Kuini Karanui speaks at the Turangawaewae: Sense of Place exhibition at Depot Artspace
‘Grassroots’ is defined as ‘community-engaged’; grassroots are the people in and of a community, as contrasted with those at the top, ‘the leadership or elite of a private or government organisation.’
Depot Artspace is proudly grass roots. From this point it keeps an ear to the ground, the place where people stand – their turangawaewae – and from which, if nurtured, things grow and are sustained.
Over nearly more than two decades, the Depot has developed facilities, services and new initiatives that respond to the needs and interests of the creative community, both local and beyond. These include: galleries; recording and rehearsal studios; ArtsLab, the biggest professional development programme for artists nationally; creative internships research and development; Cultural Icons, a filmed interview series (78 interviews so far) with people who have been significant in the cultural landscape; Depot Press, including ‘The Vernacularist’ journal, W’akaputanga, Turangawaewae/Sense of Place and LOUD magazine.
A while ago we put together an alternative plan for arts and culture in a submission to Auckland Council. It was motivated by the observation and experience that while local and national bodies determine how the resources are distributed they seldom engage with grassroots in their decisions. ‘Knowing what’s best for you’ is the consensus among power-brokers yet often their decisions lack relevance or interest to the people they are supposed to serve and support. In the current political environment, the creative sector languishes as the pre-election arts policies are retracted while MCH (Minstry of Culture and Heritage) researches more ‘salubrious’ services. They have surveyed the Depot numerous times, drawing their own conclusions, but had we been bona fide experts in our field, our work may have provided some viable policy direction, and we may have even been paid a consultant’s fee!
However, grassroots and expertise are seldom seen as occupying the same territory in a power structure. There is a widening chasm between community and a more evidently paternalistic elite.
The wider the chasm becomes, the more evident inequities are, and the climate becomes ripe for social change. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn talks about disparities between ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ as a crisis which could facilitate a ‘paradigm shift’. A crisis can be managed, as it often is by those who have a vested interest in the maintenance of the current structure, but it can also be addressed and can result in a different way of seeing and responding to the world. The signs in our society currently offer this evidence and opportunity, for example, the recent sad demise of national visual artists advocacy organisation Artists Alliance after more than two decades of service, the result ‘of dramatic decline in funding for and investment in the Visual Arts’.
According to Buckminster Fuller, visionary and environmental voice of the 60’s, unless we find new ways of living we are likely to self-destruct. “The world,” he said, “is now too dangerous for anything less than Utopia.” And Utopias are formed not by restructuring what has gone before but rather by creating new ways of living in the world based on issues fundamental to our humanity.
It is at the grass roots, which under trying circumstances remains connected, proactive, necessarily resourceful and effective, where meaningful change is possible especially if able to galvanise critical mass. And the arts, so far, are the most uncorrupted vehicle of a necessary revolution. In “The Story of Utopias” (1922) Lewis Mumford made the following observation: “A community whose life is not irrigated by art and philosophy is a community that exists only half alive. The fundamental values of a true community are to be found in poetry, art, music and the free use of the imagination,…the production of non-profit-making goods, the enjoyment of non-consumable wealth. Here are the sustaining values of a living culture.”
Art is the last bastion of freedom, for freedom arises from our capacity to question the fixed and inalienable ‘reality’ of the status quo, from whom few benefit. Grass roots arts provide alternatives by which freedom is able to be reclaimed.
ADDENDUM: MANIFESTO FOR A REVOLUTION – EXCERPTS FROM “WHY A GRASSROOTS ALTERNATIVE ARTS AND CULTURE ACTION PLAN?” SUBMISSION TO AUCKLAND COUNCIL
2a) This document is an Alternative Arts and Culture Action Plan, written from the grassroots perspective. The current council-driven plan does not encompass the grass roots, nor were grassroots organisations consulted in its preparation, and as a result it does not recognise the extent to which arts and culture flourish in this city outside the aegis of Council and other ‘creative bureaucracies’ who claim the expertise to define and control creativity.
2b) This Grassroots Creative Action Plan contends that Council’s role is not to prescribe or to orchestrate a creative city but rather, to celebrate, support and promote the creative city Auckland is, thanks to the innumerable grassroots creative groups and individuals undertaking exciting, innovative, unique and culturally distinctive activities and services.
2d) This Grassroots Creative Action Plan (GCAP) places community arts and culture in the forefront, as the driving force through which the goals Council has prioritised are not just ‘to be achieved’, but are being realised daily. The GCAP therefore has established other priorities that relate specifically to grassroots creative groups and to celebrating and supporting the programmes, facilities and services they provide that enrich the lives of Aucklanders.
