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Arts Uproar Won’t Go Away

27 May 2021
Listening to the community or sidestepping confrontation? The Lowdown looks at an extending arts standoff, latest funding opportunities and creative success stories.

Hellfire and brimstone or cries of relief were the options anticipated in Wellington yesterday - as the finalised organisation structure of City Gallery Wellington was expected.

The outcome - more frustration.

The saga exploded in April when Experience Wellington - the board at the helm of six Capital cultural institutions on behalf of Wellington City Council - saw its major restructure proposal hit the headlines. 

The level of outrage that key gallery personnel like director Elizabeth Caldwell and chief curator Robert Leonard’s roles could be in jeopardy and Experience Wellington’s refusal to offer public consultation has grown considerably over that time - with even Mayor Andy Foster expressing his concern - he was due to meet with Experience Wellington’s chairperson this week.

Foster is one of many in official positions to have been hit with a barrage of commentary and criticism from both the arts and culture sector and the general public. It included a joint open letter by many of the sectors respected names.

Most recently, Sue Cramer​, the Melbourne-based curator of the Hilma af Klint exhibition due to debut at City Gallery in December (widely lauded as a coup) laid bare she wasn’t sure it would have happened had the upheaval been known at the time, lavishing praise on the reputation and experience of Caldwell and Leonard.

So everyone waited with bated breath for Wednesday’s big reveal. But instead of answers, more questions were posed.

Experience Wellington issued a brief, less than committal statement through Chief Executive Dr Sarah Rusholme saying it had made “preliminary decisions” (rather than the final ones that were touted).

City Gallery Wellington.

Rushholme stated that “some of the staff feedback matched public commentary around City Gallery Wellington and the need for specialist art leadership and expertise and we have made changes to reflect this.” Rusholme said she would consult affected staff about the preliminary decisions, with a final decision expected now next month. 

The lack of detail and transparency - like whether Caldwell and Leonard will retain their roles - hasn’t gone down well.

Respected arts writer and critic Andrew Wood was among the most vocal objectors through his passionate open letter shared here on The Big Idea. He’s told the Lowdown “the fact that Experience Wellington is clinging to this rather silly secrecy of only consulting with staff because it's an ‘operations matter’ is absurd to the point of farce.” 

Wood points out “153,676 people visited the Gallery in 2018-2019. COVID reduced that to 111,365 in 2020, which is still a huge number for any institution and demonstrates how important it is to Aotearoa's cultural sector and arts ecosystem as a whole, nationally and internationally. It doesn't just affect staff, it affects all its stakeholders - curators, artists, scholars, visitors, and other institutions throughout Aotearoa. The scandalised outpouring of disbelief and frustration from arts and culture leaders nationally clearly shows that. It’s bulldust on a stratospheric scale.”

The Dominion Post (Stuff), as a Wellington-focussed media entity have been staying on this story -  and got similar reactions

“It seems to me that it’s just going to be cosmetic changes and that’s not what the community is calling for,” says Sue Gardiner, a Chartwell Trust board member who says it will put lending works to the gallery on hold while the future leadership is uncertain. “Without a dedicated focus for the staff on the art gallery and its relationships with the sector, you can’t have confidence that it will continue in the future... It’s quite a dangerous precedent really for art galleries in New Zealand.”

It’s worth noting that the proposed introduction of a new role of curator (Toi Māori) at the City Gallery, and a Director Māori Engagement role joining Experience Wellington’s leadership team has been met with support.

While City Gallery has become the poster child for this cause - it should also be pointed out that 147 staff across the six institutions - which also includes Capital E, Wellington Museum, Cable Car Museum, Nairn Street Cottage and Space Place at Carter Observatory - are also impacted by this planned restructure.

So - once again - watch this space.

Stoked over Stokers

Lee Murray. Photo: Ellen Datlow.

Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin - and Lee Murray.

The Tauranga local has put her name up among some of the world’s best-known authors with a New Zealand first, winning twice at the Bram Stoker Awards, considered the Man Booker prize of the Horror world.

Murray’s book Grotesque: Monster Stories (that received rave reviews) won the fiction collection category and bagged her second award of the night for her work on Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, an anthology of Southeast Asian horror tales co-edited with her Australian colleague, author Geneve Flynn.

Still buzzing from her success, Murray told The Big Idea “in literary circles, the Bram Stoker Awards are the ultimate accolade for a dark fiction writer, so to win two is simply overwhelming. I can hardly believe it.  It’s usually held at a gala event but because of the pandemic, the awards were held virtually this year. Probably just as well: I was blubbering so hard at the news of the first one, I almost missed the second announcement, made by my mentor, New York Times bestseller Jonathan Maberry. I haven’t slept much since. I’ve been floating with excitement.”

