To cre­ate a city of the fu­ture, give Auck­land back to artists.

Want to make Auck­land a city of the fu­ture? Start by giv­ing it back to the artists.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — AN­THONY BYRT

In the fu­ture his­to­ries of how Auck­land be­came such an un­equal and money-ob­sessed city, there will be chap­ters ded­i­cated to the cur­rent ur­ban-de­sign regime — the plan­ners, de­vel­op­ers and real-es­tate agents, the may­ors and coun­cil­lors, the de­sign cham­pi­ons and ar­chi­tects and in­sipid in­te­rior de­sign­ers — who are col­lec­tively re­spon­si­ble for the an­ti­sep­tic, hy­per-cap­i­tal­ist night­mare we’re liv­ing in: an in­ner city en­gulfed by mil­len­nial-pink drap­ery and brass tap­ware and $35 shar­ing plates and Euro­pean cars no one should be able to af­ford.

Auck­land’s sup­posed ur­ban vi­sion­ar­ies are joined in a stag­ger­ing naivety: a belief that ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion are the same thing. The in­ner city is now for the rich — peo­ple with cap­i­tal — while ev­ery­one else is pushed out to the mar­gins. New Zealan­ders hate the idea that we’re a class-based so­ci­ety, and yet cen­tral Auck­land is now com­pletely strat­i­fied along class lines.

Caught up in this ur­ban­ist train wreck are the cre­ative classes: the mu­si­cians, writ­ers and artists who keep the place alive and vi­brant. Things have been go­ing down­hill for a while, but the is­sue got very real for me when I wit­nessed a re­cent bor­der cross­ing, both real and sym­bolic: the open­ing of Tesla’s new show­room near the Pon­sonby end of Karanga­hape Rd. In other words, the ex­pen­sive car deal­er­ships have breached the New­ton in­ter­sec­tion and en­tered artist ter­ri­tory.

This might ini­tially seem a silly ex­am­ple, but we should be wor­ried about what it rep­re­sents. His­tor­i­cally, the area that en­cap­su­lates Elam School of Fine Arts, Up­per Queen St, all of K’ Rd, and Sy­monds St up to Eden Tce has been Auck­land’s beat­ing con­tem­po­rary heart: not the home of high-cul­tural, coun­cil-funded in­sti­tu­tions for old peo­ple, but the place you’d find artist-run spa­ces and col­lec­tives, mu­si­cians’ re­hearsal rooms and small-gig venues, and shared flats where young, cre­ative peo­ple could af­ford to live.

For the vis­ual arts in par­tic­u­lar, that area has played an enormous role in fos­ter­ing our best artists. Ev­ery­one who be­came some­one in the 1990s showed at K’ Rd artist-run space Test­strip. A gen­er­a­tion later, Gam­bia Cas­tle did the same thing, giv­ing us the likes of Si­mon Denny, Nick Austin and Kate Newby. New­call briefly and suc­cess­fully took over a floor of what is now Skhy Apart­ments at the top of Khy­ber Pass Rd. And most re­cently, Fuzzy Vibes cre­ated a K’ Rd plat­form for art stu­dents and re­cent grads.

To the gen­eral pub­lic, the sit­u­a­tion is de­cep­tive: walk along K’ Rd and it seems like there are plenty of art gal­leries. But al­most all of them are art deal­ers (even the ex­cel­lent ad­di­tion Mokopō­paki is a com­mer­cial op­er­a­tion, al­beit with a tikanga Māori ap­proach). Then there’s the ex­plo­sion of auc­tion­eers in the area (Webb’s has re­cently moved to Nor­manby Rd), in­creas­ingly cater­ing to a clien­tele that wants the in­vest­ment as­sur­ances of the sec­ondary art mar­ket, rather than sup­port­ing some­one young and new.

This is not just nos­tal­gia for what K’ Rd once was. It’s an ar­gu­ment about class and one of its cor­re­lates — our col­lec­tive cre­ative health. The spa­ces where young artists can af­ford to live, work, make and show are the keys to the ecosys­tem. They’re like plank­ton; take them out and the whales will die, too.

