I was invited by Ioana Gordon-Smith and Lana Lopesi to write one of five feature articles on the subject of community art for Localise, a temporary newspaper publication that accompanied this year’s Whau Arts Festival. Check it out…

When stars align

The idea of community arts is a loaded, emotional topic for me; my position is muddied by several competing tensions.

Being a Pacific Islander, in diaspora, being a marginalised ethnic(mixed race)-other in the context of dominant culture.

Being a former public servant and messy restructure refugee in post-Global Financial Crisis, National Party-led New Zealand.

Being over-qualified and under-employed.

Being poor.

Being privileged.

Having the agency to be outspoken about all of the above.

But mostly, being an artist based in the Ōtara-Papatoetoe area of Manukau/South Auckland, where I’ve lived for most of my adult life.

I’ve been a vocal critic of the ways ‘arts and culture’ are delivered as public service in my city in recent years. From public art decisions to cronyism and questionable curating, I’ve come to think that in between my ideas of best practice and what “aspirational”[i] programming looks like to the powers that be, there is a galaxy of disengaged stars and black holes of cosmic confusion.

On my planet, aspirational community arts programming is about people first, art second. It’s part grassroots, part global, part digital, part old school. It’s all ages, all the time. It’s holistic and healing. From my lived experience on this far-flung planet, worlds away from Auckland’s Queen Street, the arts are people-centric, voice-enabling, capacity building.

If a community arts centre was to reflect my aspirations, the power and potential of local artists would be harnessed and honed, supported and celebrated. You could spend hours at my aspirational art centre; meeting people, laughing, being moved, playing, thinking. As an artist, you would feel empowered knowing your contribution to the world is valid, and you’re part of a global community who reflect and respond to their lives and environments through creative languages.

This aspirational community arts centre would prioritise those who are local to the area in which it sits. It would have a firm grasp of the histories of its space and residents, and the experiences of those who live, work, shop… struggle and thrive within its shared environment. It would be sensitive towards vulnerable groups, and understand and promote the potential of art to heal, engage, open minds and affect change. Through this knowing, it would be able to offer profound and grounded experiences to visitors from beyond the area, who are afforded an insight into a unique community, as represented through its arts and people.

Exhibitions at this aspirational arts centre would be diverse and exciting; every single one designed with the audience in mind – children, tourists, old people, young people, critics… mums, dads, cynics, bureaucrats. Exhibitions wouldn’t please everyone all the time, but clever interpretive texts, bold and innovative public programming and user-friendly curating would help break down perceptions of artistic elitism. Exhibitions would be programmed by a committee of strategic, brainy, community-minded individuals, 75% of whom would be local residents to capture the vested interest that only locals can impart on decision making that affects their own community.

Exhibition proposals would be welcomed all year long, and this community arts centre would host free exhibition planning workshops and curatorial skills seminars, because the community would be seen as an immense creative resource, not a threat to curatorial egos. Artists, curators, marketers, film makers, project managers, musicians, brokers and advisors would be invited to monthly networking hui with inspiring speakers, arty speed dating and locally sourced catering.

Exhibiting artists would spend time in this community of mine, understanding, talking, responding to the site their work would sit within. Their exchanges would be respectful and reciprocal. Meaningful engagement with local people and groups would be the primary measure of success in this aspirational arts centre, not incentivised surveys taken at exhibition openings, or reviews in mainstream media.

This aspirational arts centre would constantly question its own practice, and listen, all the time. It would draw on the knowledge and insights of audiences to understand what works and what doesn’t, call on artists to inform its creative services, consult with businesses and NGOs to develop collaborative projects and partnerships. As an evolving space, change would be exciting and considered, not threatening and personal.

As a space activated by people, it would be proud to provide areas for gathering, for sitting and talking, for breastfeeding, singing softly to babies, for calming toddlers. Spaces for raucousness, for reading, spaces for privacy.

And there would be coffee… the best coffee in town! The kind that people would drive for, that makes the heart beat faster, and it would be good, really good, every time. The café owners would be happy because this aspirational arts centre would attract diverse audiences every day. Excellent WiFi, comfortable seating and lots of plants and natural light would make this the freshest spot in town and people would come back again, and again.

My aspirational community arts centre would be integrated fully and purposefully into its natural, social, cultural and economic landscape. It would host meetings, training sessions, pop-up art sales, poetry, performances, workshops, product and book launches. It would respond to the needs and interests of its community and be transparent about its agendas. Good governance and effective leadership would be practiced, encouraged and promoted. The centre’s internships would be so well designed that it would become a turbine for community arts leaders, enablers, movers and shakers.

Artists would be on waiting lists to be part of the rich and vital professional development programme this arts centre would offer! In workshops and seminars, projects and publications, artists would have the opportunity to learn about pricing and selling their work, diversifying and monetising a creative practice, writing artist statements, proposals, bio notes, starting blogs, taking good photos, project management and communication skills, marketing, branding, budgeting, funding…

In my community, the economic potential of creativity is rarely demonstrated; the creative industries are hard to quantify when most artists people know are teachers / WINZ case managers / administrators / call centre operators / video shop clerks / road workers… or on the dole. My aspirational arts centre would understand this reality.

Exhibitions and events are great, but education pathways and tangible opportunities, role models and success stories are necessary to make the creative industries visible, tangible and accessible.

Here, the WORD art is unpacked, redefined, owned / disowned. Art is inextricable from people; it is embedded in culture, intuitive and empowering, a gift and a privilege. My aspirational art centre would discredit the common perception that Pacific youth somehow have disproportionate talent in the creative arts, because the potential of Pacific youth is limitless, in any field.

And everything this aspirational arts centre would deliver would be underpinned by an acute understanding of service, audience and accountability.

Back in reality, my local community arts centres are still galactically dislocated from my expectations and aspirations, which are grounded in 15 years of living, breathing, loving, teaching, hyping up, blogging, picking up, framing, hanging, installing, advocating, hosting, buying, selling… and listening to artists from my community.

I think longingly of the kind of programming, partnerships and innovation that happens in places like Studio Museum Harlem, the incredible and inspiring entrepreneurialism of local artists in Bandung, Indonesia, and the way the four-yearly Festival of Pacific Arts embraces the breadth of socially and culturally entrenched creative practices, from healing arts to tattoo, poetry to pan-pipes and literally everything in between. I think about the site specificity and casual sophistication of Footscray Arts Centre in Melbourne, and the effortless cool of the The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt.

In New Zealand’s largest and most ethnically diverse urban centre, the country’s super city guinea pig, the local has become the pan-local. Territory gained in wholesale branding and global rankings of ‘liveability’, is lost ground in terms of social inclusion, meaning and mana.

How do we measure quality in the delivery and presentation of community arts / art in community spaces?

Ask, listen and take time to understand the community’s aspirations. Respond, enable, facilitate, and channel resource. Watch the stars align.

Ema Tavola
October 2015

[i] Scott, H. (23 March, 2014). Local galleries and the community. Retrieved 29 August, 2015, from http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/standing-room-only/audio/2589956/local-galleries-and-the-community