The ART Venturers

They came to ART Venture to speed up their design, sculpture, dance, music, festival, symposium, architecture, TV and waka projects. And they all did one thing: slow down. Gena Tuffery learns why good things take time—and great things take up to 18 months

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Photographs by Alistair Guthrie

They came to ART Venture to speed up their design, sculpture, dance, music, festival, symposium, architecture, TV and waka projects. And they all did one thing: slow down. Gena Tuffery learns why good things take time—and great things take up to 18 months

You’ve paid for some funny things, New Zealand—a tour round Europe for retiring MPs, Boobs on Bikes, Tamiflu. And, if you’re an Auckland citizen, you’ve also sponsored a group of professional risk-takers.

Nice investment, that one.

Now entering its second year, ART Venture has already proved that something ventured is something gained—and not just for the ten creative entrepreneurs on the business acceleration programme.

Born out of the realisation that there is a lack of producers and entrepreneurs to keep an abundance of creative types busy, ART Venture was set up to help the people who help the people. The founder of The Big Idea, Elisabeth Vaneveld, planted the seed—but it’s being cross-pollinated by everyone from comedians to councillors. 

Art Venture is supported by Blueprint, Auckland City Council’s plan to assist the city’s creative industries to “greater national and international economic success”, but you can throw away your pinch of salt. The people behind this programme mean business—which is why they’ve called in the suits.

The private sector is helping out with workshops, coaching, mentoring, panel participation, brokering support, assessments and general arse kicking. Apparently the all-day meeting isn’t the can’t-mentor-today excuse that it used to be.

But then, some things are worth sloping off work for. “We look for value exchange wherever we can find it,” says Vaneveld. “Mentors say they come away feeling stimulated.”

“I also got reassurance that what I can give is really needed,” adds Jillian de Beer, an international consultant to the creative industries. “This process showed me how daunting it is for people to go offshore with their business when they’re not fully au fait with the market. It gave me a picture of New Zealand being quite weak as an export nation and what we must do to fix that.”

More programmes like ART Venture—and indeed more ART Venture programmes—are a good start. “What happens when we take the time to build people’s businesses is that those people create cultural bridges with other countries,” says de Beer. “Or those people grow in their own right and become mentors themselves, which is the only way you can reach critical mass for a sustainable economic impact.”

De Beer put her head together with some top business minds to mentor the ART Venture group: economic commentator Rod Oram; one of the wise men of marketing, Brian Richards; founder David Booth; and Leela Menon, who owns the intellectual property advisory corner. They also made sure the acceleration programme had a few roadblocks along the way.

They were needed. Now, with three months of their tenure to go, Art Venture’s class of ’07 is almost unanimous on one thing: they were going too fast. That, they realised, can be dangerous for us all.

“The purpose of the road works was to make the road smoother, safer and, as a result, faster,” says fellow traveller Philip Patston.

Although the programme requires that each applicant already had “at least one current or recent project that has made a tangible contribution to either the development of Auckland’s creative sector or to the positioning of the creative sector in Auckland’s economy,” participants say they still gleaned valuable business enhancement skills. Some tips were carried from the meeting room in a briefcase, some scraped off the floor on the way home from the pub.

“Talking to the other participants and realising you’re not alone out there was one of the most valuable things of all,” says almost everyone. Then, facing dragons would be a bonding experience.

“All recipients have $20,000 against their names when they start,” says Vaneveld. “But it’s not a grant, it’s an investment. They have to pitch for it—it’s like a mini Dragons’ Den.”

So no frivolity will be entered into—unless it’s in the form of a coconut shell bra. Stan Wolfgramm was accepted onto Art Venture to further develop his creation, Style Pasifika—already the world’s largest indigenous fashion show. Others made the cut through developing commercially viable projects like the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival, a symposium for the disabled, a fleet of modern-day wakas and a new civic centre. High standard, much?

There have already been results, including firm expansion plans and offers that seep across the globe, picking up dollars, Euros, pounds and awareness of our country’s creative sector on the way. But even if there were no economic outcomes, the people need entertainment. The fruits of the following labours are bound to go down better than a shot of stockpiled Tamiflu in any case.

