Follow the West

by Hamish Keith / 13 November, 2010
The new Auckland should take on - and extend - the Waitakere Arts Laureates.

As the good ship Auckland sails off to its shiny new future - or an early collision with a fiscal iceberg, depending on whether you got a place on the crew or were left whining on the wharf - more than a few citizens will be looking at the wreckage in its wake and wondering how much of value was left behind.

Even Auckland's most ardent supporters could not argue that its collective cultural texture was particularly strong. Like the region, the culture was understandably fractured and initiatives were often the result of individual and community struggles, rather than coming from the governing authority.

Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts in what was Manukau City is a classic example: established as the Fisher Gallery in the 1990s by a group of dedicated local art lovers, for a decade it struggled to get support from the city. It was scorned as elitist and an unwelcome competitor for funds that should have been better used for a youth drop-in centre.

Ironically, a drop-in centre did get established across the road, and nobody much dropped in, while Te Tuhi has become a valuable asset. It almost certainly has a future. So, too, have the various cultural structures that dot Auckland's fringes - among them the Corban Estate Arts Centre, Lopdell House Gallery and McCahon House in Waitakere, and the Michael King Writers' Centre and Frank Sargeson House on the North Shore.

Less certain are the intangible public initiatives honouring creative individuals. Unique among these are the Wai­takere Arts Laureates.

The West, particularly Titirangi, has long been the suburban refuge of choice for the city's creative. Art historian and writer Eric McCormick described it as a "sylvan slum" - cheap, leafy; a not-too isolated retreat for the gifted and the cranky. Potters, poets, painters, writers, musicians, craft-workers and the creatively eccentric have all moved there, making for a brilliant resource few other Auckland suburbs have had in such great numbers. It was probably one of the key drivers in Waitakere's eco city brand - along with a handful of idiosyncratic mayors.

In 2006, the last of these, Bob Harvey, decided Waitakere should honour its living treasures and inaugurated the laureates. It got off to a flying start with 12 - painters Don Binney and Lois McIvor, film-maker Niki Caro, potter Len Castle, sculptor John Edgar, artist Graeme Gash, photographer Geoff Moon, glass artist Ann Robinson, writers Dick Scott and CK Stead, weaver Matafetu Smith and musician Mahinarangi Tocker. Two years later, Waitakere added four more: a singer, two painters and a dancer. They were only obliged to dine together once a year and to take a lively interest in the city.

Their last lunch was at the beginning of October and it was a bright and spirited affair. The laureates are an initiative that deserves not to sink with the abandoned deckchairs. The new Auckland should immediately take this bunch aboard and should add to them, creating its own much larger tribe of the creative wise.

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