In a region fractured by political and city lines, it often seems as if the Hawke’s Bay arts sector is split too – funded by different councils and schemes, catering to specific groups, largely un-coordinated, and unaware of what one another is creating.

I set out to discover whether or not this really is the case, and to generally ‘take the temperature’ of the Hawke’s Bay arts scene, talking to some of the key players. What I discovered was a generally positive attitude about what we do and where we’re going, but also the need for some significant changes in coming times.

The delta

The HB arts sector is made up of council-funded organisations and institutions, dealer galleries, education providers, Mãori arts initiatives, community groups, volunteer-run events and creative collectives, as well as individual artists trying to make a living.

Radio with Pictures, Fane Flaws, video installation (Game On Exhibition, HCAG, 2011)

Maree Mills, director at the Hastings City Art Gallery for the last four years, provides an evocative image to ponder. She sees the regional arts scene as an echo of the wider landscape, a delta which both feeds the province, and is nourished by its inhabitants. It’s made up of countless disparate waterways which connect and disconnect from each other, pull in different directions, but ultimately flow along a similar route.

And feed the province it does. Mills comments that in the last four years, visitor numbers at the gallery have grown year upon year, and while there is a core audience present at exhibition openings and public programmes, there are larger numbers of interested people attending specific events, and these visitors come from broad and varied backgrounds.

In a time of potential large-scale changes at Creative New Zealand and Te Waka Toi in terms of funding and project delivery, it’s clear that we’re in for an uncertain few years. She cites her delta metaphor as a way to explore better ways to work together, especially in a time of economic difficulty.
An overall arts structure in Hawke’s Bay is something most in the arts sector say is missing, and while there is room for everyone in Mills’ delta, the time has come for more unification.

EIT School of Visual Arts and Design head, Dr Suzette Major agrees. “Hawke’s Bay is genuinely at a turning point in the arts,” she says. She believes the recent-ish injection of new blood into the sector – Roger King at Creative Hawke’s Bay, Malcolm Calder at Creative Hastings, Maree Mills and Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, the establishment of Film Hawke’s Bay – is complementing the more established community, and falling together nicely, but it’s time now to re-focus.

Dr Major sits on the board of Creative Hawke’s Bay, which is in itself at a turning point. Currently she and fellow board members see their role as getting the conversation going. “We’re doing this on a small scale with Pecha Kucha, and on a much larger scale by looking towards a broad regional ‘State of the Arts’ hui.” Coming together and switching from an individual point of view to a more holistic one won’t be easy, she says, “…the very different agendas and egos will have to be left at the door, and it will be hard not to remain protective over one’s own or a group’s patch.” But the benefits will outweigh the compromises she believes, and make us a stronger arts sector overall.

From a community arts point of view, Barbara Daniel from Keirunga – The Creative Hub, agrees a central, over-arching organisation is needed. Whether that will be a new incarnation of Creative Hawke’s Bay remains to be seen, but there does, she remarks, need to be somewhere we can all look to find out what’s on, what’s coming up, and to get information on funding streams and other assistance available.

Daniel agrees with the delta analogy, and sees her organisation slotting in comfortably with others in the region. Keirunga artists often exhibit at the Creative Hastings-run Community Arts Centre Gallery and involve themselves in various other exhibitions.

Design students at EIT

And as the membership numbers continue to grow and awareness flourishes, Keirunga now has a much more visible role in Havelock North and the wider Hawke’s Bay community.

Lack of unity

A lack of unity seems to be what’s restricting the performing arts in this region from reaching its potential too.

Lionel Priest from Theatre Hawke’s Bay notes that, “In order to survive, structural change will be inevitable.” An amalgamation of two earlier groups, the Hastings Musical Comedy Company and the Hastings Group theatre, Theatre HB is a smaller example of how compromising and pulling together works. The goal of any volunteer-driven theatre group like this is always to remain self-sufficient, and Theatre HB is managing this, though a bigger consortium will be necessary down the line. The performing arts scene here is healthy overall, Priest says, but that’s brought about in part by the lift in expectations and productions because of the competition between groups. While this is working for now, it’s not sustainable long-term in a region of our size.

Malcolm Calder took up the position of manager at Creative Hastings last year, and came with a background in performing arts in Australia and the Waikato. The Opera House is an absolute jewel, he says. What it is missing is a theatre company to use it. What would it take for that to happen? A charismatic leader, says Calder, a community with more disposable income, and a business environment more amenable to sponsorship.

This has long been a challenge faced by the arts. While HCAG, HBMAG, Creative Hastings, Creative Napier, Keirunga and several other groups are supported partially or in full by councils, a marriage between the business sector and the arts is a missing link in the equation. The problem is, Calder says, that it’s very difficult for the arts to provide quantitative measures and assurances for sponsors.

Growing artists

Another challenge faced by the theatre groups and the wider arts sector is the task of keeping new, young participants coming through. Priest comments that while young people who stay in Hawke’s Bay and move from school theatre into community groups continue to benefit their companies, they do so almost completely as performers, rather than as administrators or organisers.

