Thursday, 20 September 2012

Christchurch Craft Two Years On - Part 1.

Part One: To mark the recent two year anniversary of the first earthquake, Jenna-Lea Philpott reflects on the state of craft in Christchurch in this first edition of a six part series.

Earlier this month, we marked the two year anniversary of the first earthquake to hit Christchurch and the wider Canterbury province. At 7.1 on the richter scale, the earthquake of September 4th 2010 will forever be etched in my memory. As with thousands of others, it marked the beginning of a surreal period of my life. In the next two years I would live through another four earthquakes (each with a different faultline) and more than 11,000 aftershocks. I would enrol with the Red Cross as an earthquake refugee following the February 22nd 2011 earthquake, as I lived in the north east of the city and experienced loss of phonelines (two weeks), power (two months), sewerage (three months), running water (seven weeks), as well as other things previously taken for granted such as an internet connection, and access to supermarkets, post offices and petrol stations. I know only too well how hard it has been for some residents to come back from the brink, and how important the support from other New Zealanders and from all corners of the world has been in the reovery process. Personally, I will never forget the generous support from corporate New Zealand in the form of food donations, nor the handmade banana loaf from Invercargill in my food parcel with a sticker on the outside in lovely old handwriting stating 'You are not alone. We are thinking of you at this time and walking every step of the way with you.' That small gesture meant so much - it spurred me on and made me so proud to be a New Zealander.
New work by Christchurch ceramicist, Cheryl Lucas.

No doubt about it - these have been surreal events. Not once in a lifetime events, but apparently once in 20,000 year events. Cantabrians lives have been changed forever and the sheer scale of the rebuild becomes apparent when one drives into the central city and encounters the Red Zone. Streets remain closed off to the public to this day, due to unsafe buildings still in need of demolishing. The central city is unrecognisable. If it wasn't for the street signs it would be impossible to know where you are with so many landmarks having disappeared. And the aftershocks continue to be felt.
As with other industries, the craft sector suffered extensive loss of infrastructure. Gone are the old heritage buildings offering cheaper rent that fostered a myriad of individual and shared studio spaces. Home based studios have also been lost in many cases. The Arts Centre with its working studios, galleries and markets is unlikely to be operational again for many years - this heritage building may once again offer tourists a more intimate look at New Zealand through the materials and skills of its crafts artists after many years of repair. 

The loss of so many gallery spaces has also been keenly felt. There is also the loss of meeting spaces, teaching and learning spaces, and the impact that this has had on social connectedness, so valuable in times of recovery. The disruption of creative practice, learning opportunities and public exhibition opportunities is still keenly felt.

New work by Alan McAuliffe who recycles brick in this necklace.
Given the range and scale of issues facing the city, and the diverse nature of the craft sector, it was always going to be a struggle for craft infrastructure needs to be included in the public sector's redevelopment plans. Weeks after the most devastating earthquake on April 27, 2011, Craft Aotearoa called a meeting to identify the key issues that those in craft and visual arts were experiencing. The notes from this meeting were circulated widely to central and local government agencies, and to Arts Voice Christchurch after it was formed, in an effort to ensure that craft sector infrastructure (dominated by privately funded enterprise) was included in public planning processes. These meeting notes formed the basis of Craft Aotearoa's submission to Christchurch City Council and our subsequent presentation at the Central City Plan hearings. It is poignant to re-read the minutes of this meeting as there has been little resolution of concerns raised at that time, and no clear vision going forwards as yet: 

Key concerns raised on 27 April, 2011:
  • whether there would be suitable, purpose designed exhibition and studio space made available as part of the city's rebuild;
  • whether new spaces would be affordable for the majority of craft practitioners;
  • the need to retain audience and clients in both the short and long term;
  • how to generate income in the short term and where to sell;
  • the need to compete for limited space in the short term and how to fund this with limited or no income;
  • losing emerging and experienced craft practitioners to other cities creating a gap in the richness of the visual disciplines infrastructure;
  • access to COCA art gallery as a space for emerging craft practitioners and artists.

At the hearings, Craft Aotearoa stressed the public good (and benefit) in providing some infrastructure for the city's craft sector. For example, revitalised central city living, tourism generation, and economic development. We advised that as a minimum, those in the craft sector just wanted to get back what had been lost and ensure there was a place for craft in the future of Christchurch, that future generations would know this was a city where they could learn and develop their craft practice, and that the opportunity now existed to develop a dedicated craft gallery space in the South Island adding to the city's cultural precinct.

Christhchurch Central Recovery Plan
For the first seven months of this year, we waited for the government's response to the Central City Plan. At the end of July, the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan was released to the public, outlining the following anchor projects: The Frame, Earthquake Memorial, Te Puna Ahurea Cultural Centre, Papa o Ōtākaro / Avon River Precinct, The Square, Retail Precinct, Convention Centre Precinct, Health Precinct, Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Performing Arts Precinct, Central Library, Residential Demonstration Project, Metro Sports Facility, Stadium, Cricket Oval, Bus Interchange, and an Innovation Precinct.

Whilst the performing arts and music sectors will receive new facilities in the central city in the coming years (very good news), there is little mention of facilities that will encourage craft practice and possibly the design and wider visual arts to recover and flourish. Little wonder that craft practitioners and business owners, gallery owners, and numerous guilds and industry groups have been increasingly questioning the city's commitment to recognising and supporting the recovery of craft in Christchurch. The reality is that without vision, without inclusion, and without evidence of public sector endorsement and support, the outlook for craft is less promising. At best the recovery will be slower than it need be - and that is a tragedy when one considers the innovative work that is beginning to emerge (watch out for our next blog in this series which looks at this in more detail).

Finally, the Maori whakatauki (proverb) included in the government's Recovery Strategy for Greater Christchurch. Section 15: Cultural Recovery states: Kia mau ki te kura whero - hold fast to the valued treasures. It begs the question - what are we all doing to support our valued treasures in Christchurch craft?
(For our international readers, Greater Christchurch has a population of just under 460,000 people, and includes New Zealand’s second largest city. It is the gateway to the South Island and is its most significant centre of economic activity.)

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