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Lowdown: Questions Raised Over CNZ's Leadership Future

21 Mar 2024

Reaction from the creative community after Gretchen La Roche's surprise departure and what it means for CNZ, arts events with a cause and opportunities to excel.

Nobody saw it coming.

Rarely has a departure from someone 18 months into a role caused as much consternation as this week's news that Gretchen La Roche is leaving Creative New Zealand (CNZ) has among the creative community.

Everyone The Lowdown has spoke to since La Roche's upcoming shift to The Court Theatre's Executive Director role unanimously agreed that it's a real coup for the Christchurch performing arts institution but a loss to the sector on a national scale.

From those with knowledge of CNZ's inner workings to organisation heads, industry veterans and individual practitioners - La Roche was seen as the creative community's preferred candidate to take over from outgoing Chief Executive Stephen Wainwright.

Her decision to move on has caught many in the sector off-guard.

As one long-standing arts leader underlined, "The sector hugely respects Gretchen and her leaving CNZ is a blow to them and to us."

Having only started her role as CNZ's Senior Manager of Arts Development Services in September 2022, La Roche has left a sizeable imprint on an organisation whose reputation had taken a hammering.  Those close to La Roche point out that she was only on an 18-month contract, but even they were hoping she'd stay on.

A pivotal part of her role was being what many call 'the architect' of repairing CNZ's "broken" funding model that had caused a groundswell of frustration throughout the creative community and was cited as a key reason for many leaving the industry.

Gretchen La Roche. Photo: Supplied.

La Roche came in at a pivotal time for CNZ and - not weighed down by being involved in the previous, under-fire decision-making - brought what has been described by those who experienced it as a "new, warmer, more compassionate approach" to taking on board sector feedback.

Many feared that the public consultation on the funding model would be lip service and nothing would change - but with La Roche at the helm of the project, one experienced arts leader noted there was a change. "She listened, acknowledged and took our experiences and views into account," they explained to The Lowdown, "she was our new hope."

La Roche was central to the roll-out of the new, eight-pronged funding model, For The Arts, in late 2023, which comes into effect this year.

One insider told The Lowdown "She has been an absolute asset to CNZ, bringing some much-needed trust, and listening to the sector, which has brought about quick and profound change. 

"Gretchen leaves a legacy for a short tenure, such is her impact. She is a smart - a true leader - and we look for more of those in the sector to lead us through with care, respect, and knowledge, especially including the funder, who set the rules."

Another notes "We are all disappointed an ally has gone - after all, to have someone who has been in the field and experienced the other end of the process was hopeful rather than a career administrator!" 

Even with La Roche in her role, there has been unease in the creative community about how the new funding model will work. There was agreement the change is for the better but the well-publicised lack of funding coming to CNZ from government understandably causes concern.

"The change with the new funding is still one to be tested - let us all also hope this works out OK but no one yet knows the short and long-term impacts," one source details.

Another points out that "the real test of the new funding pathways is the amount of money in those funding bags and how many are successful."

There's about to be a real experience void hitting CNZ, with 30-year staffer Wainwright leaving sometime this year and Chair of the Art Council (that oversees CNZ) Caren Rangi's term due to expire shortly.

A highly regarded administrator states "Gretchen was seen as the obvious successor to Wainwright from within the current staff lineup. She was the one person within the organisation who could be a credible and popular new CE."

So if not La Roche, then who? That's been a hot topic of conversation in the past 48 hours. 

One source told The Lowdown "From the people I have spoken to, there is concern about the lack of leadership at a number of levels - it's felt some areas of CNZ leadership is strong, but in other areas it is very weak, which is causing some distress amongst the sector.

"There will be a new broom with the recent change of government, so that is also with concern, as there could be different directives and ways we will have to navigate things. Change is ahead in a number of ways.

"The wheels turn slow at CNZ at the moment - there is a letter to come from the Ministry who will then appoint the Chair and then the appointment of the new CEO can commence. So this, in effect, pushes that timeline out to the end of the year."

As for La Roche's departure - while disappointed, there's certainly an understanding. 

"Who can blame her? It is a tough gig in a time that is tough right now, so in a role as relentless as that, then it is absolutely the right thing to move on."

Goldsmith's Civic reception

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Another arts leader will be front and centre this week at the Auckland Arts Festival.

