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On The Edges

Southland Museum
Invers Theatre Company
Shakespeare in the Park Trust
In a new series on arts initiatives in the New Zealand regions Mark Amery gets local knowledge on what is distinctive in Invercargill and surrounding Southland.


“I live at the edge of the universe, like everybody else” is a much quoted line from poet Bill Manhire. Manhire is Invercargill born. Most of us, I wager, feel on the edge rather than centre of things, but I’d hazard that Southland feels it more so.

In a new series here at The Big Idea I’m interested in what we can learn from and reveal culturally about the less talked about regional centres. How we might recognise our edges and pool together knowledge. Embolden our edginess. Let’s start with the south.

When I put a call out for collective knowledge on Facebook I received a flood of warm comments, respondents often pulling in others. Southland is about strong connections, clearly, but often it feels left off the cultural map.

Like other regions it’s endowed with some fine museums. Most heralded in the region is the Eastern Southland Gallery in Gore and the work of director Jim Geddes. Yet increasingly celebrated my respondents crowed is small museum culture. Gore’s Hokonui Moonshine Museum and Blair Somerville’s astonishing Lost Gypsy Gallery of “self-wounded automata” and kinetic sculpture in Papatowai in the Catlins were put forward (you really should watch this).

Invercargill itself is celebrated for its affordable tertiary education and, in the visual arts perhaps best known for the William Hodges Fellowship which annually brings contemporary artists on residency. But there are a bunch of initiatives, many new and a CBD regeneration project afoot.

Lisa Tou-McNaughton is from Arts Murihiku, a regional arts body, established with Creative New Zealand pilot money in 2016. Tou-McNaughton’s job is to support, advocate for and connect artists in the region. Like the others I spoke to she notes a range of interesting developments. The word potential creeps a lot into conversation. For one, notes Tou-McNaughton, a major new Arts Centre and hub is on the cards for Invercargill, part of the Southland Regional Development Strategy.

“There is also other work going on in the city. We have two new museums, new cafes and cool events such as the Matariki Festival.”

Eastern Southland Gallery is always undertaking initiatives to engage the community in the Arts Tou-McNaughton notes, and can't wait to see the planned Muka print studio (best known for its touring Muka Print Show) up and running there, planned for a historic church owned by the gallery: “It is going to bring so many more talented artists to our community.”

Tou-McNaughton sees a lot of interesting creatives returning to Invercargill in all areas of the arts.

“The gems to me are always the people. We have wonderful artists like Johnny Penisula, Helen Back, Phil Newbury and Katy Buess. We also have more recent additions to our arts sphere such as the Murihiku Maori and Pasifika Cultural Trust's work in the arts.”

Tou-McNaughton is upbeat.

“Our arts scene is becoming more vibrant and inclusive. Everything is swirling in a positive fashion. The untapped potential of this place is huge - it's exciting times ahead for our community.”


Growing Audience

Angela Newell is Creative Projects Manager at Venture Southland, focusing on arts support, advice, development and event delivery. She programmes and manages the annual Southland Festival of the Arts, Shakespeare in the Park and the Summer Sounds outdoor concerts series, among other things. 

A key issue in the south is access to smaller touring professional work. Touring this far south remains a challenge. Newall says the Arts Festival (held in March and April) is ever developing and growing its audiences.

“It remains one of the key opportunities for bringing professional work to the region. Shows that normally wouldn’t consider touring here, mainly due to financial risk, with an unknown public, can come here because the festival makes it happen.”

“We’ve also been delivering Shakespeare-based productions in public parks for 17 years. We’ve brought in guest actors and directors, have developed many performers and built capability in all areas of performance and production. Our public parks are amazing, especially Queen’s Park, which people from all over the world soon discover!” 

In terms of opportunities Newell notes the “amazing” community funding available. The Community Trust of Southland delivers somewhere between four and six million and the Invercargill Licensing Trust and ILT Foundation collectively give eight million (just in Invercargill).

“As a result of this we have outstanding facilities in which to play. Four theatres (two with full fly floors) and a stadium that can also cater for very large events and other facilities…

“Also the Southland Museum and Art Gallery is a large space that has historical and cultural features, it’s a very busy place and also has the odd touring exhibition.

Jade Gillies is a young mover and shaker in theatre in the south. Initiatives he facilitates include The House Series (monthly theatre and comedy events with a key drive to see the young engaged), the Friday Shout (a weekly regional e-newsletter designed to promote entertainment events), Short Shakes (an online platform to find the very best scenes from Shakespeare) and Invers Theatre Company (a drama academy for students aged 8-14 years).

