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July 22, 2013 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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A Space Worth Defacing

In March, Wellington City Council announced plans to cut Te Papa’s annual funding by $1.25 million. In May’s Budget announcement, public broadcasting was cut by $3 million and regional museums by $600,000. Later that month, Chris Finlayson, Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage proclaimed via Twitter that New Zealand was experiencing a “golden age” for the arts.

If things can seem a little bleak, there’s ample evidence to justify the feeling. When cuts need to be made, the arts are the first to take a hit. Which makes sense – artistic endeavours are frivolous, a luxury suitable only in the most prosperous of economic circumstances. In such a precarious state, it’s easy to adopt a defeatist attitude. These conditions can, however, prove a fertile breeding ground for alternative means of creating and exhibiting art.

The Urban Dream Brokerage is one example. Spawned from the public-art project Letting Space, project managers Mark Amery and Sophie Jerram liaise with property owners to provide artists with temporary spaces for installations, exhibitions, and creative projects in vacant buildings. Since the beginning of this year, Urban Dream Brokerage has secured space for eight different projects in Auckland and Wellington.

Most recently, Gabby O’Connor, with curator Katherine Allard and oceanographer Craig Stevens, presented Cleave in an empty retail space on Victoria St. The installation, an ice-shelf made from lacquered tissue paper, was created with the aid of Miramar Central School students, a decision that was intended to create a larger group of individuals with an investment in the work, individuals “that may not usually engage with the arts and also science”. Collaboration is so relevant to Cleave because its educative function lies as much in its production as it does in its presentation. When projects are created by groups such as this, they have the potential to reach beyond their exhibition period. O’Connor claims that the workshops she led during the sculpture’s creation have left a “strong imprint” on the students involved: “kids have been making their own ice-shelf-type geometric artworks, penguin colonies have been created and amazing discussions have been had that will lead to future investigations”. Understanding the effects of climate change can be difficult when the implications are so vast and so abstract, but O’Connor claims that the project allowed for the children to gain a tangible sense of “the fragility of our planet” by viewing it in an artistic context, and by interpreting physical evidence of changing weather patterns.

The project was situated on a busy street, lit continuously over its viewing period, and its reach was arguably far greater than it would have been had the installation been shown in a gallery. O’Connor tentatively considers the work “boundary-breaking”. She mentions anecdotal evidence “of people who would never normally step foot in a gallery going to see it and… drunken revellers in the evening (while installing)”. When artists and writers speak of an art world, they do so knowing the term implies exclusivity. It is not without basis in fact that art galleries are often deemed to cater to a specific audience. The arts establishment demands that viewers keep their distance from art, that they do not touch, that they do not take photos. Uncoincidentally, Wellington residents’ awareness of City Gallery fell nine per cent below the Gallery’s target last year.

The emergence of ‘public-art projects’ indicates a wider concern for the public role of art in contemporary environments. It’s a concern that goes beyond showcasing properties currently on the market in an active condition, reaching into anxieties regarding the accessibility and consumption of visual arts. As populations grow, housing become denser, and spaces become unfixed, Art leaves the gallery, allowing the public to become active participants in the work. Of course, money has to be made in order to pay rent, in order to keep oneself comfortably in place, but for a city like Wellington, where the life expectancy for a small business is short, the Urban Dream Brokerage wants us to reconsider the urban building, not as a permanent fixture that serves an exclusively economic function, but as a space that has the capacity to incubate the city’s artistic potential.

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