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"A Legend Has Passed" - Double Tragedy For Arts Community

02 Mar 2023
The Lowdown reflects on the passing of a second hugely admired creative figure in the space of a week, a new survey seeking to find what space arts needs to thrive and celebrates the climax of some serious hard mahi.
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Ron Brownson. Photo: Raymond Sagapolutele

It's been a tough week for many entrenched members of the creative community.

Hot on the heels of the outpouring of appreciation for Ans Westra following the sad news of her passing on Sunday night, Aotearoa's arts world lost another important but less publicly facing figure.

Ron Brownson put in almost half a century of dedication and devotion to the arts - in particular his beloved Auckland Art Gallery - through his high quality research and curation, earning an army of admirers along the way. 

Auckland Art Gallery released a statement that they are "heartbroken at the passing of our treasured colleague" and that "there will never be another Ron" - a sentiment shared by many. 

"To say that his interests and knowledge were broad would be an understatement," it continues. "Ron was a tireless advocate for artists. Ron had a generous attitude to all forms of creativity and his office – with its piles of books, textiles and ceramics – was a testament to his intellectual interests in the art of many cultures and eras.

"Ron was a warm colleague who showed humanity to people right across the organisation, suggesting a book or film they might enjoy, or offering them a delicious treat to lift their mood. He was full of wit and his floor talks and presentations were a lesson in theatre and originality."

Colleague and friend Ben Bergman of Bergman Gallery put it succinctly - "a legend has passed."

Sharing his emotions on Facebook, Bergman paid tribute to Brownson as "an unequalled authority on New Zealand art, it was his life passion. He was Senior Curator, New Zealand and Pacific Art, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. He was a noted writer and public speaker. He was an art historian and an intellectual. His connection to artists and the art industry at large over the past 5 decades was extraordinary and worthy of a considerable book. 

"When he spoke, Ron could command a room with ease. He had an eloquent oratory, sharp wit and engaging smile.

"Ron leaves an unprecedented legacy of service to New Zealand & Pacific Art and I consider it an honour to have known him in my lifetime."

Fellow gallerist John Gow also effused accolades on behalf of Gow Langsford Gallery. "I was stunned when I heard the news that Ron had died. New Zealand has not only lost a great character of the art world but an enormous fountain of knowledge. Ron has been a part of my life in the art world for the past 40 years. So many conversations on such a wide range of topics with Ron having a depth of knowledge which was always way beyond expectation.

"Ron’s intimate knowledge of the Auckland Art Gallery’s collection was second to none and his walking encyclopaedic mind could describe intimately so many works.

"Ron, you always said to me that you would be carried out feet first from your beloved Auckland Art Gallery. This you have achieved, albeit far too soon."

So many artists and curators have had Brownson in their corner from the formative stages of their careers. Brownson didn't just make a monumental impact on Aotearoa art, he set in place the next wave who will be his true legacy.

From John Pule to Andy Leleisi'uao, Pacific Sisters and Fatu Feu'u and countless more - Brownson's generosity of his time and eye for talent was unquestioned.

Much like Brownson, Westra had immpeciable judgement on what made strong visual art - both having a particular gift for photography among their skills. Her impact on the creative community is also without question.

Many artists have explained the inspiration Westra's mahi had provided them in their own careers, be it just observing or getting advice and encouragement right from the source.

Writer Jeremy Rose was one of those as a collaborator, family friend and -in his youth - a photographic subject of Westra's. He explains what he experienced first-hand that makes Westra so unique in The Spinoff.

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David Alsop with Ans Westra. Photo: Joseph Kelly.

Suite Gallery owner David Alsop was Westra's friend, agent and kaitiaki of her incredible achive of images. He told The Lowdown "Ans will be sorely missed.  She dedicated her life to documenting the social history of Aotearoa New Zealand and was an expert at capturing what she called 'ordinary life': the casual, natural interactions of ordinary people.

"Ans understood that a photograph transcends living personal memory to become history.  She appreciated and respected people and was always grateful to photograph.  Her 60+ years of images allow us to understand what being a New Zealander during this period might mean.

"Ans, a pioneer, mother of three children, worked tirelessly, photographing right up until her death.  I am fortunate to have known Ans and her art so well.  It's a privilege to work with her images."  

The privilege - in the case of both Westra and Brownson - was certainly ours.

Space survey

Creative endeavours take time and dedication - but they also need space.

A new Aotearoa-wide survey has just been launched aimed to discover exactly what space currently exists and what is needed to make creative spaces effective and sustainable.

Stable Spaces, led by passionate arts advocate Dr Melissa Laing, is calling on the creative community to speak up so accurate information can be gathered on how arts organisations, collectives and businesses are currently housed and what that's costing them. 

The survey's results will then provide evidence about the scale and impact of housing insecurity in the arts - a major issue that can only be addressed when armed with facts. 

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Laing outlines to The Lowdown what sparked this project.