2e) There is also a fiscal reality to the Grass Roots Creative Action Plan. In the straitened economic circumstances such as those Auckland Council is facing today grass roots can be assured of delivering a rich, distinctive, innovative array of programmes, events and services at a fraction of the Council’s delivery costs. Auckland Council has a large, multi-tiered, centralised arts and culture staff which is out of touch with the communities they remotely manage.
2f) Grass roots, on the other hand, is resourceful and innovative, leveraging off base funding to raise additional sums to cover costs, as well as drawing on extensive voluntary networks for support.
- INVEST IN CREATIVE AUCKLAND BY SUPPORTNG GRASSROOTS ARTS INFRASTRUCTURES AND INITIATIVES:
3B1) Cultural institutions and artists animate our communities; they bring disparate people together to share common experiences, stimulating our imaginations, challenge everyday thinking and help foster a rich and varied quality of life. They are able to address issues of national or global concern in an inclusive context, providing a place for everyone to have a voice and be involved.
Children taking place in an Art for Peace workshop responding to paintings by Nigel Brown
3B2) Research has shown also that entrepreneurs migrate to communities that are progressive and support the arts. A community rich in arts and culture attracts a diverse population that can assist in its sustainability. Richard Florida (‘The Rise of the creative Classes’), once the guru of Auckland’s high level arts funding and delivery institutions such as Auckland University and CNZ and now conspicuous by his absence in the ACSAP literature review, stated, ‘where the creatives go, the geeks will follow.’
3B3) With minimal empirical research undertaken locally into the place of grassroots arts in community and economic development and identity-forming we have turned to overseas studies, which have confirmed our experience and observations:
3B4) Researchers found that for population growth over a five-year span, low-income neighbourhoods with higher levels of arts activities lost fewer residents than neighbourhoods with lower levels of arts activities. They also found over the five-year span, low-income neighbourhoods with higher levels of arts participation had greater achievement in elementary school test scores than neighborhoods with low levels of art activities. Informal Arts and Culture, Spring 2010, A Portland State University Senior Capstone Study – In partnership with the Multnomah County Cultural Coalition
3B5) Researchers also unearthed more arts and culture groups and activities than initially recognised in the communities studied, for example, bookshops that held book making workshops, book launches and authors talks. Voluntary Sector Network Blog. The Importance of Grassroots Arts in Big Society. The Guardian 2014
D. DECENTRALISING ARTS AND CULTURAL RESOURCES
3D1) The Auckland Council Arts Plan appears to concentrate its attention and resources on the inner city, with festivals, performances and exhibitions accorded high profiles and large funding. Even when events are branded as Auckland events they take place within the bounds of the CBD and inner city suburbs. So far the Auckland Arts Festival is focused within in these bounds, and Art Week Auckland struggles to reach beyond the inner city with limited resources. Under these circumstances Auckland is a Supercity in name only and does not embrace its significant geographical size.
3D2) Auckland Council Arts and Culture team are also largely centralised with projects organised and run remotely; Franklin and Mangere Art Galleries, for example, are programmed and curated from the CBD, with superficial reference to the communities the programmes take place in.
3D3) This militates against the each of the stated goals of the ASCAP.
3D4) The Grassroots Creative Action Plan submits that facilities and programming should be returned to the communities in which they are domiciled.
4. TIKANGA MAORI AND THE GRASSROOTS CREATIVE ACTION PLAN
This Grassroots Action Plan is guided by Māori concepts such as Kāwanatanga and Tino Rangatiratanga in accordance with the articles of the Māori version of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
The acknowledgement of these principles should entail significantly more visible presence of Maori in Auckland, especially on sites that attract visitors and are highly populated.
For example, in 2012 iconic potter, conservationist, engineer and writer, and former resident of Devonport Barry Brickell* presented to Auckland Arts and Culture forum, following up with a letter at their request, that a hakari whata/stage** should be built on Auckland’s waterfront in recognition of, and respect for, the place of Maori in Aotearoa New Zealand and as a symbol of welcome.
**Hākari (feasts) were a way to demonstrate hospitality and mana. Hākari were held to mark events and rituals, including: the tohi ceremony, when a child was dedicated to a god; marriage; ngahuru, the time of the kūmara harvest in March; the appearance of Matariki (the Pleiades) or Puanga (Rigel) in the sky – the Māori New Year; the sealing of a peace agreement.
Hākari became huge in the 19th century. Some featured thousands of guests, with many tonnes of food. Food was displayed in huge stacks or on whata (stages), up to 30 metres high.
Article by Linda Blincko