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Unbreakable Bonds - Toipoto's Last Hurrah?

04 Jul 2024

Tears and triumphs as a career-boosting initiative comes to a close – but not without hope that it still has a future in inspiring creatives.

A blustery mid-week catch-up has been the norm for an impressive collection of creative cohorts who’ve been growing together in Aotearoa’s biggest city over the last four years.

But the latest - and last - Toipoto event was special. 

Emotions spilled over for the swansong of a richly rewarding and unique collective journey for everyone involved.

Toipoto - The Big Idea’s Tāmaki Makaurau-based Creative Careers Service (CCS) pilot programme - has been providing workshops, mentoring and career support for established and emerging artists in Auckland during tumultuous times.

The funding from a joint initiative by the Ministries for Social Development as well as Culture and Heritage has come to an end, forcing Toipoto to reluctantly close its doors after working to improve hundreds of careers and enhance the community of creatives.

Painter, abstract artist and Toipoto alumni Linda Gilbert sums up the depth of feelings at an endpoint no one wanted to reach.

“It’s a bit like coming to a funeral in some ways because Toipoto has literally saved lives.

“Having the connection with this community has made the world of difference.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by all the speakers at this event that doubled as a testament to what has been achieved and a lament of what has been lost.

Actor and playwright Tatiana Hotere eloquently and vividly described the pain of being an immigrant artist, mother and heartbroken widow and how Toipoto lifted her from despair to be a transformative influence on her career and well-being - both of which were in a vulnerable state before joining the programme.

There were tears as Hotere described her personal anguish and how this visionary programme helped her rediscover her creative self-belief.

“I was in a dark place - my husband had passed away, I had two little girls to look after and no job, no way of making money.

“When I plugged into Toipoto … It was a community where I felt seen. It was a community where I could just be myself and talk about my dreams, talk about my fears.

“The support that I got was nothing short of lifesaving for me. I wasn’t in the right place mentally speaking .. I felt really depressed.. I had suicidal feelings.

“Then I suddenly thought, 'oh people believe in me - maybe I can start believing in myself again.'”

That renewed self-confidence helped her deal with her beloved husband Jason’s death by writing and starring in the award-winning play Skin Hunger at Auckland’s Q Theatre in 2023 - “a little raft to save me in the really big sea of hopelessness.”

Difference made

The Big Idea Chief Executive Annie Ackerman has been the driving force behind this professional development initiative. She couldn’t have wished for a more fitting finale as the group of participants, mentors and alumni bared their souls and shared memories of their gains at the Toi Tū Studio One building on Ponsonby Road. 

“The stories that were told here - the successes, the triumphs - made it clear to me that this has been a movement of artists helping other artists …of learning and professional development that we haven’t seen before.”

Programme Lead Dina Jezdic was another central to the delivery and evolution of the sessions. She’s blown away by what has been created - both as a curriculum and as a community.

“The changes we have made, the many different things we have done to get to where we are here through to The Big Idea’s new online platform the Learning Network - it’s just been a crazy amount of progress.

“Toipoto has shaped me and how I approach things - with vulnerability and honesty, with realness and authenticity. This is literally what all these artists have brought back into this space.”

The shadow of the lengthy lockdowns dominated and shaped the first two years of its existence.

There was a very tangible sense of need, aroha and friendships for the talented artists who signed on for the free mentoring service.

During the pandemic, Toipoto proved a vital connection for those feeling cut off from the world. But when gatherings got the green light again and the shackles of Zooms were finally released, that’s when Toipoto thrived.

As a freelance journalist who often works solo and has battled depression myself in recent years - this grand sense of fighting through adversity together from so many prominent artists was heartwarming and a revelation.

It’s the type of feeling everyone should experience - and once you do, you’d find it heartbreaking that it’s been taken away as an option, a lifeline for other creatives who haven’t had a chance to share their hopes and fears.

Jezdic notes of its impact,  “I feel positive about these artists who have been through the programme. I have absolutely no doubt that they’re going to be successful and they are going to be in the pipeline for the next stage for artists and creators in Aotearoa. 

“But I’m worried about the ones that are just coming out of university or any kind of tertiary network.. They don’t teach this at university .. they don’t teach you this in arts school. I’m worried about all the artists we didn’t get to catch.”

Not giving up

Sefton Rani speaking at the final Toipoto event. Photo: Blair Martin.

The work that has been done - the passion invested - is not lost. Ackerman remains positive.

“A lot of the groundwork from this programme has gone on to the Learning Network.  So the mentors, the speakers and the learnings have carried on.

“What we’re hoping to do is keep the online learning strong so that these people can continue and new people can get regular access to something that was special.

“An online platform that shares knowledge and makes the sector more successful and bigger always was the dream.”

“I think things come around in circles. We started with mentoring and we’re now going online. Inevitably, we have to come back to mentoring. We have to come back to the human element. Somebody holding you to your plan is what really works.

“Five or ten minutes online is useful but it’s not the magic that we’ve seen here.”

Hotere feels blessed to have been part of these rare and invaluable connections and believes artists in need can still find a way.

“It’s great to have an online community but nothing beats the energy exchange of being together.

“So much of the work that we do as artists is in isolation. I spend so many hours of the day writing by myself. When we have an opportunity to connect face-to-face, we gotta grab it.”

You sense there could be a replacement in the not-too-distant future, alongside the online version - and Jezdic remains hopeful that Toipoto can be revived with future funding opportunities.

“We’ve created a curriculum, we’ve built a platform. We know exactly how to fly this plane. To not move with all the mahi and all the work to build up to this point would be a waste”.

“I think if there’s a visibility of the lives this has transformed and how needed this is (it will make a difference). I think that artists who are here, It’s been a liferaft. Not just for their creative practice but for them as human beings.

“This is needed for them to not just survive but thrive.”

Ackerman has also announced she’s stepping down from her role as Chief Executive with The Big Idea and is clearly proud of the programme’s achievements and the desire for another in-person version remains strong. 

“It’s a bittersweet moment but Toipoto will come back again.”

The talent, determination and aroha on show at Toipoto’s last hurrah has fuelled dreams for all of Aotearoa’s creatives who need a community to help deal with the challenges and demons of forging a successful career.