Projects over the last few years in smaller towns and cities have lit up the country. Little touch-points of interest which have turned heads, in fact much like the individual points of light used in Squidsoup’s Submergence, a perfect example shown at Upper Hutt’s Expressions Whirinaki in 2015.
Regional directors, gallery staff and artists have been creating, curating and conjuring projects with more than enough sparkle to make those passionate about art look up from their lattes.
Far from sitting back and letting things happen or come to them, clever creative types are doing the bringing, the negotiating, and the winning for their own regional centres.
But are there really just a few shining examples? Can art really thrive in the regions? Or is a choice to live and work in the provinces taking yourself into the wilderness in every sense of the word?
Does art go the provinces to die? We throw the question into the art arena and stand well clear.
“I felt more engaged internationally than I had been in some ways when I was in Sydney."
Once work started on New Plymouth’s ambitious Len Lye Centre, Rhana Devenport felt intensely connected with international peers, almost like never before.
Months before, far from feeling any sense of disconnect for the move from a major city in Australia, Devenport relished her opportunity to take up the role of interim director of New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. She now leads Auckland Art Gallery
“When I was at the Queensland Art Gallery Govett-Brewster was seen as an innovative, forward-thinking, and internationally engaged organisation. It was the place to watch as a leader in contemporary art in New Zealand. I don’t think that’s changed,” she says.
“So when I moved from Sydney to New Plymouth I was extremely happy to do so.”
Devenport, who became gallery director in 2006, was soon involved in the development of the Len Lye Centre.
“I was immediately working with MOMA colleagues in New York, with ACME in Melbourne, with Ikon in Birmingham,” Devenport says.
“The Len Lye is a unique story, which in many ways may never have happened if the collection had been part of collections in other museums. It has defined New Plymouth culturally, and is the perfect example of where the tyranny of distance has been used to advantage.”
In any centre, metropolitan or regional, there is a minority who are extremely visible and vocal in expressing discontent – and Taranaki was no exception, she says.
Devenport says given the feeling around it, the team tasked with making the centre a reality knew it had to be solely funded from outside ratepayer pockets.
“Every year we had to fight for Len Lye to be in place. We were constantly challenged. Small town does not mean small minded, but you'll always have the vocalness of a small un-informed minority. In a smaller place the voices of the un-informed are given more time,” she says.
Devenport mulls the question again. Does art go to the provinces to die?
"A lot of terrific work comes from the provinces. The question assumes it hasn’t come from the provinces.”
It was after Devenport invited Reuben Paterson to do a three month residency in New Plymouth, he crashed unexpectedly into a heady love affair which has continued long after the first crush faded. Paterson had travelled and lived in locations across the globe spanning London, Greece, France, Rarotonga, and South Korea.
But he received a wake-up call to his own attitude which rocked him back on his heels on getting the initial invitation to Taranaki.
“When I was invited to be artist in residence at the Govett-Brewster in 2013/2014 I didn’t want to come. I felt it was a bother to my set up in Auckland. That arrogance spun me right around.”
The work created during that residency, The Golden Bearing, has been exhibited twice in New Plymouth. It is estimated 200,000 people have seen the tree, 900 education visitors participated in 31 classes, which is 742 learning experiences outside the classroom.
New Plymouth is one of a few places to make itself into a destination. It had to. Unlike some other medium-sized cities, it’s not on the road to anywhere. You don’t drive through when heading to a larger place. So work has been needed to ensure not being on the road to anywhere has not become the place on the road to nowhere.
About a year in with his new love, Paterson feels far from confined. He has a sense of perspective on the value of a city, and of what can be gained outside of one.
“I think it all depends on how much you value your life in a city – is the city the source of your everything, or do you value what exists further than the city limits.
"Being Auckland-born, I can look at the attitude I had subconsciously that everything I needed was in the largeness of a city, and everything else seemed to have less,” he says, contemplatively.
“To be a practising artist doesn’t mean you need more – more networks, more art, more opportunity because it’s not the place that art making and thinking comes from. I don’t need a city to make art.”
And proving you don’t have to live in ‘the big smoke’ to be noticed, Paterson is alive with excitement when it comes to this year’s World of Wearable Art shows in Wellington.
Paterson and his often large scale works, merging Māori culture with sparkle and glitter, are the inspiration for the 2016 shows. All this, he has managed from his Taranaki base.