Minister for the Arts, Culture and Heritage, Paul Goldsmith, will be going public with his piano skills rather than his policy ambitions as he takes part in Undergrand, a portable baby grand piano popping up all over Tāmaki Makaurau as part of the Festival.

Goldsmith - a keen pianist - has been invited as a special guest to join the curated selection of talented rangatahi and professionals, encompassing all styles and genres. The MP will play outside the Civic on Friday (22 March, 5.30 pm). 

The Undergrand series has already seen it travel across the city in different venues - and will continue until the Festival closes this weekend.

Festival's light extension

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Light Cycles. Photo: Moment Factory.

Another major festival brought down the curtain on its 2024 edition last weekend, with the Aotearoa Festival of the Arts closing three weeks of inspired performances and events in the capital.

But instead of putting their feet up, the festival organisers have promptly announced the next visual feast they plan to bring to the capital.

Light Cycles, a dazzling light and multi-sensory experience by the award-winning Canadian multimedia studio Moment Factory to take over the evenings at Wellington Botanic Garden from 11 May to 9 June.

Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts Creative Director Marnie Karmelita explains the autumn extension. 

“Through the summer months, thousands of people have been entertained, surprised and moved by our artists from Aotearoa and around the world. To extend the joy of the 2024 Festival we are excited to bring the international nighttime adventure Light Cycles to Wellington in May. This magical immersive experience will connect audiences of all ages with the natural world on a whole new level.” 

Building a worldwide reputation with more than 550 unique projects worldwide, Moment Factory is a heavy-hitter having worked with the likes of Disney, Madonna, NFL and Universal Studios. Light Cycles will make nature the star of the show through a mix of light installations, soundscapes, and digital art in a self-guided journey for participants.

Record-breaking donation

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Oliver Cain, Adam and Steve. Photo: Supplied.

NZ Sculpture OnShore 2023 was already deemed a huge success, having attracted 21,000 visitors to make it the exhibition's biggest turnout in its 27-year history. 

But the real kaupapa of the event is to raise money for an incredibly worthy cause, and it's been revealed that too was record-breaking.

Friends of Women’s Refuges Trust - who own NZ Sculpture OnShore - have announced a $350,000 donation to NZ Women’s Refuge from the proceeds of the November exhibition, which saw 130 outdoor sculptures created by more than 100 artists across the motu.

Since its inception in 1996, the event and its contributing artists have raised more than $2.6 million.  

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Daniel McKerrow, Kia Mau Te Rongo. Photo: Supplied.

NZ Sculpture OnShore chair Sally Dewar enthuses “Working to support the important work carried out by Women’s Refuge NZ is at the heart of all that we do. We are extremely grateful to the artists for their participation and our heartfelt thanks to the exhibition’s sponsors and patrons for their ongoing generosity."

Friends of NZ Women’s Refuges Trust chair Rachel Brebner states the new benchmark donation exceeded all targets and expectations.

"This incredible gift is testament to the tremendous work carried out by the Trustees, the Board and our small, committed management team, supported on-site by 370 community volunteers. Not only did the event showcase spectacular outdoor and indoor sculpture, but also exhibited artworks from 16 Auckland schools.  Visitors came from all over New Zealand to view the exhibition and more than 1,500 students explored the site as part of the Schools’ Tour programme. 

"Everyone involved was determined to go the extra mile knowing they were helping to create brighter futures for women and children affected by domestic violence.”

The exhibition is the biggest fundraising event for Women’s Refuge NZ and the largest outdoor sculpture event in the country. 

Purple patch

Franzeska Pound, Spiritual Inspiration,

Another great cause has also turned to creatives to help them make a difference.

Tuesday (26 March) is Purple Day - to raise awareness and fundraise for Epilepsy New Zealand. This year, they've initiated a Purple Day Charity Art Auction where artists were invited to paint a purple canvas, with all proceeds going towards funding the services of their free nationwide epilepsy educators.

Following the proven path that art is a strong way to promote well-being - not just for those who create but for those who experience it - many of the 24 artists who answered the call to contribute are impacted by epilepsy, either experiencing it themselves or through close connections.

The Purple Day Charirty Art Auction is open now and runs until 26 March.