“What excites me most is how the performing arts scene is developing in the deep south,” says Gillies. “New initiatives such as The House Series, Massav Productions (who produce music events), and the Cabaret Club are helping to grow the industry by providing more opportunities for performers and more regular events for audiences to attend. Veteran groups such as Repertory Invercargill, Invercargill Musical Theatre, and the Shakespeare in the Park Charitable Trust continue to generate excellent productions to an exceptional standard, as well as developing the skills of our volunteers both onstage and off.  Ultimately we will see greater participation in theatre and a more enriched community.”

Gillies agrees with Newell regarding venues.

“Despite the relatively small population of Invercargill, we are lucky to enjoy three beautiful theatres of varying sizes as well as several other multi-functional performance spaces.  Local attractions like the Invercargill Brewery, Transport World, and ILT Stadium Southland are regularly being transformed to host concerts and dramatic works.”

A common comment is that the arts aren’t as valued as they might be in Southland next to sports, but that the appetite is growing. Tau-McNaughton sees one of their distinct edges is “a rawness and untapped potential.”

“Murihiku/Southland is on the edge of the world and sometimes you can see things from the edge that you can't see when you are in the middle. Arts have always been here, possibly more in the background. Our humility as people may mean we don't broadcast our talents.”

The deep south is well known for its hospitality, notes Gillies. “Our people behind the scenes work incredibly hard to create unforgettable experiences for every audience, and that often extends beyond the production itself to include warmly welcoming visiting artists, putting on themed catering, and creating atmosphere before and after shows.  We are able to keep ticket prices affordable too, thanks in particular to the support of community funders enabling more people to attend our shows.  This is a luxury that very few other regions in New Zealand can enjoy.

“As a community we still have a way to go,” he adds however. “In particular we need more people to want to come along to our shows (both locally generated and touring). Our very sports focussed region is not nearly as interested in the arts, although there is a core group of dedicated participants and attendees. Generally speaking, Southlanders are not overly willing to see new or unknown works compared with well-known tried and true shows. Perhaps this is not peculiar to the deep south, but for now it means performing groups and programmers feel obliged to play it safe in selecting well known works.”

Angela Newell feels the Southern artistic spirit is alive and well with many pockets of outstanding work going on.

“The backbone of the arts is the spirit of volunteerism. The arts community has plenty of leaders who continue to give, without much thought for remuneration. Consequently, the grassroots level of arts is strong.”


Culture as a Conduit

Southland’s distinction in the plethora of museums both big and small is recognised by artist Kathryn McCully, Programme Manager in visual arts, film and animation at the Southern Institute of Technology. Her PhD at AUT has included research into DIY museum culture and ideas for the democratisation of museums.

It recognises – returning to Manhire - that if we embrace the collective strength of a sense of living on the edge of things we might pool culturally better the diversity of what we hold distinctive in the centre.

McCully is researching the social foundation of museum development with particular reference to the proposed arts centre in Invercargill’s CBD. Last year she produced exhibition A Southland Museum: Condition Report at City Gallery, Invercargill in which she challenged the three major city art institutions Southland Museum and Art Gallery, the Invercargill Public Art Galley (formerly Anderson Park Art Gallery) and City Gallery to collaborate more and have an inner city focus.

“The proposal to create a purpose built arts/cultural facility in the CBD has brought a lot of issues and challenges in the arts in Invercargill to the forefront, which I believe is positive,” says McCully.

“The challenge now is to look at what model will really serve to activate and sustain the creative industries in Invercargill and create an institution that becomes a dynamic conduit. Creative work that gives voice to the stories of the Invercargill community which are then projected nationally and internationally could serve to situate Invercargill’s point of difference as a driver of innovation in the field.”

McCully is keen to see the Southland Regional Development Strategy’s collaboration of public and private interests extended to the arts in Invercargill.

“Like many cities there is ‘horizontal hostility’ evident in the arts which seeks to make differences rather than similarities in vision and purpose evident between organisations. This could be resolved. It requires leadership, a more expansive vision and the ability to put aside the traditional conventions that some may associate with museum practice, and embrace new ways of working that could make a new institution do some of the hard work for Invercargill.” 

Currently McCully sees a diversity of creative people in Invercargill who do not have voice within the current arts model.

“Narrow perceptions of what art is and what art can do in communities results ultimately in the community and visitors to Invercargill missing out on the experience of what is the rich and unique expression of what it means to be a Southlander now and in the future. Life here, and the hopes and dreams of the people are largely unseen in formal art contexts currently.” 

McCully does note that conversations about the future of the arts in Invercargill have been going on a long time, and that the lack of progress has led to some despondency amongst artists.

“Artists here are making work regardless of the politics of the arts in the community and while it is clear they really care what is going on, the continued production of creative work is prioritised over becoming involved in the debates.

“With or without support or a public platform however, creatives in Invercargill will be making work and continuing to express what it means to be here in this place.” 

Written by

Mark Amery

30 Jun 2017

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.

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