Growing our own

In a country failing to invest in talent, one solution can be found on K Road

In a country failing to invest in talent, one solution can be found on K Road

Hamish Coney


‘The Lofty oak from a small acorn grows’. It’s a pithy wee aphorism just as true today as the early 1700s when it was first coined. But in 2008, New Zealand seems to be experiencing an acorn shortage. A cursory glance at the daily papers reveals a lack of funding in areas from basic trade apprenticeships to scientific research. In March, 460 scientists and academics went on record describing the situation as a “slow-burning catastrophe” which, if unchecked by at least a tripling of funding, will lead to an even more horrendous outbreak of brain draining and general lack of competitiveness.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The arts sector is, as usual, a beacon for the rest of society to follow. In the all the flap about the decline and fall of standards in scientific research, one very important news release must have got lost in all the sound and fury: the announcement by ARTSPACE of the appointment of their 2008 curatorial intern.

Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers has the look of a classic acorn to my eyes. This art history honours graduate is about to embark on a world-class training programme, which gives Brettkelly-Chalmers every chance of growing into an art industry oak tree.

Since 2004, ARTSPACE has been growing our own in the very best sense of the word. I’ve banged on before about the importance of art curators and what they do (‘Dig the new breed’, Idealog #12). Previous curatorial interns have gone on to positions in Amsterdam, Dublin, Rotterdam and then back to Wellington. In short, we are creating globally qualified art professionals who are mobile and who can nip offshore for a project and bring all that best practice and those handy contacts back to Enzed. Sounds awfully like the knowledge economy to me, and it all happens just above the Post Office on K Road.

For those few Idealog readers who have not yet visited ARTSPACE, I would suggest you check it out pronto. Talk about world famous in … er … the world. It’s a bantamweight art institution with a heavyweight reputation, so much so that it attracts international curatorial talent into New Zealand. Current director Brian Butler hails from Los Angeles and previous director Tobias Berger from Germany.

This constant flow of talent and ideas into Godzone overpowers the tyranny of distance and results in New Zealand artists exhibiting alongside their international contemporaries. Work by current art superstars such as Fiona Banner, Francis Alys, Meg Cranston and Pat Brassington can be seen alongside New Zealand’s emerging new talent. It’s the place where young new artists can create works of scale and spread their wings and begin to register on the international art radar.

Sure, sometimes it is a bit esoteric and obscure, even willfully so, but what makes ARTSPACE inspiring is this commitment to thinking and creating power. The realities of meeting the market for young creatives, whether in film, advertising or art, can quickly become an albatross, forcing practitioners to focus on commodity and price points. ARTSPACE provides that all-too-rare space for artists to create work free from these constraints. The connection to research and the need for funding is all too clear. So many great ideas emerge when the process is not tethered to outcomes and the bottom line.

For young curators it is all about building a career in the arts. Over the last ten years, one of the great success stories of the visual arts in New Zealand has been that dedicated young talent can in fact do just that and have what so many other bright graduates in other fields take for granted: a job. The ARTSPACE intern programme enables a few acorns to thrive and maybe grow into lofty oak trees. I can’t wait.

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