Spring is here! And somehow the warmer months just seem more conducive to interacting with art, even if the dark, dull days might fuel the romantic image of artists toiling away in coal-heated garrets. In Hawke’s Bay, when the sun comes out, so too do the viewers. And that’s where the magic really happens – when an audience engages, when conversations occur.

Traditionally, February is the golden time for Hawke’s Bay – winery concerts, art deco and almost-guaranteed sunshine – but the schedule looks to be changing. This spring sees the arrival of F.A.W.C! (the Food and Wine Classic), as well as the return of the biennial Cranford fundraisers, the Hospice Holly Trail and the Wildflower Sculpture Exhibition. We could well be witnessing the start of a major new regional visual art tradition too, in the form of EAST2012.

EAST2012: representing the visual arts in Hawke’s Bay

With Creative Hawke’s Bay in a period of reflection, planning, and generally scaled-down operation, Hastings City Art Gallery (HCAG) has taken over responsibility for the regional art exhibition, previously known as the Creative Hawke’s Bay Invitational. The format was ripe for overhaul, and consultation with artists, stakeholders and members of the arts community has provided valuable insight into what changes are needed and what improvements are possible.

Para Matchitt

Full disclosure: I may be slightly biased in my excitement about this new show. Partly because I work part-time at HCAG, but mostly because I love the idea of a more outward-looking, varied exhibition to represent the success and state of the visual arts in our region.

As this goes to print, the final selection of exhibiting artists has not been made by external curator Bill Milbank from Whanganui. I can report however, that on the list of 70ish submitting artists were many names of emerging and lesser-known artists, alongside those more familiar.

This is because the submission process has changed. Previously, specific artists were invited to submit work for selection by the external curator. This resulted in what some saw as a pattern of repetition – the same names being highlighted and celebrated year after year, while new arrivals to the region and emerging artists failed to make the cut through a simple lack of visibility. With EAST there has been an open call to all artists with a significant connection to Hawke’s Bay, whether they’ve exhibited in the Invitational before or not, and whether they’re known to the curator and the gallery or not.

We’re expecting freshness and an increased interest in the show as a result, and also as a result of other changes to the format. A people’s choice award is being introduced. HCAG director Maree Mills remarks that there is huge value for artists in being recognised and honoured by their peers and audience. There will also be potential value for all exhibiting artists if EAST leads on to the East-West art exchange she is hoping for. Curator Bill Milbank, the former long-term director of Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery, who now runs a dealer gallery in the river city, has the right to tour EAST, which will mean increased profile for our artists, and may lead on to a coast-to-coast conversation through regional exhibitions and collaborations.

William Jameson

Maree notes that moving the regional show from an autumn-winter time slot to spring-summer is another way of improving the exhibition and lifting the profile of the artists involved, and the regional arts output in general. “Having EAST open in late October and continue over the Christmas period and into January gives our artists an extended audience. It’s great for them also to be able to share the experience of a major exhibition with visiting family and friends.” For some of the exhibiting artists, this may be their first big show, and to be able to have their work seen by the widest audience possible – which may include some of their own visitors – is a valuable bonus.

One aspect of the regional exhibition that won’t change is the opening night. The local art community knows how to frock up and party, and with the help of wine sponsor Clearview, the EAST gala opening promises to keep the custom alive. Tickets will be on sale in late September.

So with EAST2012 almost upon us, when will we see the follow-up? The short answer is 2014.

Perhaps producing the exhibition annually was one of the problems of the Invitational. It does seem obvious that a biennial show will engender more anticipation and excitement, and probably a more vigorous curatorial approach. As it stands, the HCAG schedule for 2013 is already crammed full of other bold and interesting exhibitions (excuse that bias raising its little head again).

Basically if the public love EAST, if they engage with it, talk about it, come back for second helpings, tell us they want another one, then that’s what they’ll get, and a new tradition will begin. As I mentioned earlier – art is at its finest when it creates a conversation. There is no point putting on an exhibition if no one reacts and responds to it. I’m hoping (and suspecting) this will be one to get us all talking.

The Wildflower Sculpture Exhibition

The other major art event of the season in my book is the third biennial Wildflower Sculpture Exhibition in early November. It runs in association with the Hospice Holly Trail as a fundraiser for Cranford Hospice.