Award for Alexandra

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Jen Alexandra. Photo: Sarah Rowlands.

Mullti-discipline creative Jen Alexandra's 2024 prospects were already looking bright but they've been boosted thanks to a well-established accolade.

The Ōtautahi-based artist has been announced as the 2024 recipient of the prestigious Olivia Spencer Bower Award, created to provide an opportunity for artists - particularly female artists - to pursue their own direction for a year. 

Alexandra -  whose practice combines sculpture, installation, and performance -  sees this milestone as a career-changing opportunity. 

“At this point in my career, the dedicated time provides invaluable space for continuity of thinking and making while prioritising material experimentation.

“I am interested in intuitive knowledge practices and nature-based worship, and am currently excited to work with some ambergris, beads, glass, rose oil, velvet, and my beloved bronze. I'll be deep-diving into intuitive-based knowledge practices through studio research.

“My work questions the colonisation of spiritual practices in Aotearoa. I intend to offer a chance for fortifying, unifying, and positive conversation about the natural life cycle, encouraging people to evaluate, reframe and re-energise our beliefs about rituals.”

With an upcoming show at Nelson's Suter Art Gallery in June, Alexandra will also have an exhibition of the work she made during her fellowship year at the Ilam School of Fine Arts Gallery, University of Canterbury, opening in early 2025.

Toot your own horn

2023 Iris Fisher Scholarship recipient Bena Jackson; installation view as part of the exhibition Castle Mall at RM Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, 2023. Photo by Ardit Hoxha.png
2023 Iris Fisher Scholarship recipient Bena Jackson's work at RM Gallery, Auckland. Photo: Ardit Hoxha.

There are more support and recognition opportunities for creatives at the moment - for a variety of artistic mediums.

Te Tuhi has just opened up applications for the 2024 Iris Fisher Scholarship - encouraging the development of emerging Aotearoa artists with a $5,000 award to put toward fees, materials, travel or a purpose which will enable the recipient to successfully complete their final year of postgraduate study in visual arts/fine arts. 

It's been a boost to the fledging careers of past recipients like Bena Jackson, Susu, Xi Li, Emily Parr and Kalisolaite ‘Uhila.

Pasifika performing artists are being invited to apply for a free online arts management programme run by Lima Productions Trust.

Building Your Arts Waka offers participating artists the opportunity to build industry-specific management skills through a 22-week online programme, with a three-hour-a-week commitment, with applications closing this Saturday (23 March).

Writers pining for the chance to spread their wings overseas will likely be interested in the Michael King Writers Centre's offer of a residency in Australia starting in October.

In a reciprocal arrangement with their Aussie counterparts, a mid-career or established writer (who has had a book published in the last two years) will be chosen to spend four weeks at Varuna's National Writers’ House in Katoomba, NSW, with flights, accommodation and meals sorted. The successful resident will also appear at the Blue Mountains Writers’ Festival. 

AWE 2023 Emerging Composer Georgina Palmer at the premiere of her work 'Maramataka', performed by Emerging Artists Lorna Zhang and Damon Herlihy-O'Brien. Photo: Supplied.

And aspiring musicians are being sought out for Southern classical music festival At World's Edge's (AWE) Emerging Artist and Composer Mentorships.

A young NZ composer will be chosen to receive personalised mentoring over a five-month period to write a new work for premiere within the festival in October - a string chamber work of approximately 5 minutes in length that will also be performed throughout the Queenstown Lakes region in multiple school performances.

Last year's recipient Georgina Palmer called the opportunity "one of the most inspiring and exhilarating experiences of my music career."

Eve receives residency

Eve de Castro-Robinson. Photo: Supplied.

Speaking of AWE, they've announced one of New Zealand's most proven musical minds as its Composer in Residence for this year.

Eve de Castro-Robinson is a senior composer within Aotearoa’s arts landscape with her chamber works to be built into the 2024 festival programme, alongside two new AWE Commissions.

A NZ Music Best Classical Artist Award and SOUNZ Contemporary Award-winning talent, her strong educational history makes de Castro-Robinson an exceptional mentor to support the event's Emerging Composer, lead the composition workshop for local students and present talks as the festival winds through Queenstown, Bannockburn, Cromwell and Wānaka.

The event's programme will be revealed in May.