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Lowdown on 2020

17 Dec 2020
What. A. Year. Mark Amery breaks down the arts in 2020 as it happened, headline by headline, with the Lowdown.

January - the month of innocence 

Theatres are closed - voluntarily - face masks are still just for surgery and concerns resurface about artists’ livelihoods in the ‘gig economy’. Thomas Coughlan publishes a piece arguing more can and should be done, noting a $120 million government spend subsidising “artistically questionable international productions made in New Zealand”. Little did Thomas know. 

Leaders of associations for arts educators come together for the first time in more than a decade, concerned at what’s happened to the arts in schools in that time. Lobbying of government ensues with little result - yet.

Leading contemporary space The Physics Room moves into the historic Christchurch Arts Centre, and there are protests about plans to demolish a house on Memorial Drive Hamilton, a hub for artists for decades - it’s gone by July.

Ngāti Kahungunu arts leader Professor Piri Sciascia passes away.

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt and the Modern Māori Quartet complete a season at the Soho Playhouse, New York. Those were the days.

The 2019 Auckland Theatre Awards are belatedly held. The excellence award goes to Working On My Night Moves. Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho becomes first Māori director of the Auckland Fringe Festival.

February - the month of Oscars and airwaves

Taika Waititi wins an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Jojo Rabbit and dedicates it “to all the indigenous kids in the world.” Libby Hakaraia calls the win “a ceiling-breaking moment” for indigenous storytellers.

In scenes that could be written up as a military battle, Radio New Zealand announces Concert FM will be demoted to the AM frequency with staff cuts. After huge public outcry and political concerns, a week later RNZ retreats and goes back to the drawing board (here’s our account).

Actor and advocate for Te Reo Māori, Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira is awarded Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year.

Straitjacket Fits’ singer-songwriter Andrew Brough and leading ceramicist Robert Rapson pass away.

The Kāpiti Performing Arts Centre opens  - it will see performances by the NZSO and RNZB before lockdown. Toitoi, the new Hawkes bay Arts and Events Centre opens as does the University of Otago’s Music, Theatre and Performing Arts Centre.

In the first sign of things getting awry, Auckland Arts Festival cancels Place Des Anges due to freight issues related to the Coronavirus outbreak. “Here’s hoping,” writes Kate Powell, “this type of cancellation remains the exception, rather than the new norm for the arts industry.” 

March - the month the unwelcome guest arrives

Opening hours to the National Archives in Wellington are cut and opposition gathers over National Library plans to get rid of 600,000 ‘non-New Zealand books’. They start being sold at Trentham Racecourse in December. 

The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery marks its 50th with a street party, and a giant glitter cake, care of Reuben Patterson.

Frustrations are expressed over the Southland regions’ councils having sat on a report for eight months over their gallery and museum being redeveloped. In December, the Invercargill City Council finally approve it.

On 12 March, Health Minister David Clark advises COVID-19 is now a pandemic but, with no community outbreak, there’s no need to cancel mass gatherings. US music festivals South by Southwest and Coachella are postponed. Womad in New Plymouth goes ahead. “Did you go to Womad this year?” becomes a leading question.  

Artspace Aotearoa’s opens a new ground floor space on Karangahape Road while Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust prepares to open a gallery upstairs. They have to wait.

Hitmakers L.A.B have the first NZ artist number one single since Lorde's 'Green Light' in 2017.

Government’s banning of public gatherings of over 500 people on 17 March sees winter’s Auckland Writers Festival and Auckland Art Fair cancelled (the latter goes online). Many theatres and festivals continue. NZ Festival closes a day early, after the first positive Wellington COVID case, while Auckland Festival continues. 

We call for an Emergency Arts Industry Package. Facebook public group ‘Aotearoa Arts and Events during the Covid 19 Crisis’  is established. The NZSO announce they will live stream.

New Zealand goes into full lockdown on 25 March. I write, “The arts will never seem more important.” 

April - The month we stayed home (and went online)

BATS Theatre’s first production online Princess Boy Wonder is reviewed on international site The Theatre Times by David O’Donnell. “Apart from the occasional milli-second freeze, the transmission was flawless….” Palmerston North’s Centrepoint Theatre is the first to organise a major new theatre creation initiative online, a 24-hour production challenge.