Reliant on volunteer time and labour, and the help of local sponsors, this is an event without the political aspects of a show like EAST, but with its own set of challenges. Further disclosure: I am one of a small group working on this exhibition (which takes place at my family’s home), but then who better to write about it than someone on the inside?

Muff Aitken

Hawke’s Bay has a proud tradition of mixing art with charity causes – think the Winebox Charity Auction and the HB Winegrowers Charity Wine Auction (which often features art – this year it was Ricks Terstappen’s sculpture Still Life with a bit of Red), and this is a trend increasingly seen universally. While I sometimes find myself wondering at the fact that here in the ‘modern’ world, community fundraising is needed for something as essential as palliative care, there is no denying that Cranford provides a fantastic service, and is a cause people are happy to support.

What’s special about the Wildflower Sculpture Exhibition is that it provides the public with an opportunity to support the cause just by turning up and paying the entry price. There’s a certain amount of the feel-good factor at an event where anyone can experience the artwork without the pressure to purchase (although that’s more than welcome). Visitors are donating just by having a great day out.

The exhibition also offers the community the chance to interact with visual art in a setting that encourages shared engagement, shared conversations. The exhibition epitomises spring, as visitors enjoy the outdoor space, in family groups or with friends, and spend hours looking at, talking about and touching fine pieces of 3D art. They have an art experience on a more active level, walking (or golf carting if necessary) through a ten acre canvas of natural art dotted with sculptural art, stopping to take tea or coffee or lunch. And of course, it’s the best time of year to see a garden like this – as it comes into bloom after the starkness of winter. Weather and timing have seen a less-than-perfect field of wildflowers for the last two exhibitions; they did come, but a week or two after the audience. Fingers crossed, Mother Nature plays ball this time around – we’re cautiously confident.

I like to think of the sculpture exhibition as bringing out all the best aspects of art – approachable and engaging work, shared experience, surprise – without the unfortunately ingrained ideas about what and who art is for. Art without gallery walls somehow has a wider appeal, and holding an exhibition in a setting like Round Pond Garden (just south of Hastings) means that there’s plenty of space for an exceptionally wide variation of work. This year for example, we have around 60 artists on board, and they’re presenting work in metal, glass, stone, found materials, ceramics, wood and mixed media. While the list is still in its unconfirmed stage at the time of writing, it looks like there will be art for sale priced from $100 right up into the tens of thousands.

Ricks Terstappen

Artists have commented to me that this exhibition is valuable to them for the chance to show their creations in a setting where there is space for the work to stand alone, unobstructed by other pieces, and because Round Pond Garden, with its various ‘garden rooms’ and thoughtfully designed areas gives prospective buyers the chance to imagine a sculpture in a potential home setting. They also enjoy the challenge of making work that might be site-specific, or at least speaks to the garden environment.

An average of 3,000 viewers for each of the previous exhibitions has to be good for profile too.

But for the organisers and our band of merry volunteers, what’s the motivation? Mostly we do it because it makes us happy. Art brings people together, to experience it, to coordinate it, often to make it. Art lifts us out of our preoccupations with the more mundane minutiae of day-to-day life and makes us think and feel on a different plane. And when a group works together – drawing on individuals’ talents and interests to make a community-benefitting project fall into place and finish with a decent cheque to hand over – there’s something art-like about that too.

I want to live in a region where art happens. A lot of art. It’s clear there are plenty of others who do too, so enthusiastically spending untold hours helping to pull together a show that (hopefully) pumps money into the regional arts sector, adds to the reputation of Hawke’s Bay as an arts destination, brings the community together to celebrate spring and creativity, and raises funds for a much-needed health service.

I’m pretty sure these are the reasons there are countless other groups and individuals working on community art projects and events around Hawke’s Bay and the rest of the country.

But of course, these projects, like more traditional art exhibitions, sit incomplete without an audience to play their part in the dialogue. I hope to see you out and about, partaking in and enjoying Hawke’s Bay’s artistic endeavours over the spring months.

27 October ~ 19 January

Wildflower Sculpture Exhibition
From 7 ~ 11 November

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