Earlier in the year I was fortunate enough to attend Creative New Zealand’s 21st Century Arts Conference 2012 in Wellington. The theme was ‘building audience capital’. The audience and their needs and wants were at the centre of it all.

Marketing and promotions strategies were explored, funding and philanthropy discussed, audience segmentation explained, and hundreds of great ideas were thrown around for getting the arts into the lives of more New Zealanders, and in more meaningful ways. This was exciting stuff – sharing audiences across genres and art forms, combining marketing resources, growing the online presence.

One major point I took from the conference was the need for arts organisations and venues to stop thinking of neighbouring or related groups and events as rivals, but instead to work together to grow the overall arts audience.

Here in Hawke’s Bay, we already see some of this happening. Creative Napier and Creative Hastings list upcoming events for a wide range of groups online or on paper, brochures promoting the activities of groups are distributed from other venues, and social media makes it easy to share news of say, an art gallery with the audience of a music venue. This is all a good start, and something to work from towards a cohesive way of sharing what’s happening in the arts in the region.

CNZ also reported back to us the results of their triennial survey – New Zealanders and the arts: attitudes, attendance and participation in 2011. Mostly it was positive news. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that 85% of New Zealanders have engaged with the arts in the last year – either by attending or being actively involved. This is only marginally lower involvement than in 2008 (86%), and this small decrease has been attributed to the Christchurch earthquakes.

Speaking of Christchurch, the study also showed that 94% of the Garden City’s residents believe that “it’s important that Christchurch is recognised as a place that supports excellence in the arts”. 90% of Christchurch-based respondents also agreed that culture and the arts have a vital role to play in the rebuilding of the city. A couple more stats you may find interesting: 73% agree that the arts contribute in a positive way to the economy, while 80% agree that the arts help us to define who we are as New Zealanders.

The study is not broken down into regions, but I’d like to think that we’d have a similar response here in Hawke’s Bay, especially given the depth and breadth of artistic pursuits on offer here.

What does our audience say?

In my article in the last edition I made the point that art is not reaching its potential if it’s not being interacted with, experienced, spoken about. Continuing with this idea, I’ve been speaking with audience members about the Hawke’s Bay arts scene – what’s going well, what we’re lacking, what some of the highlights of the last 12 months have been for them.

Napier’s Peter Meyer comments that the arts here are in good shape, with plenty to see and do, and with top talent. He names some favourite artists whose work he follows closely – Ricks Terstappen, William Jameson, Ruth McLean, Jacob Scott. For a longer, though not exhaustive list, see Roy Dunningham’s article on EAST, the new regional exhibition.

Laura Morris (pictured) moved to Hawke’s Bay almost two years ago, having lived in the Bay of Plenty, Wellington, the UK and Melbourne. A keen traveller, Laura investigates what artistic activities, exhibitions, performances, festivals will be on where she’s heading, and often these pursuits will form the agenda for her holidays and adventures. This was the same when she made the move to Hawkes’s Bay in late 2010 with her partner for his work. She hunted out the art galleries and venues that would become her locals, and set about finding more ways to get involved.

Laura Morris at home

Laura is a keen and talented writer, and has been able to further that since her move here. She credits the local arts scene for helping her settle in to a new place. “Less-promoted groups like the writers group at Keirunga and the Hawke’s Bay Live Poets have been so beneficial for me. And why they are not better-known is a mystery to me, especially the Live Poets who have been going for 20 years. Along with the local talent – poets who read original work each month – the group also brings a New Zealand poet to Hawke’s Bay every eight weeks. If you’re someone who needs to have arts and literature in your life, this kind of thing is essential. Plus, they’re a great bunch
of people.”

Laura also regularly visits Hastings City Art Gallery, Paperworks, Black Barn Gallery, and accesses a lot of galleries around the rest of the country online. Part of this is her travel planning, part is looking to buy work to grow her modest collection. She’s not alone in using the internet to get her art fix – the CNZ study tells us that online engagement with the arts continues to increase rapidly. Last year 51% of us watched a performance or viewed visual art online, while only 38% did in 2008.

Two HCAG shows in the last year feature on Laura’s highlight list – the touring exhibition of Pat Hanly’s work, BLAST! and HB-born, Las Vegas-based Matthew Couper’s autobiographical show, Thirty-three. She also rates Napier Operatic Society’s production of Chicago highly, and comments that NOS stands out to her as the bright light in the performing arts here.

Her other highlight is the arrival of Pecha Kucha in Hawke’s Bay. Laura did a great job speaking about New Zealand poetry at the October session, but before that had already come to see Pecha Kucha as “a great alternative cultural feast, where the social networking element – getting to know and understand people in the community better – is just as valuable as the presentations. Social networking, I think, is even more important in the provinces. Getting to know people in order to remain informed seems to be more necessary outside the bigger cities.”