The Performing Arts Network of New Zealand (PANNZ) start convening weekly arts hui online. The word Zoom becomes ubiquitous as awards, art fairs, exhibitions, discussions, performances and meetings follow online.

Jess Sayer wins the Adam New Zealand Play Award. Aute maker Nikau Hindin becomes the 2020 recipient of the $10,000 Dame Doreen’s Gift, presented by the Blumhardt Foundation.

The World of Wearable Arts in September is cancelled, as are Edinburgh’s vital festivals, but the Wellington Jazz Festival continues to be pencilled in for late 2020. Optimism was rewarded - it went ahead with a New Zealand lineup. 

Concerns are expressed about the status of applications currently before Creative New Zealand for project funding. The funding round is scrapped and an ambitious two-phase COVID support programme is developed and released, seeing unprecedented funds being distributed. Give these guys medals.

German-owned Bauer Media shuts down 10 major NZ magazine titles. Meanwhile, independent Arts News New Zealand cancels its winter issue. 

“No surprises” is my assessment of the nominees announced for the Walters art Prize: Mata Aho Collective, Fiona Amundsen, Sonya Lacey and Sriwhana Spong. Concerns are raised over the inhouse curatorial nature of the decision-making. When these awards will occur (originally scheduled for this year) has yet to be announced. 

Playwright Dean Parker and film and theatre actor Bruce Allpress pass away. 

Tānemahuta Gray (Taki Rua) and Meg Williams (Tāwhiri) lead lobbying to raise government funding to CNZ from $16 to $30 million, and for that to remain a baseline. Even the opposition call on government to develop a support package for the “live events and creative arts sector”. Across the Tasman, a $16.8 million package from the Victoria government is announced. In May, the government will follow up: an extra $12.5 million to CNZ annually for the next two years.

In the art world game of musical chairs, co-directors of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre, Johan Lundh and Aileen Burns resign a year after they arrived to take over as CEOs of new gallery, the Remai Modern Canada, from former Govett Brewster director Gregory Burke. In December Zara Stanhope, formerly of Auckland Art Gallery (where Burke was expected to be director) is announced as new Govett Brewster director. Natasha Matila-Smith becomes inaugural Pacific Curator in Residence at Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art, former workplace of Stanhope, just down the road from the IMA where Lundh and Burns were before they were at the Govett Brewster. Still following?

May - New Zealand Music Month with a difference

Troy Kingi is announced the winner of the Taite Prize and the big new album release is Reb Fountain, who with her live plans scuttled, committed to writing a new song every day during lockdown. Fountain also spearheads the successful Save Our Venues crowdfunding scheme, across independent music venues nationwide.

Auckland Theatre Company premiere theatre online which gets rave reviews internationally: Chekov’s The Seagull with the characters in a Zoom gathering. Christchurch Art Gallery takes a lead in the public gallery space launching Spheres an online video art series. 

On 14 May, galleries got to reopen if they wished, as the country moved into Level Two. Regional Facilities Auckland announced a progressive reopening of facilities, with Auckland Art Gallery to reopen late June. This felt slow - Te Uru, Objectspace and Christchurch Art Gallery reopened within a week.

Pelenakeke Brown became the first disabled artist to lead mixed-ability dance company Touch Compass, and in Christchurch, Court Theatre went inhouse to appoint artistic director, Daniel Pengelly. 

New Zealand Film Commission announced Michael Bennett as recipient of Te Aupounamu Māori Screen Excellence award grant of $50,000 

Construction on the extension to the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui starts, while the New Plymouth Council votes to reduce Govett Brewster Gallery’s funding by $400,000 to help pay for a feasibility study into expanding the wastewater reticulation network.

Auckland painter Samantha Payne is brought to task for portraying two Māori women with tā moko with no permission or acknowledgement. 

The budget is announced, but news on the arts recovery package is held back for weeks. The NZ Screen Production Grant however moves to $200 million, with the international component jumping from six to $140 million, as NZ reaps benefits from the global disruption in movie-making. The TV adaptation of The Luminaries for the BBC and TVNZ receives mixed reviews. 

The 2021 Venice Art Biennale is delayed to 2022.

