Due to a delayed engineer’s report, six young artists continued to work in their damaged studio space in central Christchurch’s Druids building well into November, two months after a 7.1-magnitude earthquake rocked the city at 4:35 a.m. on September 4, 2010. One of the artists wore a bicycle helmet as she worked, to protect her from the heavy plaster that had been falling from the ceiling during subsequent aftershocks. Once the report was lodged, the artists were given a day to gather up their works and materials and were swiftly evacuated. Fortunate they were: as the city got back on its feet, another massive quake hit in February 2011—New Zealand’s second deadliest on record—virtually destroying their former studio’s building. With the city’s infrastructure devastated, members of the Christchurch art community are also trying to deal with the serious challenges to getting on with their lives, while facing questions about how art can be a part of the rebuild.
Despite being the country’s second-largest city, with a population of nearly 400,000, Christchurch had always been an affordable place for artists to live and work. Its city center offered large studio spaces in old buildings yet with much cheaper rents than similar spaces in Wellington or Auckland. Being a viable place to maintain a steady studio practice, the city is home to a number of established and emerging artists. As local painter Miranda Parkes put it to ArtAsiaPacific, “I choose to work here because I can focus and get on with the actual work itself.”
However, February’s 6.3-magnitude earthquake effectively shut down the central city: 181 people lost their lives, buildings collapsed and infrastructure was severely compromised. A further 900 buildings were later condemned for demolition. Moreover, the central business district was forbiddingly coded “red” and cordoned off due to the high risk of further destruction from aftershocks. Access was restricted to all but urban rescue teams, initially by army tanks and later by a series of metal fences. It is still illegal to enter the red zone—a situation that has had a huge impact on artists, dealers and galleries. The 6th SCAPE Christchurch Biennial of Public Art, with projects planned for many inner-city sites, was postponed following the first quake and rescheduled for March, but had to be cancelled altogether.
For artists Zina Swanson and James Oram, the February quake not only destroyed their spacious inner-city studio, it took with it artworks and carefully accumulated materials from the last ten years. Since the cordon went up, the pair has not been allowed back in to salvage their collections, which Swanson says includes archival storage boxes filled with delicate artworks on paper, scientific glassware and other rare objects. The experience of this loss and the sudden separation from her materials and studio environment has been disorientating. Speaking to AAP in late 2011, she described the odd feeling of buying a few essential art supplies in Auckland: “Initially I even worried that I would forget what sort of work I had made . . . but within a week, with my lone pencil and paper, I was drawing.” Although Swanson also lost eight works recently completed for an upcoming exhibition, she bravely started again from scratch rather than cancel the show.
Conceptual artist Scott Flanagan was in his warehouse studio when the quake struck. He said the experience of the actual event has been life-changing: “Everything that I had collected and made and stored in this building over the past eleven years was destroyed or damaged irreparably within ten seconds.” After surviving the building’s collapse and being part of the large exodus from the city five days later, he subsequently developed post-traumatic stress, he said. Following a period of convalescence he is now settled in Dunedin and has managed to resume his practice.
A number of galleries were also within the cordon, forcing them to close, relocate or experiment with alternative modes of presentation. The commercial Brooke Gifford Gallery has maintained an online presence during the interim period. The Physics Room, one of New Zealand’s leading public independent art spaces, was in a building that was relatively unscathed but nonetheless is stranded within the red zone. Vanessa Coxhead, The Physics Room’s program coordinator at the time and initiator of Christchurch’s PechaKucha Nights, took the period of uncertainty as an opportunity to travel abroad for six months. She has kept a close eye on developments and believes the earthquakes have provided an opportunity for people to think differently about how art spaces might operate. Excited by a recent visit to de Appel in Amsterdam, a contemporary arts center situated in a former school, she noted how events in Christchurch have forced “new modes of working within the confines of temporary space.”
Many also note a new atmosphere of organizational collaboration in the city. A recent project between Christchurch Art Gallery (CAG) and Gap Filler, an initiative that aims to activate the city’s many vacant sites, saw a painting by local artist Wayne Youle installed on a vast empty concrete stretch as part of CAG’s offsite projects program, Outer Space. The gallery remains closed, constrained by the demolition of nearby buildings, as well as pending assessments on its own, but is looking into alternative exhibition venues. Since the closure, their popular art education programs have been delivered directly in schools. Conceived before the earthquake, ABC, a fresh project space for contemporary art, was opened against all odds in March last year, inside a 1960’s factory in the light-industrial suburb of Addington—which is now home to new bars, cafés and the city’s best theater. Since then ABC has presented eight exhibitions by local and international artists, and has established a reading room and several artist studios on the premises. Artist Oscar Enberg, one of ABC’s four founders, acknowledges that the earthquake has enabled the fledgling art space to gather support it might not have otherwise gained. It received relief funding from the national arts funding body, Creative New Zealand, and has filled a huge gap in the community, offering a place to exhibit, see new work and gather. Enberg believes a well funded international residency program, for example, would raise the profile of the Christchurch’s arts community, an important part of rebuilding currency and bolstering interest in events such as SCAPE.
Safe and accessible buildings are at a premium for development, so one of the greatest challenges for artists has been the lack of stability while locating and moving to new studios. For Parkes and the group from the Druids building, after a month of searching they moved into a timber church just outside the downtown area, investing in internal partition walls to re-establish their cluster of studios. Although these survived the February quake, the group has been forced to move again in June, amid plans to turn the building into a restaurant. Some, such as established painter Tony de Lautour, have simply chosen to stay at home. De Lautour was allowed 30 minutes to retrieve artworks from his eighth floor studio in the central city in a controlled operation and is now working in his garage. The ABC space, set up in an area that is now in high commercial demand, has just learned that their premises have been sold and will be demolished to make way for a retail development. Artists and galleries are hence caught between the slow emergence of new buildings and the inevitable demolition or redevelopment of existing ones.
As reconstruction takes shape, there is broad support to put artists at the fore of reinvigorating the city. There has been some discussion of creating art “precincts” or “providing” allocated studios for the city’s artists. To support young practitioners and directly address the loss of central city spaces to work and exhibit in, Christchurch Polytechnic’s Faculty of Creative Industries has proposed a design for modular and mobile steel-frame art spaces that would be made available as studios, pop-up galleries or retail spaces at subsidized rates. An article published by the local university magazine, Canta, perhaps ironically pointed to the potential tourist interest of such plans, to “observe captive artists at work.” To some, however, this attention and idea of public interest represents a worrying trend. Miranda Parkes stated that “artists are independent, capable people who don’t need artificial communities set up for them. They simply need cheap, private space to work in.” She insists that support should not come at the expense of autonomy and privacy.
Beyond the undeniable loss the city has suffered, for some artists Christchurch is an extraordinary place to be right now, with hopeful discussions regarding the place of art in civic life and the opportunity to rethink and explore modes of exhibition. The Art & Industry Trust, which produces the SCAPE public art biennial, is hopeful that their successful partnerships with the construction industry over the last 12 years will ensure exciting public art projects also feature in the rebuild. For others, the day-to-day challenges and lack of exhibition venues make the decision to relocate more tempting. It is still far from clear what the central city will look like in five to ten years. However, it seems certain that as a new Christchurch takes shape, artists and gallerists will have to keep adapting to and navigating a complex landscape for some years to come.