Aging population generalisations aside, the lack of younger participants at exhibition openings, HB Live Poets evenings, the writers’ festival, and in theatre audiences is quite noticeable. This contrasts starkly with the activity of our two tertiary art education providers, EIT’s School of Visual Art and Design and Te Wãnanga o Aotearoa’s Toimairangi. While Hawke’s Bay might not be producing loads of fresh, young consumers of arts and culture, these two institutions are certainly turning out the practitioners.
Sandy Adsett, head of Toimairangi, says that students are encouraged to identify themselves though their art as Mãori. Anyone visiting the onsite gallery in Hastings can see the quality coming through. Last year’s exhibition Wresting With Spirits at Hastings City Art Gallery, curated by Adsett and featuring Mãori artists (many of them Toimairangi graduates) who have exhibited at Canada’s iconic Spirit Wrestler Gallery was a hit. Through the relationship Toimairangi has with Spirit Wrestler – a leading contemporary fine art gallery which represents master Inuit, Northwest Coast and Mãori artists – students and graduates are encouraged to explore wider notions of cultural identity and other contemporary indigenous art cultures.

Not all of the students are young, says Adsett. Established artists are among Toimairangi’s annual degree intake, returning to formal education to gain the qualifications that match an already successful career.

Dr Suzette Major says a change in societal attitudes is at the root of a gradual shift towards more interest in an arts education. EIT’s art school has had full rolls in 2011 and 2012, and prospective students are applying in May for the following year. One third of their students come from outside Hawke’s Bay, and the programme at EIT is becoming one of the most desirable in the country. This is bound to increase further with the newly redeveloped degree programme, which would be New Zealand’s first completely project-based degree course.

Major sees the creative industries as our way out of the recession. “Film, fashion, all areas of design – these industries have the capability of leading us to economic recovery.” And if this ends up being the case, she’s sure her graduates will be a part of it. She and her staff work to make sure their students are “strong, worthy and confident in their technical skills, but most importantly, that they are able to think creatively and work collaboratively.” Maree Mills adds to this that the notion of specialising in paint or printmaking or any other branch of the visual arts is fading. The trend towards the multi-disciplinary means that painters become ‘2D artists’, new technologies must be adopted, and artists are more often doing ‘bread and butter work’ using different media.

Looking outward and forward

One of our best-known artists is a true multi-disciplinarian. Fane Flaws moved to Hawke’s Bay in 2002 to focus full-time on making art, after a varied career in music, design, film and publishing. What does he make of the development of the arts scene here? “It’s pretty positive really. I’ve been well-supported, I have lots of buyers here.” While the arts enjoy significant support from the locals, you have to remain outward-looking if you’re going to make a living from your art, he says, a sentiment echoed by most of the others I spoke to. “If you had to survive off selling your art totally in Hawke’s Bay, you’d be f****d.”

Local art commentator Roy Dunningham observes that “While there are lots of talented artists working here in the Bay, there’s just not the population base to support that through sales.” And not only are the sales vital to an artist making it financially, they’re also needed to keep artists’ confidence alive.
He also notes that the public art galleries have an extremely important role in that they don’t just show local artists’ work, but that they also present work from outside Hawke’s Bay, which challenges both the audiences and the artists to continue to look outwards, and keep perspective.

EIT’s art school has had full rolls

Flaws sees a general gradual improvement in the art coming out of Hawke’s Bay. The annual regional exhibition (formerly the Creative HB Invitational, recently re-branded as EAST) continues to show high quality and varied work. There are still improvements needed in our public art however. “It’s the same old faces,” remarks Flaws. “I’d like to see more of Para Matchitt’s work, and more work from emerging artists.”

This is an opinion shared by Sandy Adsett, who comments that investment needs to be made in emerging artists. Even if the work isn’t top-notch yet, it still needs to be supported, or else how will our emerging artists move forward? “Sometimes, the big picture is made up of a whole lot of smaller pictures, and investment is needed in these smaller pictures.”

HBMAG’s Douglas Lloyd Jenkins echoes Fane Flaws’ remarks about our lacking public art, and states that major contemporary sculpture is something we’re missing. Challenging examples of public art inject energy into a place, and it’s a certain energy that Lloyd Jenkins feels we’re lacking. When HBMAG re-opens next year, he says, it will hopefully provide this vigour. A dynamic and varied opening programme, as well as more focus on music, theatre and film, will hopefully lead to more locals feeling a sense of ownership for the institution.

For such an event-driven region, he adds, what we are really lacking is a combined arts festival. Is this something that could come out of the redevelopment of Creative Hawke’s Bay, or an equivalent organisation? Lloyd Jenkins doubts it, observing, “A festival rises usually from one person having a drive.”

Creative Hastings’ Malcolm Calder agrees that a festival of arts would be great for Hawke’s Bay, adding that there are already numerous successful events being staged regularly, “but it’s in a piecemeal, fragmented fashion.” From a funding point of view, this seems like the type of undertaking that would be impossible while finances are channelled in so many different directions. Roy Dunningham notes that a broad, regional event would be ideal for giving the arts here a heightened national profile, but says he’s pessimistic about this and most other efforts to combine resources happening while the councils are still so divided.

Still, it’s a challenge for Hawke’s Bay’s resident art mavens – practitioners and consumers alike – to consider.

And it sits alongside the various other challenges facing the arts in our region – unification within the arts sector, corporate support, more youth participation. We’re heading in the right direction, but to keep pushing forward for the benefit of the wider regional community, change will be needed in the coordination and leadership of the arts sector.

Watch this canvas!

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