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A time and a space

Palmerston North, 1989: a land overrun by rugby sevens, rugby heads, and a tribe of Marxist-anarchist sociology students, all intent on smashing the state. We know, however, that at least one of them didn’t go on to fight the system. Instead, landscape artist Caroline Robinson infiltrated it; working within bureaucracies to get the experience she needed to start a social structure of her own. And so comes the announcement: “It’s time to redefine the industrial revolution.”

Now, before you storm onto school buses looking for enemies of the state, just wait. The artist comes in peace. “I realised I’m not the kind of person who could spend the rest of my life criticising and attacking,” says Robinson. “I needed to work in a way that sees real solutions rolled out.”

But what was her problem? After 15 years working with councils creating art largely for the public realm, Robinson had become frustrated by the way projects are commissioned and delivered. “The systems in place for decision-making in society are still based on the old Henry Ford production line model; very rationalist and always searching for the quickest, cheapest option. We aspire to the notion of sustainability, but how can we achieve this when we’re using a system that contradicts it?”

Robinson is now busy answering her own question with a new, non-contradictory business. It has, however, inherited quite an old name. ‘Cabal’ once encompassed everything from Robinson’s now-extinct fashion line to her large-scale installations, but from now on it will only refer to “a collaborative project delivery system.” Or, as ART Venture’s Elisabeth Vaneveld terms it: ‘The Umbrella’.

Huddled underneath you’ll find contract engineers, architects, landscapers, urban designers, cultural advisors, historians, blacksmiths and builders, all standing by to work on large-scale construction projects in “an authentically collaborative way”.

Pulling together such a comprehensive and ongoing project is a big task—and so Robinson was more than happy to accept help. The artist’s involvement with ART Venture included guidance from brand specialist Brian R Richards and strategic business consultant Nici Wickes. “They refined my thinking and moved me forward,” she says.

Moving forward is essential for someone engaged in what she calls “future making”. And if anyone is qualified to pursue such a lofty goal, it’s an innovator who has years of experience working within systems of the past.

Posed with the modern-day council problem: ‘how do we create functional spaces that the public can connect with?’, Robinson has left her answers all over the country.

There is, among many other signature works, a steel and stone ‘Basket of Dreams’ in which people can sit and absorb the magnificence of Queenstown Hill; ‘Embrace’, a stone, steel and glass gathering circle in Glen Innes town centre; and her current project, a 60-metre stone footbridge in the new Albany Lakes Civic Park.

The artist believes if you’re going to create an area of community well-being—her number one objective—you need to look at what you can see on the site, and also what you can’t. “It’s well documented, for example, that if you build over underground streams or water systems it’s harmful to human health,” she says.

If it all sounds a bit serious, it really, earnestly, is. “It’s a real privilege to be invited to represent the community,” says Robinson. “I don’t want to be frivolous about it. Cabal is about me trying to affect change in a real way. Philosophically that’s why I’m doing it.”

Oh yes, her philosophy. Clearly Robinson’s early rage against the machine has quietened down a bit—she defines ‘Cabal’ as meaning “instinct, design and collaboration”. Odd then, that the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘a secret political faction’. Robinson may be solving problems created by Henry Ford, but perhaps the old industrial revolutionary would have understood.

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Past forward

Architect Richard Reid may not be saving the world, but he is busy saving my local and that’s a very worthy start. Not just because it’s good to have a pub within stumbling distance, but also because said local is one of Auckland’s first.

Built in 1885, the Birdcage (née the Rob Roy) sits right where the Waitemata Harbour once lapped at the foot of Freemans Bay. Reclaimed land now allows cars to park where ships used to moor, but things could be uglier—particularly if Transit New Zealand bowls ahead with its plans to introduce a State Highway One tunnel into the already muddled mix.

Reid is having none of it. He’s trying to convince Transit to move the tunnel mouth ten metres south so he can replace the car park with a more fitting civic square leading out to a rejuvenated Victoria Park. “The relationship of the building to its space is what I want to protect,” he says. “With the plan as it is, the hotel is being saved but the space lost. A historic building has to have a sense of place.”

Although Reid isn’t rolling out any Mission Accomplished banners just yet—“Transit have gone from saying it can’t be done, to it can but they won’t”—he has garnered significant backing from locals and the city council. And he believes he may not have achieved this level of support without support of a different kind from his ART Venture mentor, Rod Oram.

“A lot of what I do is about strategy; knowing who to talk to, what to talk to them about and what to show them, but most importantly when to do it,” says Reid. “Timing is crucial.”