Becky Manawatu’s Auē wins novel of the year at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

June - the month of Black Lives Matter and major arts investment

We went back to level one as Matariki rose and many galleries reopened with Matariki-inspired exhibitions.

Tens of thousands were part of Black Lives Matter protests. There was a significant push to reassess the status of monuments. The Māori Party called for an inquiry into colonial monuments and street names. Hamilton (Kirikiriroa) took a lead with the removal of a statue of Captain John Hamilton.

Government announced a $175 million package for arts and music sector recovery. Concerns start to be raised about a lack of government arts policy to support its prudent use, and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s relative lack of experience across the wider arts sector. Meanwhile, CNZ announces an additional $13 million into its COVID-19 Emergency Response Package. 

Government announce extra funds to grow the Creatives in Schools programme from 304 projects to 510  - there are more than 2500 schools in New Zealand. Happily for Northland’s Winston Peters, it also gives Whangārei's Hundertwasser Arts Centre and Wairau Māori Art Gallery an additional $4.5 million of funding from the Provincial Growth Fund, after contributing $13.9 million in 2018.

A strong swag of artists receive gongs on Queen’s Birthday: they include Taika Waititi, Sir Derek Lardelli, Elizabeth Knox, Rick Rudd, and Maureen Lander. 

Former Chief Executive of Nederlands Dans Theater, Janine Dijkmeijer, becomes the new head of New Zealand Dance Company.

Jacinda Ardern buys a pair of Nadia Reid socks before attending her concert - the first back for Wellington venue San Francisco Bathhouse.  

Ōtepoti based artist Ayesha Green is selected to create a major public work for The Octagon.

The New Zealand International Film Festival unveils a new name Whānau Mārama (family of light), and goes online for the first time. 

Tributes pour in for Aaron Tokona, guitarist and songwriter who was taken from us too young, and we also saw the passing of Māori Hendrix-inspired guitarist, Kemp Tuirirangi.

July - the month things didn’t return to normal

Parihaka is given $14 million from the Provincial Growth Fund to build a visitors centre, to preserve and tell its story and display taonga.  The government also confirms a $73.4 million Screen Production Fund

Now hapū with her second child, Tauranga Arts Festival director Ria Hall steps down a few months after being appointed.

The Arts Foundation announce its newest batch of  Icons: Sam Neill, Joy Cowley and Dr Sandy Adsett. 

South Auckland’s Jawsh 685’s collab with Jason Derulo - Savage Love hits number one in the UK.

Dowse Art Museum welcomes Senior Curator Chelsea Nichols, while Alice Hutchinson resigns as Director of the Tauranga Art Gallery to be replaced by Stephen Cleland, currently at Adam Art Gallery.

Shaking up the market, May Fair Art Fair launches virtually, presenting emerging and unrepresented artists.

Artist Peter Roche loses his lost his battle with cancer.

August - the month of questioning government's arts leadership

Auckland goes into a second lockdown. We Heart Aotearoa festival - to “celebrate Aotearoa's tremendous efforts to moderate the impact of COVID-19” - is postponed - finally set to return this weekend. 

Major performing arts organisations like Basement Theatre and New Zealand Dance Company are forced to delay their reemergence, while Auckland Theatre Company’s plans for the rest of 2020 are scuttled. Auckland theatre will end up in black for most of 2020. “Auckland has been renamed the city of cones,” writes artist Gregor Kregar.

In the Lowdown, Auckland Art Gallery director Kirsten Paisley calls out a national gap in arts leadership, proclaiming central government has failed us.” Arts Access Aotearoa calls for a government-wide approach to funding creative spaces.

In terms of a comparative example of leadership: the Aotearoa Screen Sector Strategy 2030 is released by a practitioner-led team, the answer to Ardern’s challenge to the screen industry to develop a 10-year plan. Arts leadership anyone?

Auckland Art Gallery postpones its Picasso and Monet shows, plus one of contemporary art from Italian museum Fondazione Prada (timed to coincide with the America's Cup). Auckland Museum delays an exhibition of Ancient Greek artefacts from the British Museum, and Te Papa its major Surrealist show. 

