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A Marine Volcano, A Regional Museum, and 17 Creative Guests

08 Apr 2019
Whakatane Museum’s Earth-shaking Artist-in-Residence Programme and the Return on Imagination

It was late 2017 when an idea began to swirl around the Whakatane Museum administrative offices. My small team and I started thinking about about re-inventing our rather dusty old institution, how we might connect with new creative forces outside our community, and how to find new ways we celebrate our unique heritage and sense of place in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. Things were a bit too stale—and we needed a good swirl of ideas and inspiration. We wanted a museum that was a vibrant, fresh, living place. We wanted to clear the dust and build an institution that actively fosters cultural identity, engages with creative process, and resonates across Aotearoa. 

And then Whakaari—the active marine volcano 48 kilometers offshore—spoke to us like a giant pop of subterranean energy. Create the Southern Hemisphere’s only volcanic residency for artists and cultural managers it said.  The giant rock that Captain Cook called White Island was boiling with inspiration and new creative potential. We listened, and at the museum the questions began to flow.

What might happen if we invited creative people from all over the world, hosted them at the heart of Whakatane for a month or two, and provided opportunities to visit New Zealand’s only active offshore volcano? What if we built a programme around White Island/Whakaari and the guest-host relationship, and allowed artists to immerse themselves in our geothermal landscapes, yellow sulphur vents, rusty ruins, and earth-shaking crater lakes?  

The collections team brought their own ideas: Could we give artists access to the museum collection? What if we facilitated their research and investigations of heritage, local environment, industry, whakapapa? And what if our creative guests responded by making new works for public presentation or by generating archival material for our modern-day museum collection?

The questions fascinated us all, and begged for answers. And our friends from the Whakatāne community soon began to do just that. Over coffee at their cafe, a partnership was formed with White Island Tours to provide guided volcano excursions for visiting artists. Our friends at Arts Whakatāne eagerly volunteered to provide hospitality, artist transportation, receptions, and anything else to support incoming residents. Thanks to Mary Bates and Roslyn Barlow at the local Council,  the historic Harbour Master House was dedicated as visiting artist housing and studio space. The idea now had a comfortable cottage overlooking Whakatane Heads and the river inlet—with an enticing view to the distant volcanic rock on the horizon. Thanks to all these ingredients, the museum re-invention had begun.

Our local business community also answered the call. Otakiri-based Antipodes Water Company pledged major support to sponsor the first year of visiting volcanic artists. Nicholson Auto offered a loaner car to help visiting artists explore more of our district and its geothermal wonders. Ōhope’s Scilla Chocolates agreed to donate a welcome box of locally-made treats for each resident. Generous colleagues at Whakatāne District Council—the proactive tourism and events manager Nicola Burgess and super-creative community development coordinator Becs Mackay—willingly pitched in and brought this initiative to life.

Suddenly, we had a plan, a team, housing, transportation, and geologists to lead us to the volcano. By April 2018, New Zealand's Volcanic Artist Residency was ready for creative visitors. At the head of the rank were the pioneering duo from Christchurch, Edwards + Johann, who also happened to be installing several late summer exhibitions in the Whakatāne Museum galleries. Just offshore in the Bay of Plenty, the earth below Whakaari continued to quietly boil in anticipation.   

Eager to continue their research into geological phenomena, Victoria Edwards and Ina Johann journeyed to the island with geologist Sarah Bluett of White Island Tours and local photographer Troy Baker. Together they explored, studied, photographed, and found a new sense of wonder in the otherworldly landscapes. The artists gathered ideas, returned home, took to their studio, and almost immediately began making new work inspired by their residency.

It’s been a year since that first visit. Almsot twenty creative people and cultural managers have followed—each guided by our partner White Island Tours, enthusiastic geologists, and a shared sense of wonder. They were poets, film-makers, museum curators, traditional artists, theatre directors, and sculptors. They left behind footprints and took new earthly influences and geothermal understanding home with them. 

Curator Paul Brobbel came from New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Gallery and presented several experimental films to a packed house at Whakatāne’s local cinema. Film writer Briar Grace Smith and producer Ainsley Gardiner gathered in the lounge of the Harbour Master House to plant the seeds of a new film project—and then went on to win the 2019 Sundance Institute Merata Mita Fellowship to further develop their script. The four artists of Mata Aho Collective, one of New Zealand’s most exciting collaborations, spent time developing new large-scale fibre-based art in preparation for their installation at the 2019 Honolulu Biennial. Wellington contemporary artist Jordana Bragg found inspiration at the river inlet, and within two weeks had produced a new video work for the museum in response to the environment.  

An otherwise quiet cottage at the edge of the Bay of Plenty, was actively fostering new cultural content and 21st century New Zealand identity. Our dusty heritage instituion was shaking things up on a larger scale. 