Reid would know. Timing was crucial on another seemingly impossible mission he recently set himself: moving mountains. Well, moving the new Manukau motorway to accommodate the volcanic Hopua cone, anyway. Reid was successful, not only in protecting the volcano but also in “minimising the motorway footprint, significantly reducing the traffic through Onehunga township and retaining the open space along the coastline.”

In a city where every view of sea and sun is treasured in the knowledge that any day it could be blocked by another concrete tower of people boxes, Reid’s work is priceless. Or maybe not.

Says Oram, an economist, commentator and sometime Idealog correspondent: “The economic value is readily apparent: my mentoree is a big-space, big-building architect and landscape architect. His insights into Auckland deserve to be adopted more widely than they are … they would make the city far more attractive and liveable, contributing to the quest to make Auckland an international city with a more robust economy.”

Sounds good

Nowhere is ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you meet down the pub’ more accurate than in the music industry. But while that’s worked well for music label Kog in New Zealand, when it came time to approach bigger markets like the US, it helped to meet people here who had met the right people there. Probably at the pub.

“The main thing I got out of ART Venture was the hook-ups,” says Kog founder Chris Chetland. “People like Jillian de Beer and Nick Gerritsen have worked with some of the biggest companies in the world, so they helped us think globally and gave us ground information and leads. It was a case of ‘Well, if you’re going to be over there you might as well ring this person. Oh, and this one.’”

An introduction is all Chetland needs. He lets his products do the singing, rapping, or, in the case of the track Kog supplied Vodafone for its ‘pocket friends’ ad, creeping out.

Kog is in many wheels. The company provides music content for film, TV and advertising, as well as producing music and performing post-production for recording artists and record labels. But it’s the software interface they wrote for music libraries, allowing people to conduct a detailed search for a particular sound, feel or style of tune, that is getting the most attention right now. “With three or four clicks you can get the exact bit of music you want,” says Chetland.

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Wolfgramm & Chetland

He has a trip to the US planned for June, where he’ll present the software to website and search engine developers. While there he’ll do a bit of producing and collaborating—meeting up with people like Boo-Yah T.R.I.B.E and K-C & JoJo. Probably at the pub.

Doing it in style

Although the man behind Style Pasifika admits applying to ART Venture “for the pot of money”, he ended up as the only recipient who didn’t pitch for funding—deciding, in the end, that the 20 grand on offer was irrelevant.

What Stan Wolfgramm found relevant instead is the interaction with other recipients who are working, if not in the same area, then as close to it as you can get. “When you’re the innovator there’s no one to talk to because no one’s doing what you’re doing,” says Wolfgramm. “But listening to other innovators’ successes and failures was money in the bank for me.”

And, it would seem, for Auckland. Last year Style Pasifika moved to its new home at Vector Arena, where a record crowd of 5,500 audience members and 300,000 TV viewers took in the world’s largest indigenous fashion show.

Wolfgramm’s other ongoing project, the youth magazine TV series Pacific Beat Street, isn’t cruising on island time either. With 70,000 viewers from Bluff to the Cook Islands, it’s one of NZ On Air’s highest-rating regional shows.

This is all part of the new and improved plan. “I want to give a voice to those who don’t have one, or haven’t had one in the past,” says Wolfgramm. “To me, Pacific culture is something all New Zealanders share.”

Designer everything

Right now Jamie McLellan is concurrently creating sets of knives, bicycle locks, chairs, a windsurfing sail and a sustainable casket. Somebody get that man some Ritalin.

McLellan needs something to keep up with trans-Atlantic deadlines. Most recently employed as a senior designer for London’s renowned furniture and lighting designer, Tom Dixon, McLellan still works for Dixon from afar. He also continues to work remotely for Neil Pryde, the Hong Kong sporting manufacturer he created windsurfing sails for in 2003.

In 2006, when McLellan decided it was time to return home, he had to push through the creative swarms going the other way. Setting up a self-titled design agency in Auckland, McLellan was “pretty adamant I could supply worldwide services from here”. That was just what ART Venture’s selectors wanted to hear, McLellan says: “They were very interested in me coming home, but working offshore with the view to employing people who might otherwise go overseas.”

Although he hasn’t yet stacked his workroom with local talent, McLellan is working with fellow New Zealand creatives, including creating a large-scale frame for fellow ART Venture recipient Shona McCullagh’s Mirror Me exhibition.