Wellington artist Poppy Lekner wins the 2020 Parkin Drawing Prize with ‘Forward Slash’ - employing a Brother typewriter to pulse out slash marks. Calls of plagiarism are picked up from social media and cause the requisite, forgettable media brouhaha.

Auckland artist Deborah Rundle is announced the recipient of the 2020 Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Te Tuhi UK residency award.

Reports start coming in that, despite lockdown, many galleries are in fact having a great year, as wealthy buyers, usually overseas over the winter months are forced to spend their disposable income here. Independent bookstores start reporting the same.

In Saskatoon, Canada Shannon Te Ao’s Ka Mua, Ka Muri opens at Remai Modern. Meanwhile, Simon Denny has been exhibiting an Egyptian-style mummy made from repurposed sleeping bags and Margaret Thatcher’s scarf collection.

Selina Tusitala Marsh’s Mophead gets the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year award at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Systemic racism in our arts funding system is called out by Tainui Tukiwaho in this piece on The Big Idea. Racism is also recognised towards Asians in the Covid era with the launch of an Aotearoa Poster Competition.

September - the month of Auckland's performance anxiety 

There are still restrictions: up to 100 in public venues, and a maximum of 10 for social gatherings in Auckland. The Others Way Festival, spread across small crowded venues on 11 September gets cancelled.

Festivals in the region don’t face the same restrictions - dynamic programmes are released for Tāirawhiti, Nelson and Hastings.

The government announces a $10 million Domestic Events Fund rescue package to help stop festivals and events from going under after lockdown cancellations. 

A John Ward Knox double portrait painting on two silk screens of Jacinda Ardern is a finalist in Australia’s Archibald Portrait prize. Judith Collins meanwhile, the newly elected leader of the opposition, is the subject of a tattoo in Morrinsville as a Bond girl, complete with gun.

Pioneering landscape architect Megan Wraight passes away after a battle with cancer, as does 97-year-old painter Douglas MacDiarmid in Paris, and musical theatre educator Laughton Pattrick in Wellington. Musician Reuben Winter AKA Totems and milk leaves us far too young.

Objectspace in Auckland and Centre of Contemporary Art in Christchurch announce a partnership, with a shared 12-month programme of exhibitions delivered across their galleries from March. 

And while Auckland’s writers festivals were cancelled, Verb Wellington and Word Christchurch launch Spring programmes. Also in Christchurch, The Little Andromeda theatre reopens in more permanent digs.

Disney’s Mulan is released, but only on their pay-for online platform, not in cinemas. It’s directed by New Zealand’s Niki Caro and the producer, first assistant director and director of photography are all women. Speaking of which, Roseanne Liang’s action-horror feature Shadow in the Cloud debuts at the Toronto International Festival. 

Aotearoa gets a new book review hub - Kete Books

October - the month of politicking

Right-wing activist group The Taxpayer’s Union pull a ‘Dirty Politics’ style Twitter campaign criticising the government for its funding of varied arts projects.  CNZ take the rare step of issuing a statement in support of artists in response.

In the run-up to the election, the parties’ arts policies are considered. Difficult for Labour, because it didn’t have one - as Miriama Kamo grilled Carmel Sepuloni about in an online discussion. The big surprise was how fulsome and specific New Zealand First's policy was. The Māori Party pledged $19 million into Te Matatini as part of its newly-announced Toi Māori policy as a “direct response to funding inequalities… It is an absolute insult that the Royal New Zealand Ballet receives $5m and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra $16m.” They’re back in parliament.

We have seven new Arts Laureates: Tusiata Avia, Shayne Carter, Ahilan Karunaharan, Yuki Kihara, Moss Te Ururangi Patterson, Ariana Tikao and FAFSWAG.

A significant blow for visual arts representation: leading gallery Mossman closes.

Max Merritt, a great New Zealand rock and soul leader, passes away in LA.

Choreographer Parris Goebel calls out our media’s lack of attention to Pasifika artists achievements. 

In this space new light emerges. Incoming editor of the Dominion Post Anna Fifield makes a public commitment to the arts (under new, New Zealand ownership), while magazines NZ Listener, Metro and North and South return to the shelves. Two of three of these titles have made significant changes to be more current.

