audiences.
However, although local artists producing for local markets is a concept that might work well on artisan food stalls, it can have a devastating effect on the visual and performing arts, because it eventually produces a certain oppressive airlessness which stifles innovation.
The artists in EAST 2012 divide into those that live here and those who left Hawke’s Bay after a formative period. This second group gets an invite because in their absence they were able to establish themselves as artists with national reputations. Although an inherently generous gesture, this invitation presents a problem.
Although some artists are required to have met the national criteria, the other half gets a pass (at least to the selection process) based solely on their address. The end result is that two different criteria are in operation. This is partially moderated by the guest selector – but no selector with a large gallery to fill ever gets to make the reductive choices they’d really like to make.
This is not a review of EAST 2012, nor a critique of the practices of Hastings City Art Gallery which I admire. It is simply that EAST 2012 provides the current illustration that the local art scene is not as strong as we’d like to believe. This occurs in part because too many Hawke’s Bay artists are choosing to occupy the seemingly privileged but ultimately destructive position defined by the term ‘local artist,’ rather than pushing on to the next level of practice.
Hawke’s Bay audiences, on the other hand, are still operating in a mode where participation in the arts at any level seems in itself somehow interesting. The closer to hand that artist might be, the more deserving of our support. This is not a healthy relationship. It doesn’t encourage artists to look outside their own geographical communities for inspiration or support. It allows too many artists to spend their afternoons in the sun.
Participation and contribution are two different things. Support for the arts is most effective when delivered into the broader culture, by exposing both the maker and the audience to ideas, than it is when delivered to individual artists in the form of personal publicity.
It is hard for many to see, but a local artist should have no more expectation of seeing their work hung in the city gallery or purchased for a public collection, than the local plumber has to expect to fix the art gallery’s pipes. That an artist lived at a particular time at a particular address doesn’t stand up well when standing in front of a bad painting, and as time passes the decision seems weaker still. Building a culture requires some tough decisions and some even tougher omissions.
In the days when representational landscape painting dominated galleries, a local artist was almost defined as someone who painted local scenes. There was an argument then for regional art. Geoffrey Fuller’s Pastorale (1971) is a stylish, ironic and representative image of the region. It is in its own small way great art – illustrated by its frequent use and appearance. However, this type of art belongs to a particular period. In the early 21st century the demand for works of this sort has now largely evaporated. No one outside the regions talks about ‘regional art’ much anymore.
However, art changes. Indeed it is constantly changing. The one thing that doesn’t change is that the production of good art is extraordinarily hard work.
The question we need to ask ourselves is, if the term ‘local artist’ simply exists as a free pass, then what would we lose by eliminating the term from our lexicon? What if we expected resident artists to prove their relevance both locally and nationally?
Writers are called writers because the language they work in is universal. New Zealand writers are called so because that is the literary culture they reflect. The term local writer – means something unconnected in anyway to notions of reach, impact or quality that you would expect of a New Zealand writer. The term local writer should always set off alarm bells in any serious reader. A local writer can transition into the next group, but it means sitting a test in which the examination paper is set externally.
As it stands we are setting our sights too low, we are too ready to make excuses and to provide publicity for any local artist or performer. We are still happy that artists are willing to ‘have a go’ and pleased just to be able to say we have a ‘creative sector.’
The irony of EAST 2012 is that it illustrates that any Hawke’s Bay artist has to step outside, at least for a while, in order to best reflect the creative potential of the region.