Living in New Plymouth means larger studio space for less rent. He talks again about getting a much needed reality check.
“I moved here because I fell in love with Taranaki …. I often say I wanted my life back. I wanted the parts that could connect to this land as the great friend she is, and to be with her more. I wanted to go back to a time where people had regard for one another,” he says.
“One of the last nights before I left Auckland I heard a gunshot, and knew that the city had evolved past what I needed to stay for.”
Like Paterson, Greg Donson initially saw an opportunity in the regions as very much a short term opportunity or stepping stone.
He came to the Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui at the end of 2001 to take up an assistant curator post, after studying and working in the registrations team at City Gallery, Wellington.
“I came to Whanganui because I knew it would stand me in good stead for moving on to other things and give the chance to work in one of New Zealand’s architectural gems. What I didn’t quite anticipate was that what I thought would be an 18 month posting has turned into 15 years. I still consider myself really fortunate to be doing a job I love.”
Donson is now the Sarjeant’s curator and public programmes manager. With the long awaited strengthening and redevelopment work now a reality, the gallery team is looking forward to enhancing and expanding what they do, he says.
“We’re looking forward to affirming that art definitely doesn’t go to the provinces to die, it goes to the provinces to thrive.”
He cites examples including the residency at Tylee Cottage, this year celebrating 30 years.
“Many of these artists who came to Tylee early in their career have gone on to become some of the country’s most respected artists. “
Those artists have “recorded, referenced, and drawn on the rich history of the place” for example Anne Noble, Laurence Aberhart, Ans Westra, Andrew Ross and Ann Shelton.
A number of artists have also chosen to make Whanganui home, most recently photographer Roberta Thornley and sculptor Glen Hayward, despite both having considerable following and success in Auckland.
The Sarjeant’s annual art review, which is open only to artists living in Whanganui, draws up to 150 entries – a testament, Donson says, to the number of practicing artists in the region.
Although obviously the Sarjeant team does not have the same resources and staff as metro peers, Donson says that has brought out “a capacity to be nimble, responsive to the needs of our community and develop a programme that is lively and balanced”.
Christchurch Art Gallery’s Director Jenny Harper knows a thing or two about the need to be nimble, and to respond to what a community wants and needs. The Gallery was used as Civil Defence headquarters after both the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, but then had to close for extensive refurbishment. The gallery reopened in December 2015, much to the joy of art lovers across Canterbury.
With regard to art thriving or dying in different locations, Harper points out there is a sense in which art ‘dies’ in a collection if it’s not shown often or reproduced in a book, or made accessible by a website.
"People, whether in large or small communities, need art,” she says.
“Whether they gaze or glimpse, audiences ensure works of art become part of the collective memory of a given community, whether it’s provincial or metropolitan – professional or amateur, in Auckland or in a café on the Coromandel coast.”
And like all people, artists come and go in different communities – sometimes they want to work in bigger centres, sometimes they want to get away from them.
Harper says Te Papa has also done a good job, sending smaller shows to smaller galleries, where they can be enjoyed without leaving home.
Emma Bugden has experience with living in centres both little and large. While previous roles include Senior Curator at The Dowse Art Museum in the capital, and Director of Auckland’s Artspace, she is now Editor at Small Bore Books, a specialist art and design publishing imprint.
“So much has changed in the 40 years since Terry Smith titled his influential Art Forum essay “The Provincialism Problem”. He surely could never have anticipated a future in which I’d be sitting in Gonville (Whanganui) emailing a colleague in Berlin while catching up the news via the Guardian online and checking a food blog from Mexico City,” she says.
“These days we’re everywhere - simultaneously, digitally tied to each other in a way previously unthinkable. This de-centred realm enables Small Bore Books, which mines our cultural past for lost gems, to operate as effectively from one of Shamubeel Eaqub’s zombie towns as from a bloated hyper city. We post books through the mail and we post ideas online. But, despite the emancipatory rhetoric of globalisation we are still from somewhere, and the periphery can provide a problem-free location for research that is slow, complicated and specific.”
So whether from a desk in the city, traffic noise rushing up to meet the ears, or on a table in the wilds where the only sound is pushing waves, or kamikaze tuis whirling in the trees, it seems art is thriving, not despite the variety in its origins, but because of it.
Globalisation and the ability to stay connected if you choose to live in an out of the way place, even in one of New Zealand’s so-called ‘zombie towns’, mean no one is truly displaced no matter what place they call home.