"Over my years in the arts, I’ve seen many an organisation or creative struggle to achieve their vision due to the stressors of short term leases and changing space costs. I’ve also seen organisations deliver amazing work and opportunities for their communities when they have solid ground to stand on. 

"The Stable Spaces survey and the wider Stable Spaces project is about creating the conditions for the arts to thrive, doing this through how the arts are housed.

In 2018, I visited the Community Arts Stabilisation Trust in San Francisco - an organisation that creates the financing frameworks to secure permanent space in urban city centres for community arts and culture organisations: literally buying buildings on behalf of cultural organisations. 

"It inspired me to start asking the question 'how do we stabilise the arts communities of Aotearoa through space'? Nationally we’ve done an enormous amount of innovation around temporary space access, it's now time to look at the longer term and develop solutions specific to our context." 

Laing adds “I’m hoping that a wide range of arts organisations and creatives will take the time to fill out the survey and help us build this important piece of evidence for the future sustainability of the arts. 

“Once we have a good picture of how the arts are housed, we can start working out what needs to change to meet our space needs.”

The survey runs for six weeks - through to 4 April.

The price is right

The PANNZ (Performing Arts Network New Zealand) Arts Market is one of the hottest tickets of the creative sector calendar - but not because of exclusivity.

Rather, it's due to its inclusivity.

The annual four day event (two digital market days and two in-person days) runs 13-16 March and is once again putting a major emphasis on accessibility for members of the performing art community.

That's physical accessibility due to be being available to attend online from anywhere around Aotearoa to remove the tryanny of distance, while still being able to access all the showcases and pitches - as well as feature their own work too. That digital opening of such opportunities remains surely as COVID's most positive legacy.

That's also working on cultural accessibility and accessibility for those with varying levels of physical impairment - trying to break down the traditional barriers that restrict participation or feelings of acceptance.

And arguably the most important in the current climate of fraught funding and rising costs - financial accessibility.

With independent producers and artists able to attend the four days for just $50, that's as good a bang for your buck as you can hope for. It's an active choice from PANNZ not to make money from the event but to ensure the intended audience isn't priced out of the equation.

The Arts Market's Executive Producer Amie Moffat explains the price point to The Lowdown. "It’s deeply important to us to ensure that the PANNZ Arts Market is open and accessible for professional performing artists across the country and, as such, we have prioritised making the fee affordable for artists and producers to attend.

"After a hard couple of years we are really excited to bring everyone together to feel grounded, to connect with one another and to dream big again. We have a super engaging program planned and a bunch of international presenters attending in person to continue fostering key relationships with Aotearoa’s artists."

Given the in-person event is fully catered - the money saved just on feeding yourself is worth more than the price of entry, let alone the career development and networking opportunities, as well as having your profiles and work featured on PANNZ's digital platform for the following 12 months.

The schedule set up of programming all the pitches and showcases in the first two digital days means those attending the in-person event can focus on idea generation and building relationships and contacts that could change their career trajectory.

Who says hybrids can't pack a punch?

Opportunity knocks

Speaking of PANNZ, they've just announced up two other opportunities that could transform a creative's year.

Applications for the FAME Mid-Career Awards - in partnership with The FAME Trust (Fund for Acting and Musical Endeavours) and the Acorn Foundation - have just opened and run through until 2 April.

There are five awards of $15,000 each to recognise and support a part of the creative sector who often fall through the cracks for such acknowledgement across Contemporary Dance, Classical Music and Theatre.

The three awards for established and inspiring mid-career artists were established in 2022 and this year, they're joined by two awards for Production, Design and Technical professionals - so get nominating.

And the Performing Arts Market and Platforms Funds has also opened -  to create opportunities for artists and producers to take part in strategic international performing arts markets, platforms and professional gatherings.

The first round of funding is focused on those eager to attend Melbourne's APAM,  part of the Rising Festival in June.

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2022 APRA Children's Music Winners. Photo: Becca Zeff.

Award application season is starting to heat up, with APRA AMCOS opening up entries for several genres.

Contenders for the Best Country Music Song, Best Children’s Song, Best Children's Music Artist, and Best Children’s Music Video are being invited to step forward - for any song or video fitting the bill that broadcast to the public for the first time in 2022.

Pride outranks prejudice 

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Pride in the Square. Photo: Connor Crawford/Cuetone Media.

A massive ka rawe to the team behind the Auckland Pride Festival - surely one of the biggest undertakings in the creative scene and for the last three years, among the most disrupted.

Swapping pandemics for natural disasters, the state of emergency caused some heartbreaking cancellations but nothing could halt the vibe - although some tried. 

We'll get to that soon, but bigotry doesn't earn the right to trump the accolades deserved for all the creatives involved.

There were so many well-received events - including the big finale to the month long Festival, Pride in the Square. Incredible artwork and performing arts have featured prominently, both in person and digitally, including Toipoto mentee and circus artist Kiriana Sheree (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Porou, Ngāpuhi) and her amazing work achieved during the inaugural Takatāpui resident this past year.