It could be the first ART Venture collaboration of many, he says. “Very quickly, over one or two breakfasts, you realise you’ve plugged into this much greater network.”

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McLellan, McCullagh & Lawler-Dormer

Deborah and Co

Deborah Lawler-Dormer is not one of those people who needs no introduction. Not because she’s not well known, but because—as the head of MIC Toi Rerehiko Charitable Trust’s three galleries plus MIC Ltd, which operates Auckland performance venue Galatos, as co-director of Co-Lab, a video artist and Homegrown programme selector for the New Zealand International Film Festival—it’s just best to get things straight.

Aligning all her satellites was also the reason why Lawler-Dormer applied to the ART Venture programme. “I was looking for strategies in how to build and manage multiple business development—moving from not for profit, to profit enterprises,” she says. “It’s important to get it right, and it’s not something I take lightly.”

But Lawler-Dormer mainly used ART Venture to focus on Co-Lab, a co-creation with AUT University with the stated aim of ‘drawing together artists, designers, educators, the media and technology developers to explore and develop expression through digital technology.’

Herding cats, then. You can see why she needs help setting things straight.

But even while doing so, Lawler-Dormer couldn’t help starting yet another collaboration. At least this one, with fellow ART Venturers Shona McCullagh and Jamie McLellan, is a bit more straightforward. McCullagh provided the work, Mondo Nuovo, McLellan provided the digital frame, and Lawler-Dormer provided the gallery and name: Mirror Me, on until May 3 at MIC Toi Rerehiko on K Rd.

Dance this way

ART Venture is all about helping creative entrepreneurs boost Auckland’s economy, but it’s hard to be of assistance when you’re angry—and near impossible when your resentment is directed at said city. Choreographer and dance film producer Shona McCullagh knows the feeling. After property developers closed down Auckland’s iconic Watershed Theatre in 1996, the founder and her foundlings begged the council to relocate proceedings.

“When you lose continuity of infrastructure you lose the practice of craft and that makes it so much harder for our future playwrights and artists to start their careers,” ran her argument. But it didn’t sway then-mayor Les Mills and his team. Move on, they said. So McCullagh did—crossing the city border to Leigh.

But now, with Les Mills just a name on the side of a gym, McCullagh is back. “I realised I needed to take off my sunglasses and lick the wounds,” she says. There is, after all, unfinished business. McCullagh is once again in talks with the Auckland City Council after being invited to pitch on video concepts to enliven commons spaces in the CBD. She’s come up with plans to install a variety of interactive artworks, acknowledging commuters instead of shouting at them billboard-style.

Although she says her plans would be expedited by the purchase of the permanent interactive screens seen in Europe, the software is already here. It was developed for McCullagh’s latest creation, Mondo Nuovo, a multimedia, multi-application work that uses a sensor to reconfigure the body in new ways: “the more the person moves in front of it, the fruitier the response,” says McCullagh.

It’s this ‘fruity response’ that prompted McCullagh to funnel her ART Venture support into getting Mondo Nuovo into classrooms. She hopes the downloadable movement education programme, which teaches symmetry, media, technology and dance, will be in schools countrywide by October. But the programme won’t stop at Cape Reinga—exporting a planeful of dancers may be a logistical nightmare, but sending an Internet-based dance programme overseas is completely doable.

McCullagh says she’s started to look at everything in a bigger way as a result of ART Venture—or, more specifically, as a result of an ART Venture talks. “Neil Richardson, who teaches entrepreneurship at Waikato University, listened to our well-oiled pitches, then said ‘None of you have a business, you all have self-employed lifestyles. A true business leaves a legacy.’ We were shocked. I don’t think many of us had thought of creating an infrastructure for others to benefit from until that point.”

They have now. McCullagh has consolidated her performance and dance agency businesses into one operation since Richardson’s wake-up call. “I realised I needed to put the brakes on, oil the chain and make sure the pedals were connected properly,” she says.

Now she’s over the bumps, McCullagh is busy pedalling other things—her dance video Break, which has won major awards at festivals around the world, and the performance version of Mondo Nuovo. But the patriotic McCullagh would much rather premier her seminal work here. “I’m working hard to get New Zealand festivals to commit to presenting it,” she says. “But because it’s multi-disciplinary it costs more, so some are a bit hesitant.”