Hip hop duo Church & AP dominated the Pacific Music Awards, and at the Creative New Zealand Arts Pasifika Awards 2020 winners included Michel Tuffery, Cora-Allan Wickliffe, Tanu Gago, Pati Solomona Tyrell and Tanya Muagututi’a.

Vanessa Mei Crofskey is appointed new Director of contemporary art space Enjoy in Wellington.

Victoria University removes mention of the Jack Body Memorial Fund from its website due to historical allegations that Body allegedly sexually assaulted a student and groomed others for sex. 

Ports of Auckland launch The Lightship; a 110-metre-long, 13-metre-high light wall on the port’s new car handling building, with Janet Lilo’s ‘ISLOVE’. In Christchurch, sculpture festival Scape opened. Whangarei held its first fringe festival.

November - the month of Ministers and Mercy Pictures

With Labour returned to government with a strengthened majority, and the Greens’ Chlöe Swarbrick winning Auckland Central, it was a good news month for the arts. 

Carmel Sepuloni is promoted from Associate to principal Minister of Culture and Heritage. Ardern moves down to an associate ministerial position, with the welcome addition as an Associate Minister of Kiri Allan. We believe she is the first Māori minister with this portfolio since Peter Tapsell in the late 1980s. New Green MP Dr Elizabeth Kerekere, was awarded the Greens arts, culture and heritage portfolio - a professionally trained, practising artist.

People of Colour by Mercy Pictures ran at a small Auckland artist-run space of the same name exhibiting flags, including Tino Rangatiratanga, Ngāi Tūhoe, neo-Nazi and white suprematist flags, including that used by the man guilty of carrying out the Christchurch mosque attacks. Concerning was the abusive employment of social media. As the show closed, significant protest began, and battlelines were drawn in the art world over what should be considered beyond the pale. My pick of the commentary came from someone in the art world prepared to own their power: Sarah Hopkinson on The Spinoff.

Benee's 'Glitter' won the APRA Silver Scroll for songwriting and she won four awards at The Aotearoa Music Awards, while The Beths nabbed three.

In opera, there was the launch of a new company, Wellington Opera. Tenor Amitai Pati was named the inaugural recipient of a $50,000 annual opera award from the Dame Malvina Major Foundation.

The Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement were given to Sir Tīmoti Kāretu, Jenny Bornholdt and Tessa Duder. The Bruce Mason playwriting award went to Dunedin’s Emily Duncan. Best Drama at the New Zealand Television Awards, to One Lane Bridge.

Bill Gosden, former head of the New Zealand International Film festival for 40 years passes away. Also lost, bassist of The Swingers and Midnight Oil Bones Hillman.

While a giant interactive camera obscura sculpture opened after ten years in the making in Whangārei (thanks again to Winnie), a new $3 million museum for Rakuira opened and Mayfair - Te Whare Toi ō Kaikōura reopened after being completely wrecked by the 2016 earthquake.

Leading St Paul Street Gallery at AUT in Auckland appears under threat with an AUT recommendation to replace four roles with a part-time secondment from the academic staff, and a part-time assistant role.  

December - the month of Toi Māori

Providing a welcome powerful end to the year, Toi Tū Toi Ora opened at Auckland Art Gallery, the largest survey of contemporary Māori art ever undertaken. With an impressive Ralph Hotere survey in Otepoti Dunedin, and seeing exciting new work from Terri Te Tau at Aratoi Masterton, Kauri Hawkins at Paul Nache in Tairāwhiti and Chevron Hassett at Enjoy in Wellington - all too fresh to make Toi Tū Toi Ora - this augurs well for toi Māori in 2021, with increased political willpower in government.

Among the recipients of the Te Waka Toi Awards announced also this month was another art legend: Robyn Kahukiwa, awarded a Te Tohu Aroha mō Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu Exemplary/Supreme Award.

Performance artist Kalisolaite ‘Uhila was named the recipient of the prestigious biannual Harriet Friedlander residency. And while it would have been obvious to give Taika Waititi the award, it was also fitting given his lockdown energy that the New Zealand Herald made Thomas Sainsbury their Entertainer of the Year

“The comedian, social media star, impressionist, satirist, television actor, movie actor and author, perfectly captured the zeitgeist to take over the local entertainment world this year in a typically polite and unassuming fashion.”