So much, but hard to find

I spoke to Sarah Whiten and John Schiff, who arrived in HB three years ago and who are two of the most active and engaged arts audience members I’ve encountered.

In the last year or so, they’ve attended pretty much everything they’ve had time for. From HCAG exhibition openings and floor talks to Pecha Kucha, the NZ Film Festival, the Royal New Zealand Ballet and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra performances at Napier Municipal Theatre (and the floor talks that proceed), to Oruawharo Opera (magical and seemingly under-promoted opera beneath the stars in the beautiful homestead garden near Otane), the list goes on.

A lecture from the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts, the World Press Photography exhibition at the Photographers Gallery in Napier, the fabulous Black Grace dance company at Lindisfarne College’s auditorium, Ian McKellen at the Opera House, pop-up shows in Birdwood Gallery’s new conservatory exhibition space, local jazz at Clearview and that the Havelock North Community Arts Centre. Phew!

And from all of that richness and diversity, John and Sarah managed to pick their highlights. The premiere screening of local filmmaker Josh Neilson’s film Transcendence at Hastings City Art Gallery made their list. HCAG shows Game On and Multiply also made an appearance, for their edginess and outward-looking attitudes. And although it was a bit over a year ago, last April’s literary festival which featured Annie Proulx alongside major New Zealand writers was a hit for them too. (Preparations are in progress for next June’s HB Readers and Writers Festival, so keep an ear out).

While Sarah and John have delighted in the array of artistic activities on offer here in Hawke’s Bay, they both made the comment that in order to engage in as much as they do, they’ve had to either hear about these events through word of mouth, or very consciously hunt them out. This information has often been difficult to find, they tell me. “Wouldn’t it be great,” John says, “to have one website where all the cultural, artistic and community events were listed together, and that was updated continuously?”

Speaking with them was a great reminder of just how vast and fertile the arts landscape in Hawke’s Bay is, so long as you know your way around it. While the one-stop-shop website remains but an idea, John and Sarah have found that the key to staying informed and therefore managing to see and do as much as they do is getting onto the mailing lists of as many arts organisations as possible.

Hastings City Art Gallery has an active relationship with its database, regularly updating its audience on exhibitions, events and the work of other galleries, and Hawke’s Bay Tourism also sends out events listings for what’s coming up around the region. Other groups do this too, but we do suffer, as John says, from the lack of a centralised news and information hub for the arts.

Still more to come

Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery also promotes the activities of other organisations, and everyone I spoke to is looking forward to the re-opening in August 2013. As Peter Meyer remarks, “Douglas (Lloyd Jenkins, director) has done lots of neat stuff and is trying to build a national following, so I’m looking forward to it being finished and seeing what pops out of the cake.”

With the new and improved HBMAG, and Hastings City Art Gallery to get a probable upgrade as part of Hastings District Council’s Civic Square Redevelopment project, the future of both these major art institutions looks bright for audiences.

The audience at the Hastings City Art Gallery

But of course there is always room for improvement, and for imagining Hawke’s Bay as the best version of itself.
In that scenario, Laura Morris sees us with two or three new, cutting edge dealer galleries, which not only lift the offerings for those of us here, but also for those further afield. “Plenty of Hawke’s Bay businesses are doing well nationally and even globally – why not art? Art as investment is intriguing, and catches so many people’s imaginations. A lot more is possible with the digital age we’re living in. I’d love to see the rise of ‘art as business’ with all the legitimacy that comes with that, rather than art being simply a community pursuit. I think there is room for both.”

Sarah and John agree that there is room for more commercial art activity in the region, broadening to show not only what is produced here, but work from the rest of the country and overseas too.

Also passionate about sculpture, Sarah comments that it would be wonderful to see more 3D work around, perhaps in commercial settings – wineries and restaurants, and more in our public spaces. It would be another way of art becoming more integrated into the wider activities of our towns and cities.

Laura’s other hope for improving the arts scene in Hawke’s Bay comes straight back to us, the audience, “I think audiences, the public, need to take more of a leap of faith, get more into a habit of going to things, visiting exhibitions, attending talks and events.

Art is supposed to challenge us, and I think we should be taking on the challenge of supporting and engaging with the arts as much as we can, because if we don’t, I can only imagine that some of these things are just going to cease to exist. On the other hand, the more of us that get along to shows and plays and talks and everything else, the more the arts will flourish and we’ll have even more to do and see and choose from!”

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