One month on from the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that hit Christchurch on February 23, the physical and psycholigical effects are still being felt. In the words of one survivor, “You feel very vulnerable.” The Central Business District of New Zealand’s second largest city bore the brunt of the quake, centred in the neighbouring community of Lyttelton. Both the inner city and Lyttelton Harbour are microclimates for the region’s visual arts community, so the impact from the disaster on these vital art hubs has been significant.
The official toll from the quake rests at 166 confirmed deaths, but with remains waiting to be identified the number could still rise. Due to the implementation of emergency structuring following a magnitude 7.0 quake that occurred in Darfield, 46 kilometers outside Christchurch, on September 3 last year, this time around contingency plans rolled into action very quickly. The Christchurch Art Gallery became the Civil Defense headquarters for the second time in six months. While being used in this capacity, the space is not operating as an art museum. There was some reported damage to artworks, but it was relatively minor. The staff was reported to be “physically OK,” but many are feel a deep sense of shock from the loss of life and damage to infrastructure in this close-knit community.
Access to exhibition spaces elsewhere in the city is problematic. The downtown “Red Zone” is still cordoned off to the public. Even through access is gradually being restored, some commercial galleries, as well as the city’s two main experimental spaces, The Physics Room and the High Street Project, remain in the no-go zone. The historic Arts Centre, which houses the School of Fine Art gallery, is closed until further notice. Similarly, the Centre of Contemporary Art, run by the Canterbury Society of Arts, has been closed indefinitely. Local artists, such as Zina Swanson and James Oram, have lost their studios, along with ten years’ worth of work.
Perhaps the largest casualty in the visual art sector is the SCAPE Biennial of Art in Public Space, New Zealand’s only international biennial dedicated to public art. It was postponed in the wake of the extensive damage to the inner city from the September quake. Not to be deterred, SCAPE organizers rescheduled, but the February quake has caused the event to be canceled for this year.
In the words of Stephen Cleland, director of the Physics Room Trust who had recently moved to Christchurch, “It’s an important event because it brings a larger national and international audience to Christchurch.” The Physics Room is located in the middle of the most badly damaged part of Christchurch. While its building has survived, many others in the vicinity have not.