The Hastings City Art Gallery (HCAG) is my favourite space in New Zealand for viewing art works. Both the space and the light are sufficiently generous to accommodate the largest contemporary work and yet flexible enough to provide intimate areas for small scale work. It could and should be the jewel in the crown of the Hastings CBD. Sadly, it has not fulfilled that promise.
The staff has been first rate. The Gallery however, (or Hawke’s Bay Exhibition Centre as it was previously called), has been beset with problems, largely out of its control, and has never achieved a real presence in Hastings. While it was under the administration of the Hawke’s Bay Cultural Trust (HBCT) the Centre languished. The Hastings District Council seemed uninterested in it and the Centre always appeared the poor relation of the Hawke’s Bay Art Gallery and Museum in Napier.
Inadequate funding, limited staffing and failure to expand (the original plan has never been completed) have curtailed the quality, variety and rotation of shows at the Centre. People, generally, stayed away from the middle of Hastings. The lack of “street presence” of the Centre has been compounded by poor parking access and an increasingly bleak approach from Eastbourne Street. Putting the café on the Lyndon Road side has further depopulated the Eastbourne Street entrance area, making it even less inviting.
In 2007 the then Exhibition Centre was withdrawn from the Hawke’s Bay Cultural Trust and placed under the administration of the Hastings District Council. Under the stewardship of Keith Thorsen a visionary group was formed to create a new strategic plan for the Centre. This plan (a brilliant and exciting vision for the future) answered criticisms which the McDermott Miller Report of 2000 had made, citing a lack of direction from the Cultural Trust. The plan was adopted by the HDC and, under a new director, the Hastings City Art Gallery was born.
The initial results were positive. The HDC assumed a greater sense of ownership and responsibility toward the Gallery. Maintenance problems have been dealt with promptly and a much needed new colour scheme applied to the building. An energetic and varied programme of exhibitions has seen significant increases in attendance – roughly double this year over last year.
Wonderful, I hear you say. Well, not entirely.
The release of the Council’s Draft Ten Year Plan 2009-19 contained a financial bombshell. It indicated a flat line budget for the next ten years. This same Draft Plan, on another page, stated a commitment to “full implementation of the Hastings City Art Gallery Strategic Plan.”
The justification offered for this inconsistency was the tight, current financial climate. This is not, however, a case of putting things on hold and just ticking over.
Years of neglect have left the HCAG seriously under-developed and under-resourced. Even more seriously it was, I believe, a decision that threatens the actual existence of the gallery, which really is unsustainable at current funding levels.
Much of the success of the last year has been due to extreme efforts by the staff and members of the art community. For example, graphic designers have contributed services either free, or at greatly cut rates. The curator of the outstanding exhibition, “Mind Games: Surrealism in Aotearoa” gave a huge amount of additional, unpaid time sourcing and collecting the artworks for the show. You cannot take professional people for granted like that indefinitely.
Four full time staff is an absurdly small number to run a gallery like this. It invites stress levels that result in staff burn-out and allows little scope for initiating, researching and presenting good shows, let alone fulfilling even some of the aims of the Strategic Plan.
To their credit, Council has graciously acknowledged that a mistake has been made and, so far, some modest increases in funding have occurred. However, I have to question the way that arts funding has been allocated. Included in the Draft Plan is $1,000,000 to the building fund of the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery (HBMAG) in Napier.
The Council does, quite properly, pay an annual sum towards the Museum collection of the Cultural Trust which is housed in Napier. The collection is our history and is our collective responsibility. The $1,000,000 for the building fund, on the other hand, is over and above this. I would normally support this too if I felt that it wasn’t at the expense of Hastings City Art Gallery.
Up until now, the two institutions have been more or less complementary, with HBMAG concentrating on the historical side and HCAG on the major art shows. I see though that the plans for the new HBMAG provide for a comprehensive art gallery. One must ask where will the major art shows like the HB Invitationals go in the future if we have a well resourced gallery in Napier and a severely undernourished one in Hastings?
Maori cultural centre
I would also question if the Council has a clear vision for the proposed Ngati Kahungunu Centre. Hastings is the natural centre for the Kahungunu region and a dedicated cultural centre is overdue. Council thinking at present seems to be aimed at a development separate from the HCAG. Surely a partnership with a Kahungunu Centre based on a flourishing HCAG is a more logical use of resources.
Contemporary Maori culture can be as dynamic and leading edge as any, (just have a look at what happens at Toi Mairangi) and is perfectly compatible with the aims of HCAG. There are precedents of Kahungunu and the Gallery working successfully in partnership. The 2002 “Ka puta, ka moe” exhibition of the 19th century portraits by the Napier photographer, Samuel Carnell, was an outstanding example. There was huge involvement of Kahungunu expertise both in the exhibition and the supporting cultural events. It was a joyous occasion and attendance figures for the first month were six times those of the previous month.
So what can a well-developed art gallery actually do for Hastings?
An Opus International survey 10 years ago asked what people liked most about Hastings. The responses focussed mainly on things outside the city. Hastings, it seems, was like the tin man in “The Wizard of Oz” – lacking a heart. The excellent Council redevelopment of the CBD has certainly improved things, but there is still work to be done. Hastings will never be a “city of the seven hills” or the “Venice of the South,” but it has always had energetic and creative people from the arts community through to business people like Sir James Wattie and our winemakers … and that is our strength.
New Zealanders are becoming increasingly aware and knowledgeable about art. Each year about 1,000 Hawke’s Bay secondary students study art at senior level. We have two full time tertiary art schools and increasingly people are looking to the arts to express community pride and identity.
We don’t have a huge past to focus on in Hastings, but we do have a dynamic present and future. With our full support, a flourishing Hastings City Art Gallery would proclaim our self belief and would provide a heart for our city.