Monday, July 14, 2008

Southern sting

Doris Lusk, Canterbury Plains From Cashmere Hills, 1952, oil on board, collection of Christchurch Art Gallery.

On the 'map of New Zealand' board game from the 1960s, if you're unlucky enough to land on the 'Christchurch' square, you've got to go back six spaces. I've always thought this was rather apt.

Poor old Christchurch, poor old South Island; forever Tasmania to the North Island's Great Southern Land. Although it's New Zealand's second-largest city, Christchurch has long been the red-headed step-child of New Zealand's metropolitan centres, its residents periodically crying 'Unfair!' in response to "national" committees dominated by people from Auckland and Wellington and to "national" prizes juried by North Islanders which go to Aucklanders.

Although Christchurch is a city you're happier to come from rather than to go to, with a decent public art gallery, one of the country's two top art schools, and two artist-run spaces, if you're interested in contemporary art it's not nearly as bad a place to live as most other New Zealand cities. And at least it's not risible: people just look a bit sympathetic and understanding if you say that you come from Christchurch, but don't start up with the duelling banjos music as they do if you admit, say, that you come from Oamaru or Te Awamutu or Inglewood.

But now it's official; you're more likely to pick up Creative New Zealand funding if you live in the North Island. It seems the grumblings which periodically issue from the South Island have a basis in fact. Press journalist Philip Matthews has done the sums, and using CNZ's own figures, in an article in the weekend paper [not yet online] he calculates that the project funding given to the mainland's artists is almost exactly the same as that doled out to New Zealand artists living and working overseas, thus neatly confirming the suspicion that the South Island is indeed regarded as another country by the North's arts bureaucrats. And on a population basis, Christchurch's funding for arts projects is substantially lower than that given to Auckland or Wellington.

"People make choices about where they live," comments National's arts spokesman Chris Finlayson in Matthews's article, thus hinting at a truth universally known but not often acknowledged. In actual fact, by my calculations the South Island is disproportionately represented among the rollcall of artists who've received the cream of New Zealand's arts prizes in the past few years. Of a total of 16 finalists for the Walters Prize and 6 winners of the Venice Biennale nod, 10 artists grew up and were educated in the South Island, compared to 12 from the North Island. They just choose not to live there any more.

It's difficult to know what needs to be done about all this, if anything. Creative New Zealand CEO Stephen Wainwright expresses himself as "unalarmed" by Matthews's conclusions that the South Island misses out a bit, so presumably CNZ won't be doing much. It would seem politic to ensure that there are more Southerners represented on CNZ's peer artform assessment panels in future; yet I recall a friend who had reason to know saying some years ago that it could be quite difficult to recruit South Islanders to the panels who weren't either barkingly mad, a wee bit naive, or who didn't arrive in Wellington with a very strange axe to grind, but such an assessment may well no longer be accurate. (It may also involve something of an exaggeration in the first place.)

Still, it's the kind of pugnacious chip-on-the-shoulder, I'll-show-those-big-city-bastards attitude formed by the other island's disdain and hogging of resources that has helped to ensure that the South Island, always the underdog, has continually punched above its weight in the supply of artists to represent the nation. From Colin McCahon to Ronnie van Hout, Frances Hodgkins to Francis Upritchard, Len Lye to Peter Robinson, they breed 'em tough down there, etc. etc. It's just a pity they can't hang on to 'em.

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