So where are young artists go­ing? Some are still head­ing over­seas to try their luck, which is a good thing. In 2016, Ra­dio New Zealand’s The Wire­less did a piece about artists moving to Dunedin be­cause of cheap rents, and last year, I wrote for Home about the same phe­nom­e­non, only in Whanganui.

But what about the ones who stay? In 2017, Welling­ton’s Adam Art Gallery staged an emerg­ing-artists ex­hi­bi­tion called The Tomorrow Peo­ple. I asked some of the Auck­land-based “tomorrow peo­ple” how much they pay for their stu­dios.

The an­swer: they don’t have stu­dios. They can barely af­ford to pay for their flats. Some high-per­form­ing grad­u­ates are get­ting around this by en­rolling in art-school doc­tor­ates, be­cause th­ese of­ten come with schol­ar­ships and stu­dio spa­ces. But this also means they’re ab­sorbed into a univer­sity sys­tem that they should re­ally be kick­ing against.

The wor­ry­ing thing is that the peo­ple in power ei­ther don’t know how tough things are, or don’t care. In­stead, con­ver­sa­tions about the city’s cul­tural life fo­cus on daft new wa­ter­front propo­si­tions like un­der­ground cul­tural cen­tres with fake vol­ca­noes, and sunken sports sta­di­ums. Or there’s coun­cil­lor Chris Darby’s thrill at the thought Auck­land could spend a for­tune on a pub­lic art­work by Len Lye: a Christchurch­born artist who died in the US in 1980, had lit­tle or no re­la­tion­ship with Auck­land, and whose works are be­ing en­gi­neered posthu­mously by a foun­da­tion in his name.

Nei­ther has any­thing to do with re­gen­er­at­ing Auck­land’s cul­tural life, and ev­ery­thing to do with en­ter­tain­ing its age­ing mid­dle classes. How about build­ing sub­sidised or rent-con­trolled stu­dio and re­hearsal spa­ces in­stead?

And forc­ing de­vel­op­ers to do the same when they get con­sents for new apart­ment blocks? Or giv­ing the money ear­marked for ter­ri­ble pub­lic sculp­tures to emerg­ing-artist grants and artist-run spa­ces? More rad­i­cally, we could start think­ing of cre­ative peo­ple as key work­ers and pay them a ba­sic in­come to stay in the city. In­sti­tu­tions like the Auck­land Art Gallery — the whales in the ecosys­tem — could also do far more to ad­vo­cate for emerg­ing artists.

Why? Be­cause, with all of Auck­land’s so-called im­prove­ments, an es­sen­tial part of the city is dy­ing. If you can’t see this, and you can’t see that Tesla open­ing on K’ Rd is about more than elec­tric cars, I can’t help you. But nor can I pro­tect you from what’s com­ing. Be­cause here is the other truth about the fu­ture: very soon, you will be ob­so­lete — and it’s com­pa­nies like Tesla and the Sil­i­con Val­ley men be­hind them who will make sure of it.

In an April op-ed for Wired, tech in­vestor Tim Hulme wrote how and what we teach our chil­dren: “Cre­ativ­ity will in­creas­ingly be the defin­ing hu­man tal­ent. Our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem should em­pha­sise the use of hu­man imag­i­na­tion to spark orig­i­nal ideas and cre­ate new mean­ing. It’s the one thing ma­chines won’t be able to do.”

Even the tech gu­rus know that artists are the keys to our hu­man­ity, and our sur­vival. So think of me as your coalmine ca­nary, be­cause when I stop chirp­ing about Auck­land’s con­tem­po­rary art scene, it means there’s a much big­ger prob­lem. If you re­ally want to make this a great place to live, give it back to the peo­ple who bring it to life.

If you can’t see that Tesla open­ing on K’ Rd is about more than elec­tric cars, I can’t help you.

ABOVE— K’ Rd, where car deal­ers have in­vaded artist ter­ri­tory.

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