Tuesday 16 August 2016

Millennial child

This essay was my contribution to The Third Enjoy Retrospective Five Year Catalogue, edited by Louise Rutledge and available from the Enjoy website for a value-packed 20 bucks. Thanks to Louise and Emma Ng for inviting me to write for this.

Millennial child  

Enjoy and I appeared in Wellington in the same year: I moved here to study art history at Victoria University, and Enjoy materialised on Cuba Street, a fresh new space for contemporary art practice. My perspective on what Enjoy offers has changed in pace with my own involvement in the art world: as a young arts reviewer, Enjoy was where I went to seek out edgier presentations than those I saw elsewhere; as an arts viewer it was an essential part of my rounds of the galleries; today, it’s where I go to locate emergent voices in art making, curating, and writing. It’s fair to say I can’t imagine Wellington without Enjoy.

I wrote the above earlier this year when Enjoy asked me for a letter of support for a funding application. I was pleased to be asked to support the gallery - flattered, even - because for a good while I was a little intimidated by Enjoy's effortless cool, the contemporary language of the work they showed. Scrolling through the (new, bounteous) online exhibition archive I realised there was a lag of two or three years between arriving in Wellington as a third year arts student and becoming a regular at the old gallery on the other side of Cuba Street.

Wellington was on a visual arts high at the turn of the millennium. The Adam Art Gallery opened in September 1999, and Te Papa (a mixed bag for the arts audience, sure, but perhaps the single biggest moment in Aotearoa New Zealand's museological history) had opened in February 1998; in Porirua, Pataka opened September that same year. In 1999 Massey University had also merged with Wellington Polytechnic, establishing the College of Design, Fine Art and Music. There was a new concentration of established artists putting down roots, and a new cohort of younger artists and art students to fill a space like Enjoy.

Something else came to Wellington in 2000 - the fifth Labour government. Technically, Helen Clark became Prime Minister on 10 December 1999, but let's not let a matter of 21 days stand between us and aligning this auspicious moment with the new millennium. In addition to being our first elected female Prime Minister, Clark took the role of Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage. And boy, could you tell. Even as a student, I could feel the concentration of energy and belief around the visual arts in Wellington (edged with a deep border of frustration and betrayal amongst those older than me over the treatment of contemporary art at Te Papa).

This was the environment in which I came of age. It was one that made optimism around the visual arts feel natural - and one that made the leadership of women feel equally natural. In addition to the lodestar of Helen Clark, in my nearer orbit were Jenny Harper as head of Art History at Victoria, Tina Barton in the same department, Zara Stanhope as the inaugural director at the Adam, the redoubtable Cheryll Sotheran at Te Papa and Paula Savage at City Gallery Wellington. I held part-time jobs at various stages in all four institutions.

Enjoy was reflective of these trends - both towards the investment in a Wellington arts scene (an art scene that could lead the nation) and towards female leadership. From Charlotte Huddleston onwards, Enjoy has been exclusively helmed by women; a fact remarked upon in with some rancour in the first Enjoy Five Year Retrospective Catalogue by Tao Wells, an original Enjoy member.

Today much has changed, and as I look around me that buoyant positivity that I took for granted at 21 has dissolved. The National government is seemingly unassailable, and the most important announcement from central government to the arts sector this year has been a warning that more belt-tightening is needed as predicted income from Lotteries falls. While we no longer bask in the warm glow of Clark's championing of the arts, on the upside we do see increased female leadership across our art galleries, and the beginning of I what I hope is a generational change away from Pakeha dominance.

And we see the endurance, and maturation, of Cuba Street’s scrappy artist-run space. A move across the road to the same floor as Peter McLeavey Gallery placed the gallery literally on the same footing as the establishment. While still the most freewheeling figure on the Wellington visual art scene, Enjoy is definitely an “institution” these days, a place with a whakapapa of staff and supporters, artists and projects.

It's not easy to stay optimistic in the arts. But I think Enjoy has cracked the nut of that problem. Stay focused on nurturing new talent, stay focused on encouraging experimentation, stay focused on knowing and sustaining your community of interest. Draw your energy from these actions. Use that energy to support others. Kia kaha, Enjoy, and happy sweet 16.

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