When asked if the genre gets much attention on our shores, Murray gets straight to the point. “Can you name New Zealand’s horror writers? Probably not. And yet we have a huge well of creative talent here.” She points to peers like Dan Rabarts and Piper Mejia as just a few examples.

“But it’s hard to find our books in bookstores and libraries because there are very few publishers of genre fiction here, just a few micro-presses. This means almost all my work is published by overseas publishers, which makes it hard to be visible here. It’s a shame because there is a huge interest in Kiwi fiction—my Bram Stoker win is evidence of that. New Zealand writers are offering something unique that isn’t seen elsewhere.”

Murray’s success was also highlighted on RNZ - she follows in the footsteps of the late Rocky Wood and British-born but NZ based Allyson Bird as Aotearoa’s Stoker winners.

Vivid memories to be made

Trilogy by Simon Holden. Photo: Destination NSW.

While there will no doubt be some members of the New Zealand creative community trapped or held up coming to and from Melbourne with the current travel bubble pause - others will be sweating Sydney doesn’t have the same issues come August.

A contingent of our creatives have this week been named as part of the lineup for the always dazzling Vivid Sydney 2021 program in August.

Three New Zealand light artworks are among the 50 selected. Trilogy, an interactive piece created by artist Simon Holden of the South Island Light Orchestra (SILO), features three architecturally inspired columns that create a crescendo of light effects bursting out of fingertips - with buzzing, bubbling water and lush sound effects.

Auckland’s Jarrod Burrow conceptualised Stalactite to represent this natural phenomenon in an urban environment; while Polar’s 25 illuminated LED neon rings provide a compelling visual of the earth’s geomagnetic field.

And one of the hottest properties in the New Zealand music scene right now, Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi aka TEEKS, will get the chance to perform live at the iconic Sydney Opera House.

Cash coming and going

Money’s been on the mind of many in the creative sector - well, more than usual at least - over the past week.  

Since the Budget was revealed (and well analysed from an Arts and Culture perspective for both its fundings and its flaws by Andre Chumko on Stuff), those who have come out with some of the new cash have been explaining how they plan to use it.

NZ Symphony Orchestra CEO Peter Biggs has an extra $3.2 million over the next two years to ‘maintain the orchestra’s delivery’ - and spoke to RNZ’s Lynn Freeman (who also get $900,000 of new spending in the budget - RNZ that is, not Freeman…).

Not long after, Creative New Zealand set out its forecast revenue for 2021/22 as $71.2 million, down on their original forecast and helped with $7.75 million from the ongoing Government COVID recovery package.

Also of note - the release of its 12-month funding calendar for 2021/22, outlining when Arts Grants and awards windows are set to appear - worth checking to get your own house in order.

CNZ has outlined there won’t be as much money on offer as the last financial year - which included a $25 million COVID recovery injection. Focus is being placed on the Arts Grants, with six rounds of funding of between $5,000-$75,000 set, starting with 5 July.

The flipside - they’ve hit the pause button on several initiatives including Overseas residencies (not particularly surprising given the current climate), Ngā Toi ā Rohe – Arts in the Regions Fund, Toi Rangatahi Fund, some of its fellowships and Wild Creations.

More thorough detail is available here, while CEO Stephen Wainwright goes further into the lessons learned from the past 14 months in his blog.

Funny findings

Brynley Stent. Photo: Supplied.

After a big month of humour distribution - the NZ International Comedy Festival wrapped with their usual awards.

The coveted yellow towel and ticket to be proclaimed ‘the next big thing’ as the Billy T award winner was Brynley Stent, the fourth woman in a row to claim the prize. Another recognisable TV comedian, Eli Matthewson was crowned ‘best in show’ with the Fred award, named after the iconic and laconic Fred Dagg, made famous by John Clarke. 

Eli Matthewson. Photo: Supplied.

The NZ Herald shared a quirky connection between the two winners - they dated in high school, before Matthewson came out as gay.

Jadwiga Green - featured here on The Big Idea - continued to make waves as joint winner of the Director’s choice award with Abby Howells, while Maria Williams and Tess Sullivan shared Best Newcomer.

Saving grace

Simon O'Neill. Photo: Supplied.

Those who enjoy opera and a worthy cause are being asked to help save St David’s Church by watching a concert online this weekend.

The Friends of St Davids Charitable Trust is trying to buy the Church that’s up for tender, wanting it to “become an enduring place of remembrance and a vital and vibrant centre for music, welcoming all New Zealanders.”

As well as a Givealittle page, they’ve called in one New Zealand’s finest voices, world-renown tenor Simon O’Neill - who is a  Founding Patron of The St David’s Centre for Music - as part of a line-up titled “To The Stars’ performing a recorded concert that will be streamed this Saturday (link here). 

Also performing are NZTrio, pianist Flavio Villani and traditional Māori composer/musician Horomona Horo.