Sounds like an investment opportunity. With “one foot here and one dangling in the UK and the splits almost hitting the water”, someone should throw this creative icon a rope.

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The wired entrepreneur

International patent applications feature heavily in Quentin Roake’s life-according-to-Google, with ‘value-added pedal crank’ and ‘production of cerium containing metal oxide grains’ just two of the intriguing entries.

The patents were lodged during Roake’s recent tenure as Canterprise business development manager, where he identified and took the University of Canterbury’s commercially-viable IP from notebook to market.

Those were exciting times, with Roake helping develop wind resource mapping and a tool to track threads of conversation in cyberspace. But he never forgot his own late night scribblings, which went something like ‘apply the technology used in the evolution of surfing to redevelop the waka’.

With life chapters including ‘scientist’, ‘visual artist’, ‘designer’ and ‘publisher’, adding ‘modern-day waka builder’ doesn’t seem as incongruous as it otherwise might for a white man who, until last year, had never stayed on a marae.

In fact, Roake’s lack of practical Maori education is, in part, what drives him to develop his fleet of indigenous canoes. “There was very little in my education about things like that,” he says. “I’d love to see other children have these opportunities.”

It’s fitting that this quest to improve Kiwi kids’ Maori education is finally providing Roake with his. Together with Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, head of the waka programme at Te Wananga O Aotearoa, Roake is in the middle of an intensive consultation process with Maori interest groups to get the wakas into school programmes supporting history, education and physical education. “This is not something I can do on my own,” he says.

This collaborative approach stems right from the core of Roake’s philosophy. “As an entrepreneur, you’re the wire the electricity goes through. You are not the main event. To give birth to something, you need to be happy to let it run and be happy to let it go—to let it evolve to become its own entity.”

Woman of many words

She’s played host to some of the biggest names in books—Tim Winton, Alice Sebold, and a different Booker Prize winner every year. But when the executive director of the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival walked into her first ART Venture meeting she was star-struck. “There was Shona McCullagh,” says Jill Rawnsley. “I saw her dance when I was at university. She was my hero.”

It was an encounter with two other heroes, also at varsity, that set Rawnsley on a path strewn with pens, paper and many a well-worn book. “We all piled into lecture theatres to see Fay Weldon and Margaret Atwood,” she recalls. “I know the effect these things can have on people.”

Before joining the ART Venture programme Rawnsley could boast years in every aspect of publishing “except selling the things”. She still had a few things to learn.

First, you don’t have to do everything—or even most things—just the thing you do best. “The programme helped me realise it’s fair enough to have more people involved. Before, we had two staff and we couldn’t manage. Through ART Venture I hired a business development manager who started up the patron programme that actually saved our bacon.”

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Rawnsley & Patston

Meanwhile, Rawnsley is free(er) to do that thing she does best: develop relationships with other arts organisations, publishers and writers. Four days after the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival ends in May, Rawnsley will be off to visit another, courtesy of ART Venture. But this is no joyride: New Zealand’s head bibliophile will be joining 80,000 others in one of the world’s largest writers’ festivals, The Guardian Hay Festival at Haye-on-Wye, but she’ll have a special seat reserved in The Green Room. In charge of looking after authors before and after they go onstage, Rawnsley aims to use her newly-enhanced bargaining powers to whisper in a few choice ears. “If nothing else, I’ll get their phone numbers.”

Wanna ride?

Like Shona McCullagh, Philip Patston’s big ART Venture realisation was that he needed to apply the brakes before he could move forward. But while McCullagh’s business metaphor speaks of checking the pedals, Patston’s is all about the engine, baby.

Not the one in the boy-racing Mitsubishi Legnum that the comedian speaks so reverently of in Pulp Comedy, but the one in his new self-titled Mazda MPV ‘people mover.’ “I’ll be able to take more people along for the ride,” he says.

“It’s about ensuring the vehicle, conditions and destination are suitable for a faster ride forward,” he told ART Venture 2008 recipients in January.

Patston is riding forward with a clear destination in mind: the Momentum ’09 International Disability Arts Symposium, where he aims to bring together artists from all over the world to showcase work and discuss common issues.

Disabled since birth, Patston is acutely aware of the need for such a symposium—but not only through his own experience. Patston is managing director of the Diversityworks Group and a founding member of the Diversityworks Trust, which both undertake projects supporting artists with disabilities and disability culture. 

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