Outgoing Festival Executive Director Max Tweedie and first-time Creative Director Nathan Joe's passion, advocacy and vision has shone through brightly - something they and the team can be extremely satisfied with.

Joe told The Lowdown "I’m particularly proud our Pride Elevates programme was able to support world premieres of new Pride work (BTM Live, Cxnt Vol. 1), as well as many Auckland firsts (Show Ponies, Art Chemist, SADBOI).

"We had sold out nights across the season, across a range of very different shows. But what was most heartening was seeing healthy attendance and people showing up to emerging artists and out of towners.

"While ticket sales for many shows were slow at first, which is typical for the climate at the moment, particularly with covid-19 and the weather interruptions, audiences came through typically the day before or the day of.

"The festival has done a remarkable job shifting its focus to being more arts and culture focussed, where artists are actually excited to present work as a part of Pride, and build work towards the next Pride. It’s this sort of anticipation and development period that makes me most excited for next year already."

Celebrating diversity has come a long way - but there was one last reminder that there's still plenty more acceptance to be had.

That a small group of small-minded protesters chose to bring a halt to Drag Storytime at Avondale Library as part of Pride Fest Out West, citing fears that children were being 'groomed' by the performer, shows either a lack of understanding (at best) or a slender grasp on reality.

Tweedie tweeted what many were feeling. "I have been saying for a year that Aotearoa is not immune to the culture wars whipped up in the U.S due to channels of disinformation spreading hatred rapidly.

"Auckland Pride and Auckland Council were prepared for this, but I’m devastated it’s happened."

But the silver lining is that for many other observers, these homophobic actions have further steeled their opinions of acceptance and aroha of others.

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Pride in the Square. Photo: Connor Crawford/Cuetone Media.

That includes Auckland councillor Richard Hills. "Your hate for the rainbow community is not more important than a safe workplace for library staff or performers.

"It is not more important than a fun event for kids & families who choose to attend."

Te Pou's new whare


Rehearsals for Hemo is Home. Photo: Fender Maeva.

In just one day, the brand-spanking new doors of the rebuilt Te Pou Theatre will swing open for the season debut of new show, Hemo is Home (3-12 March). 

An organisation that has quickly established itself as one of the cornerstones of Māori performing arts, this is a special occasion for many that have put in so much time, effort and pūtea, including 13 sponsoring and donating organisations.

Amber Curreen, co-founder and Poutoko Whānau of Te Pou, told The Lowdown of what's happening with the final touches today. "The builders downed tools yesterday - the final job was hanging the tea towel holders – very important in any whare! 

"The bar is being set up by Amanda Rees, Poutoko Hinengaro, who has fundraised over $3 million for this build over the last three years and here she is polishing the glasses to fill with the celebratory bubbles on opening night. 

"Tainui Tukiwaho, co-founder and Poutoko Wairua of Te Pou, is in the theatre with his incredible creative team doing the final runs of Hemo is Home; a work he wrote with his tamariki over lockdown which went on to be awarded runner up in the Playmarket 2022 Adam Award.  

"I am busily taking bookings for artists to present and create in the whare, the first of which is the stunning work He Huia Kaimanawa presented by Auckland Arts Festival (16 – 19 March). 

Our stellar team is arranging the furniture (mostly pre-loved) in the foyer, which has been gifted the name Te Kōpua by manawhenua, Te Kawerau ā Maki. Te Kōpua was the original name of Henderson and refers to a deep pool, a confluence of the waterways Wai Ō Pareira, Ōpanuku. This was where the iwi gathered, stories and ideas were shared. 

"We get to open the doors for confluence of people, ideas and stories this week and we could not be more excited! And nervous. Jeez we hope you like it! 

"We hope you feel like this is a welcoming, warm whare where you can feel like you belong and can relax and enjoy sharing in the storytelling on offer.  

"We also feel incredibly grateful. Over these past three years, we have transformed a giant shed with stage into a kaupapa Māori theatre venue with a 250 seat theatre auditorium, rehearsal room/studio, hui room, new backstage and foyer, flash new wharepaku & new offices.

"As well as those who have supported with putea, we have had a whole community support ā wairua to the creation of Te Pou Theatre; a space that means so much for our performing arts community. This was felt especially when the community came in the hundreds to take part in our dawn karakia to open the whare on Friday 27 January – the day when the sky fell on Tāmaki Makaurau. 


Te Pou's opening dawn karakia. Photo: Julie Zhu.

"And finally, we are grateful to those who have forged a path in the Māori performing arts before us; those who have made it possible to get to a time where we have a Kaupapa Māori led performing arts venue and our rangatahi will think it is normal. E rere kau ana ngā mihi ki a koutou kātoa.    

"No reira, in the lead up to opening the doors we are feeling grateful, excited… and nervous. Nau mai haere mai, come have a jack nohi at the new Te Pou Theatre!"