The world beyond began to take note. Contemporary visual artist Michaela Pilar Brown left her home in South Carolina and spent five weeks as the museum’s first international artist-in-residence. She explored waterways in our region, held salons for the community, then created a body of work for exhibition back in the other hemisphere. Melanie Yazzie, a Native American artist and head of the print-making department at University of Colorado, followed as the programme’s second international guest. While in Whakatane, she forged new connections between local iwi and her Navajo Nation and hosted a creative forum to engage with Whakatāne's local community. 

Pittsburgh street artist Brian Gonnella spent the month of March creating a new mural in the Kopeopeo neighbourhood, teaching young people his craft, and working closely with the Council’s community services coordinator. From across the Tasman, augmented reality curators and digital environment producers, Susannah Williams and Warren Armstrong, left Sydney and took up residence in the Harbour Master House. Once in the Bay of Plenty, they unpacked a fascinating range of creative technology, interactive ideas, and mixed reality concepts.

Whakatāne’s Volcanic Artist Residency was no longer a secret, and the creative people kept coming. Sculptor and glass artist—and Te Papa collections specialist by day—Hannah Bremner found immediate inspiration in our obsidian-rich earth. She was joined by Tatsiana Chypsanava of the Nelson Museum, to research a new collaboration. Environmentalist and former Mayor of Wellington, Celia Wade Brown, spent several weeks getting to know our built environment, connecting with the Kiwi Trust, meeting with Mayor Tony Bonne, and kayaking across Ohiwa Harbour. Actress, theatre producer, and film-maker Jackie van Beek brought her family to the Harbour Master House, went on a night walk in search of local kiwi bird habitats, and then planted the seeds for her next project

The Volcanic Artist Residency pilot programme year—one museum’s experimental efforts to mix the creative with the volcanic—is nearing its end. With each guest, the little idea has resonated around Aotearoa, across the Tasman, and into other corners of the globe. The Council’s nearly abandoned Harbour Master House was reactivated as home base for thinkers, makers, and producers. Seventeen visiting artists have lived there, journeyed to White Island, consulted with geologists, gazed into the bubbling volcanic crater, and literally tasted the volcanic streams. 

At the very beginning of the plan, a Council manager asked the museum team what good might come of an artist residency programme. He wanted to know the immediate benefits—and how the Council would profit from hosting writers, sculptors, dancers, curators, and creative people. The questions were hungry for a kind of quantitative output, a monetary return, or some form of bureaucratic measurement involving key performance indicators. 

Whakaari let out a loud bang and a billow of sulphur-scented steam. That’s not what the Volcanic Artist Residency was about, it hollered. 

But in service to the less creative, my staff and I prepared a 17-page report describing the most intricate mechanics of the project, the cost-neutral model for the pilot year, the wonderful new partnerships, and realistic opportunities to grow the initiative in years two and three. We formally presented our case—including a summary of new external relations and biographies of the confirmed visiting artists—to the Council elders. When the vote was called, the elected body blessed the museum, the initiative, and the island for the coming fiscal year and acknowledged this visionary and creative opportunity with a sense of excitement. 

What we didn’t do is promise anything specific—no guaranteed financial gain, no firm output from the participants, no pre-ordained product or content. The reaction to this experimental programme would be entirely up to the visiting film-makers, curators, poets, and performers. Our new Volcanic Artist Residency, we reiterated to those who still had questions, was not Council business as usual. 

Instead, the initiative was intended as a simple creative development opportunity—and a way to connect curious artists to fascinating volcanic phenomenon. Quantitative performance indicators were not the point. The museum and its partners simply wanted this earth-shaking idea to expand the scope of 21st century arts and culture in Aotearoa. We wanted to use the guest-host relationship to connect our community with a diverse mix of cultural producers from around the world.  And with a sense of mystery and otherworldliness, we were eager to see how they might respond. 

Why? Because sometimes a return on investment and the financial bottom line are not the most important aspects. Sometimes an entire island calls to you, and you listen. 

Sometimes we have to deviate from standard operating procedure, stare into the abyss, and forget business as usual. For Whakatāne’s Volcanic Artist Residency—and the dozens of participants now connected to our geothermal wonders—the return on imagination is what motivated us. With each and every artist who walked across the surreal landscapes of Whakaari—encountering awesome natural forces and powerful earthly energy—we found answers to our questions. With each new creative response, our small regional museum has been transformed into something more than a stale and dusty institution. And all the while, the rocky mass on our horizon keeps quietly boiling, waiting, and welcoming. Answering every question in its own voice, speaking to us in giant pops of undeniable subterranean energy.


New Zealand Volcanic Artist Residency